Re-Thinking Collaboration: Strategies for Culturally Responsive Group Work

This semester, I’ve been participating in the Council for At-Risk Student Education and Professional Standards (CASEPS) training with Dr. Courtney Plotts. I’m not “new” to culturally responsive pedagogy and have taken part in CSU-wide professional development such as the “Teaching First-Generation College Students Drawing from Their Cultural Strengths” course in 2019. However, this kind of work is lifelong, not “one and done,” so I jumped at the chance to take more training.

Plotts (2021) developed a model of cultural presence that is the foundation for CASEPS. The CASEPS model focuses on three Tiers: 

  • Tier 1 covers the whole class and can benefit all students. Tier 1 is usually applied to the overall course design. 
  • Tier 2 begins to look at student groups and community in the classroom and focuses on the social aspects of learning. 
  • Tier 3 focuses on individual student support. 

Though I could probably write a book on what I’ve learned, how it’s going to affect my teaching, and the changes I plan on making in my courses (no matter what modality), I want to focus this blog post on what I learned about culturally responsive teaching and group work in classes, a Tier 2 application of cultural responsiveness. Cultural responsiveness is one way to address acculturative stress among students adapting to a new cultural environment: the academic environment. 

At first, I was only thinking of group work through the lens of large group projects. However, as I began to assess my own courses and practices, I realized that every time I ask students to “Think, Pair, Share” or do peer review or have students work collaboratively in class they are forming groups. 

Though I’ve discussed group work with TLi before through our “Setting Up Online Groups for Success” webinar, I didn’t explicitly discuss how students’ culture, ethnic or racial identities, and their backgrounds affect the ways that students choose groups and participate in collaboration. Here are some suggestions for making group work, both large and small, more culturally responsive.

Culturally Responsive Taxonomy

As part of CASEPS training, we learned about what Plotts calls “Culturally Responsive Taxonomy.” The “Culturally Responsive Taxonomy” updates Tuckman and Jensen’s (1977) traditional approach of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. Instead, a culturally responsive taxonomy centers:

  1. Norming
  2. Cultivating
  3. Reflecting
  4. Exploring
  5. Applying
A screenshot of the Culturally Responsive Taxonomy by Courtney Plotts

Long description of Cultural Responsive Taxonomy Graphic

Community Rubric (Norming)

To start, one strategy I learned through CASEPS was about creating a community rubric. This can be a rubric that students and the instructor collaboratively create for the course as a whole and refer to during group assignments. Creating a community rubric together establishes the “norms” of the classroom and allows students to consciously reflect on how they approach group dynamics and illustrates the diverse range of collaboration students value and appreciate. 

Also, providing a “Sense of Community” rubric as part of students’ own reflection and assessment of group work is a great way to get students thinking about how they navigated conflict, negotiation, leadership changes, and other very culturally cued aspects of group work. (Tip! Danna Lomax discusses the sense of community rubric in her blog post about OneHE’s introduction to culturally responsive teaching course!).

Thoughtful Group Selection (Cultivating)

Many times, especially during class activities, I have students choose their own partners or groups. However, thoughtful consideration of creating groups is more culturally responsive, and being explicit about why that strategy is used is important to share with students (and builds on earlier norming from the community rubric). For example, pairing students based on topic choice or research interest is one way to thoughtfully choose student groups. Cultivating would include sharing recommended roles for group work and allowing students to choose their roles and letting those choices dictate the group. This choice enables students to share their diverse skills and emphasizes the value of interdependence on group members. Another group selection method can be done around offering students choices in how they will share the “final product” depending on what the assignment is assessing. Then, students can be grouped based on their choice of project and this helps bolster the “applying” portion of the taxonomy. 

Assignment “Cues” (Reflecting)

Building “cues” into the assignment that ask students to reflect on their values and ideas around group work will help make the group work more successful. For example, having students discuss with one another past positive experiences with group work can allow students to share what works, and what doesn’t, for them while allowing the rest of the group to hear how different students function within the group. You can set this up as a discussion board, through an anonymous survey, or an in-class discussion. No matter the format, this reflection allows students to make a plan and make choices about how they will effectively complete the assignment. Again, this can all be built specifically into the assignment itself. For example, building in time for reflection and “breaks” can be important for students who value time alone or need to recharge. 

Transparent Design (Norming, Applying)

Developed by Winkelmes (2016), for any assignment, and collaborative work especially, it’s important that students understand the purpose of the assignment, the tools and skills they will need to complete the assignment, and how they will be assessed on the assignment. Sharing these expectations and having the class go over sample assignments is culturally responsive because it makes visible some of the “unwritten rules” of the academic culture. By outlining the why, how, and what, we are setting students up for success. For CSUCI faculty interested in completing one of TLi’s self-directed micro-courses, such as Crafting Transparent Content or Designing Transparent Assignments, you can enroll in TLC 101 right now. 

In Action

But what do all of these strategies look like in action? One example I’ll share is how I’ve adopted peer review to be more culturally responsive. 

First, I have students free-write about their past experiences with peer review: the good, the bad, and the neutral. They share with a partner and then with the whole class and we get to see where everyone is coming from in regards to peer review. Next, students get into small groups to discuss peer review “norms” they would like the class to adopt. We share and come up with our final list which I post in our peer review Google Drive folder.

Then, we go over the guided peer review questions as a class and students read a sample paper that responds to the same prompt they are all writing towards. This gives the students the opportunity to see sample work. Then, individually, but all on the same document, students leave “practice” feedback on the sample paper. Through using the comment feature in Google Docs, students are able to see other classmates’ responses and get their own chance to “practice” feedback.

We then debrief as a whole class about how it went, challenges or successes that arose, and any questions that we have. This activity sets students up well for peer-reviewing the following class session.

Exploring

At the beginning of the peer review day, we go back over our peer review group norms before diving into peer review. Where I used to allow students to choose their partners, I now do a mix of group selections. For the first switch, I still let students choose their own partners so that they can pick someone they are comfortable with as we begin. For the second switch, I have students choose a partner with a similar or related topic and for the third switch, students need to find a partner who has a completely different or unrelated topic. Students, then, get a variety of viewpoints and examples as they leave one another feedback on their writing. 

Exploring, Applying, Reflecting

As part of the process, students are able to both read, write and talk about their comments. The first part of peer review is for reading and leaving written feedback and the second half asks students to talk with one another about what they learned, noticed, and read. 

Students are able to listen to music in headphones if that helps them, they can opt to do the peer review asynchronously from home if they can set that up with me before class, they can choose which questions to answer and in what order and they have the ability to both write and talk. These choices allow students to engage based on their strengths and comfort levels. 

After peer review, students write a reflection, based on our peer review norms, about how peer review went, any adjustments they’d like to make to the norms, and any adjustments they’d like to make to the next peer review session. 

Though this is one small example, it allows a range of reflection, collaboration, and individual work for students to respond and work with one another. The norms help build our classroom community, the transparent activity removes barriers to students’ successful completion, and the variety of choices within the peer review allows students to work to their strengths. 

Hopefully, my short blog post gives you some ideas for culturally responsive group work. I’d love to hear what you’re doing in your classes! 

OneHE recommendations:

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References

Plotts, C. (2021). A Model of Online Cultural Presence. Academia Letters, Article 393. 
https://doi.org/10.20935/AL393.

Tuckman, B.W., and M.A. Jensen. 1977. Stages of small-group development revisited. Group 
and Organization Studies, 2(4), pp. 419–27.

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