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Coaching group communication

Posted by Melissa on May 4, 2009

Small group work is an inevitable part of a college science student’s academic experience–study groups, lab groups, project groups. Faculty often promote the importance of learning how to work with a variety of different people as a team. In addition, I like to think that working in small groups encourages students to connect with each other and helps to create a comfortable peer learning environment. Nevertheless, group dynamics are unpredictable (and often unseen by faculty members), and I know of several instances where students have negative small group experiences that cause them to reconsider persisting in the sciences. Sometimes the negative experiences are blatant, but I was interested to read a Tomorrow’s Professor post last month, “He Said, She Said: Gender-Typical Speech Can Sour Teamwork,” which addressed one of the subtle elements that impacts the quality of small group interactions.

The post by Joanna Wolfe and Elizabeth Powell considers student teamwork in engineering disciplines. Wolfe and Powell studied how students reacted to speakers’ gender-specific communication styles. They found that male students, particularly those in the most male-dominated fields of engineering such as mechanical and computer engineering, drew negative conclusions about speakers (male or female) who used female-typical communication styles. These female speech patterns included “self-belittlement by admitting to difficulties or mistakes” or making indirect criticisms (as compared to direct criticism, which is a male-typical communication style).

Powell and Wolfe write, “Women have some control over perceptions: Something as simple as curbing tendencies to admit weaknesses can benefit them.” While this may improve how female students are perceived by their peers, the suggestion seems counterproductive if one wants group work to be an opportunity for peer learning and teaching. After all, how can students learn from each other if it isn’t acceptable to say “I’m having trouble with this”? I also worry that promoting such an external front of invulnerability might contribute to an internal crumbling of self-confidence.

That negative impressions of speakers using female-typical speech were most pronounced in engineering fields that were the most male-dominated indicates to me those fields need to change the environment so that it is acceptable to admit uncertainty or ask for help. Let’s not coach women to fit into the male-dominated environment, rather let’s coach all students to create an environment where it is expected that people will ask each other for help, acknowledge mistakes, and treat everyone with respect.

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2 Responses to “Coaching group communication”

  1. I agree — I hadn’t thought about it that way before. There is a strong argument to be made that uncertainty or trouble with a concept is important for scientific progress. Without those kinds of uncertainty or questions, why make changes in the way things are done? Also, it seems that uncertainty expressed by women may be because they are seeing the problem in a different light, and that light needs to be articulated…

    On the other hand — it is important not to let women’s voices be discounted while we are trying to change the way the majority of folks think/percieve them. So, maybe instead of curbing their intuitions to express problems, we ought to coach them how to express those problems in a manner that is more readily accepted?

    • Melissa said

      Good point. It’s not just about allowing women to express themselves, but how to encourage them to express their sentiments in a manner that is heard and accepted.

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