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Theme-Focused Discussion Groups in an Adolescent Development Course

M Cecil Smith

Northern Illinois University

June 16, 2008

Word count: 1,450

Contact information:

M Cecil Smith, Ph.D.

Department of LEPF
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
(815) 753-8448
(815) 753-8750 (f)
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Students in an adolescent development course participate in theme-based collaborative

discussion groups that are designed to enrich their understanding of adolescence. The

themes are organized around the course topics, such as cognitive and ethical development

and social development and motivation. Each group shares what they discuss with other

groups in an electronic discussion board forum and, at the end of the semester, members

in each group write a collaborative paper that summarizes what they have learned from

the other groups. Student feedback indicates that they enjoy participating in the

collaborative groups, learn from one another, and achieve better understanding of

adolescent development as a result of their participation.

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Theme-Focused Discussion Groups in an Adolescent Development Course

Discussion groups are advocated as a student-centered, social-constructivist

approach to learning in university courses (Forsyth, 2003) that can increase students’

interest in the subject matter (Cannon, 2006) and boost their classroom performance.

Collaborative discussion groups provide a venue for cooperative learning to occur as this

has been demonstrated to be an effective instructional model for academic achievement

(Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Thompson, Vermette, & Wisniewski, 2004).

I have been using cooperative learning discussion groups in my adolescent

development course for several years with much success. The specifics of my approach

are described below.

Description of course. The adolescent development course is offered for 3 credit

hours to graduate students. Most students (about 80%) are seeking teacher certification

for secondary teaching, while others are experienced high school teachers working on

masters’ degrees or are enrolled in developmental psychology, counseling, or public

health programs. Eight of the 15 weekly class sessions involve meetings of the theme-

focused discussion groups. Class sessions are split between lecture (1st half: 75 min) and

small group discussions (2nd half: 75 min).Thus, students have multiple opportunities to

work collaboratively in their groups, cooperate in sharing their perspectives and

knowledge, and learn from one another. Students are randomly assigned to discussion

groups. Typically, each group consists of 4-5 students, depending upon class size.

Focused Discussion Groups

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The groups are organized around themes that pertain to the general topical

contents of the course, including the following: (1) genetics, biological and physical

processes of development; (2) cognitive, intellectual and ethical development; (3) social

contexts and socialization processes; (4) motivation, achievement, and instructional

processes; and, (5) developmental challenges and adolescent health. The discussion

activities within the groups capitalize upon course lectures, readings, and assignments.

Each group has access to wireless laptop computers during their meetings, allowing

students to access the Internet and locate information relevant to their discussions.

Assignments. The groups participate in eight meetings and each group completes a

brief collaborative writing assignment. All groups have individual discussion assignment

folders in the Blackboard course site that can be accessed online by students. Generally,

groups may select one activity from among several choices, depending upon members’

preferences. The activities for a given discussion are related to the lecture topic (e.g.,

cognitive development; identity formation). Examples are shown in Table 1. At the

conclusion of the discussion, each group composes a brief (1 page) summary of their

discussion which is electronically posted in a “Discussion Summary” discussion board in

Blackboard. Summaries can be accessed by all students in the class.

The collaborative paper assignment requires that all group members read and

discuss the other groups’ posted discussion summaries. Group members then write a

collaborate reaction paper (4-5 typed, double-spaced pages) based on their understanding

of and responses to the other groups’ discussions. This assignment provides a mechanism

to ensure that all groups share and learn from one another. I look for evidence that

students have read and discussed the collective discussion summaries, and all group
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members have substantially contributed to the preparation of the paper. Finally, there

must be evidence in the paper that the group’s discussion of the collective summaries has

contributed to students’ understanding of adolescent development.

Individual accountability. Group work is most effective when members are

individually accountable (Halpern, n.d.). Thus, I use several checks to ensure that all

members are contributing to their group’s work. Group discussion participation accounts

for one-half of the total points awarded for class participation. Group participants

evaluate one another at the conclusion of the semester, using a scoring rubric. These

evaluations, combined with my observations of the groups, determine each person’s

participation score. Also, periodically throughout the semester, I ask individual group

members to report on their group’s work and to highlight any problems or issues that

have arisen, although I do not ask them to identify individuals who are not contributing to

the group’s work. This additional information triangulates the student evaluation data and

serves as a validity check.

Student Outcomes

Data from an end-of-course survey, students’ comments in a journaling

assignment, and the required teaching evaluation survey indicate that students like the

course group work. Many students report that, while they have never enjoyed cooperative

learning groups in the past, they found this group experience to be very positive. Several

students have indicated that they will experiment with cooperative learning groups in

their own classrooms, using the model presented in class.

