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Loners Will be Loners ... Or Not.

Many of us are fortunate to have taught classes in which all students are active participants and teaching and learning are natural activities in the classroom setting. Chattering among my students brings a smile to my face. But every once in a while, there is that one student who "prefers to work alone."

The Hart Research Associates surveyed employers and concluded that a majority of employers believe that greater emphasis should be placed on a variety of learning outcomes developed through a liberal education. One such outcome is teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings[3].

Computer Science Principles is a course presently under development and being led by a team of computer science educators organized by the College Board and the National Science Foundation. This course seeks to broaden participation in computing and computer science. Listed as one of six computational thinking practices covered in the curriculum is "working effectively in teams"[4].

A comment from one computer science teacher in response to a pair programming thread in an electronic discussion group: "The popular kids will always flock together and the loners will always be loners." I would like to say, "Not so."

Many teachers encourage productive teamwork by incorporating pair programming in their classes. "Pair Programming" is an agile development technique in which two programmers work together at one computer following specific techniques[1]. The intention is to have two people as resources; they are working towards the completion of the same task at the same time with two sets of ideas. They are working collaboratively to accomplish this task. This is very different from working cooperatively.

There are no loaners in my class. I have tried various techniques, some working better than others:
* I assign pairs and monitor all pair programming (they do this activity only during class time)
* I have allowed the "loaners" to work alone if they are willing to accept a grade deduction of about 20%. This is not a popular choice but has been accepted by a few.
* I assign pairs based on requests and honor requests of "I do not want to work with so-and-so". All requests are confidential!
* I start the year with a pair activity to break the ice [2].

But I still search for new ways to eliminate the loaners so that all students WANT to work collaboratively on a team or use pair programming techniques.

What do you do to effectively eliminate the "loners" in your class?

[1] Pair Programming: http://agile.csc.ncsu.edu/pairlearning/educators.php
[2] Pair Draw: http://industriallogic.com/games/pairdraw.html
[3] Hart Research Associates: Raising the Bar: http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf
[4] CS Principles: http://www.csprinciples.com

Fran Tees
CSTA Chapter Liaison


Thank you for this article. I have always felt that teamwork skills are essential no matter what career you choose. I studied computer science at the University and I'm glad that the stereotype of the loner computer geek is changing. Now that I work as a technology coordinator at a school and I'm in charge of the CS program, I will try out your techniques!

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