Groupwork and the NASA Survival Activity

It can be vital to establish a pattern of effective group work among a cohort of student, particularly at the beginning of the course.  International students may not be used to working in groups or even using English to communicate their ideas, so they need to see that doing so can be enjoyable and rewarding, but also relevant and intellectually stimulating.

The NASA Survival Task – which genuinely originates with NASA, but which I was introduced to by the wonderful Rob Reynolds and Oaklands College, St Albans – involves a sequence of thinking and speaking tasks, and in my classroom ends with a short piece of self-reflective evaluative writing.  I first did this task as a trainee teacher on my Cert TESOL course, and it’s always gone down well with students.

A suggested lesson plan is best followed via the Powerpoint slides above and involves the following steps:

1. To pre-teach / check vocabulary, show the students pictures of the 15 objects they will later discuss.  They should see each picture for 20-30 seconds; the room should be silent, and students should not take notes.

2. When the 15 pictures have been seen, ask students in groups to recount what they saw using ONLY ENGLISH.  Slides provide linguistic structures for circumlocution; students no doubt know the names of the objects in their first language, but several are likely to evade them in English.  It’s important for them to realise, however, that they can do this using only English, so make sure nobody reverts back to their L1 (encouraging peer-discipline will help).  Assure students that they will get a chance to check words and spelling later.

3. (optional) To contextualise, you might like to show a space-related picture.  Show an all-Chinese group a picture of some Chinese astronauts and you’ll hear a reaction.  Some questions like: who are these people? What have they done?  Would you like to do that?  will help to contextualise further.

4. (optional) Tell a little white lie and say that NASA are looking to recruit International Students from UK universities, so we’re going to do a NASA-devised task.  If students look sceptical, tell them that NASA have realised that the way they’re profiled applicants before has led to a particular personality type going into space and they now feel they need wider perspectives and more creative thinkers.

5. Give the task instructions: You have just crashed landed on the moon and you need to travel on the moon surface to the closet possible landing site for help. You have a list of the things you could possibly take to ensure your survival. You must place these items in order of most useful to least useful. Remember that your survival depends on what items you take or leave.

6. Distribute the handout (see below) and ask students to mark their choices (which must include all objects ordered from 1-15) in COLUMN 1 only (there’s time first to check that they know / remember what all the words refer to).  Give a time limit for them to complete this task.  At this stage students work ALONE and IN SILENCE

7. Group students in 3s or 4s, give them a time limit, and ask them to agree AS A GROUP, on the best order for the 15 objects.  All group members must record the group order in COLUMN 2 of the handout.

8. Ask each group to prepare and deliver a very brief presentation on the thoughts of their group.

9. Reveal NASA’s correct answer (see slide 28 of the Powerpoint file – the numbers float in on mouse clicks)

10. Ask students to work out INDIVIDUAL and GROUP scores and to enter these in the 4th and 5th Columns of the handout.  Scores are derived from the difference between the NASA order and the individual or group order.  So if an individual ranks the box of matches 8 but the group ranks it 15 (as does NASA), the individual scores 7 and the group scores 0.  The lower the score the better.

11. Conduct feedback to find the highest and lowest scoring individuals and groups and ask them to consider whether their scores imply any of the following:

a) I work better alone

b) I work better in a group

c) I made a positive contribution to the group

d) if I had been more forceful in the group discussion, my group would have achieved a better score

12. CRITICAL THINKING : can they see how companies and organisations might use a task like this with their staff (possible suggestions : team-building, developing assertiveness, identifying individuals with leadership potential)

13. Ask students to complete the self-reflection form.