At the conclusion of each semester, students complete an anonymous online

course survey which asks them to rate different course assignments (e.g., discussion
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group, journaling assignment) on several dimensions (i.e., enjoyment of the assignment,

value of learning, increased understanding of adolescence) on a 6-point Likert-type scale

(6=strongly agree with the statement; 1=strongly disagree). Mean ratings for the

discussion group are shown in Table 2.

Students’ written comments indicate that they appreciate opportunities to share

their expertise and learn from others and hear different perspectives. For those who do

not feel comfortable talking in large classes, participating in a small, structured

discussion group is a satisfactory alternative. Students further report that they think it is

important that each group member is accountable and evaluated by one another and the



Discussion groups are useful to promoting students’ learning and engagement

because such groups place responsibility for learning on students. Cooperative learning

can be fostered in group activities and has been shown to improve students’ subject area

interest and achievement. Themed discussion groups provide a specific focus for

discussions and make connections between lecture topics and group activities explicit and

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Table 1.

Theme-based discussion groups and example discussion questions.

Discussion Group Example Discussion Questions

Cognitive, Intellectual & Ethical Topic: Teaching moral virtues to

Development adolescents.
Discussion Question: Describe 5-8
important moral values or virtues for
adolescents to demonstrate in their
everyday behavior. Describe what role(s)
schools have in developing these virtues.
How do these roles differ from those of
family and community? Describe a useful
curriculum to facilitate the development of
these virtues; explain how the curriculum
would do so—including the teaching
materials, teaching strategies, and
assessment methods to be used.

Developmental Challenges & Adolescent Topic: Pubertal processes.

Health Discussion Question: Discuss the kinds of
things that can "go wrong" for adolescents
in pubertal development--and specify
social, intra-personal, and academic
consequences of these pubertal problems.
Describe what parents, teachers,
counselors, and others can do to ameliorate
the effects of teens’ pubertal problems.
Draw upon the report by the Board on
Children, Youth, and Families,
Commission on Behavioral and Social
Sciences and Education (1999) to inform
your discussion.

Genetics, Biological Processes & Physical Topic: Gender identity.

Development Discussion Question: Durham (pp. 101-
109), in Arnett (2002) conducted a study of
gender socialization presented in teen girls'
magazines. She argued that these
magazines provide girls with information
about how to look, dress, smell, feel, and
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act towards boys. Arnett notes that no

similar magazines exist for boys. What
kinds of magazines do teen boys read?
How do these magazines help boys prepare
for masculine roles? Do they provide any
information to boys about heterosexual
relationships? If so, what kinds of
information? If not, why is this so? If you
were going to create such a magazine for
boys, what kinds of contents would you
include? Why?

Motivation, Achievement & Instructional Topic: Identity development.

Processes Discussion Question: Raible and Nieto
(2003) note that "[i]f educators...united
their school communities around a vision
of high expectations and democratic
participation for all students, schools
might more effectively foster inclusive,
respectful, accepting, and empowering
school climates" (p. 160 in Sadowski).

Discuss how your school community might

enact this vision with particular attention to
how to motivate adolescents' students to
engage in the development of an ethical
school climate.

Social Contexts & Socialization Processes Topic: Parenting functions.

Discussion Question: The following are
critical roles and obligations for parents
toward rearing well-adjusted teens: (1)
Provide basic resources and care for the
home (e.g., food, shelter, order); (2) Protect
one's children (e.g., provide a secure home
in a safe neighborhood); (3) Guide teen’s
development (e.g., teaching skills and
knowledge; directing behavior); (4)
Advocate on behalf of teen in the
community (e.g., communicate with
schools, teachers, community groups).
Identify factors that can undermine these
parenting functions and discuss what role
community organizations and schools play
in supporting these parenting functions.
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Table 2.

Student evaluations of themed discussion group activities.


The themed discussion group discussions and activities… Mean S.D.

were enjoyable 4.40 1.50
increased my interest in adolescent development 3.87 1.64
were valuable learning assignments 4.07 1.49
helped me connect theories of adolescence to educational 4.07 1.39

or clinical practice
increased my understanding of adolescent development 3.87 1.55
helped me think about my views and beliefs regarding 4.33 1.54

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Cannon, P. (2006). Enhancing understanding and interest through group discussion.

College Teaching, 54(2), 211.

Forsyth, D.R. (2003). The professor’s guide to teaching: Psychological principles and

practices (pp. 87-126). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Halpern, D.F. (n.d.). Teaching tips: Creating cooperative learning environments.

Retrieved online February 1, 2008 from

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, F., & Smith, K.A. (1998). Cooperative learning returns to

college. Change, 30, 26-35.

Thompson, W.B., Vermette, P.J., & Wisniewski, S.A. (2004). Ten cooperative learning

activities for the cognitive psychology course. Teaching of Psychology, 31(2),