Posted to Diigo 04/05/2012

  • Students working in small groups interact in a variety of ways and the teacher has an important role to play
  • Barriers, more often perceived than real, may impede the adoption of small group teaching
  • Small group learning is the learning that takes place when students work together usually in groups of 10 or less
  • What matters is that the group shows three characteristics.
  • Active participation: A key feature of small group work is that interaction should take place among all present.
  • A specific task: There should be a clearly defined task and objectives, and they should be understood by all members of the group.
  • Reflection: In small group learning, it is important to learn from an experience and to modify behaviour accordingly. Deep learning is a key feature of small group work: reflection is a key feature of deep learning.
  • It provides students with experience of working in a group, it helps them to acquire group skills. These include the ability to communicate effectively, the prioritising of tasks, the management of time and the exercise of interpersonal skills.
  • The introduction of small group work into a curriculum is frequently resisted. Various arguments are used
  • “Students do not like small group work”
  • Initial dissatisfaction with small group work may be expected and is natural. Barriers may be:
  • Perceptual
  • Cultural
  • Emotional
  • Intellectual
  • Environmental
  • “Staff do not know how to teach in small groups”
  • : Teachers may lack the skills necessary for running small group sessions. This may be seen as more of a problem by course or curriculum organisers than by teachers themselves. A staff development programme, however, is important.
  • : Staff shortage may be a real issue – or may be a misconception. The small group method adopted and the timetabling both have a significant impact. Identify all the staff who could be available for small group teaching.
  • “We do not have enough teachers for small group work”
  • “There are too few rooms”: Space is frequently a contentious issue. Creativity is usually the best solution. Do not be afraid to experiment – students are resilient.
  • “It is a waste of time – students do not learn anything”: It may take longer to cover a topic in small group work than in lectures. However, what really matters is if, and what, students learn and not just what is taught.
  • The following checklists have been generated for running small group work.
  • Consider the objectives of the session: Consider carefully the objectives of the session or course you are running and whether other teaching methods, eg lectures, independent learning, may be more appropriate
  • Determine your available physical resources: Accommodation availability may be a limiting factor. Small groups require suitable accommodation, which allows chairs to be set out in a circle to maximise interaction among the students, and space for appropriate audio-visual materials.
  • Determine the manpower availability: Small group teaching requires the participation of a larger number of teaching staff. Consider carefully how many teachers are available and their expertise as small group facilitators.
  • Does a facilitator have to be an expert? For small groups to function most effectively, the facilitator should have expertise in the content area and in small group facilitation.
  • Can different facilitators be used with the one group? Continuity of the facilitator is desirable. The facilitator can be considered as a member of the group and changing the composition of the group may disrupt the group dynamics.
  • Can a teacher facilitate several groups? A floating facilitator can be assigned responsibility for maintaining the task and function of more than one group. Success varies, frequently depending on the dynamics of the groups and the skill of the facilitator.
  • Can a student facilitate his or her own group? A student can successfully facilitate a peer group. This depends on the group’s dynamics, on the student’s ability and on the briefing given to the student.
  • Determine the group membership: Groups may be self selected, strategically determined, randomised, or selected alphabetically. It may be appropriate to change the membership of a group after a designated period of time, eg semester or year. Groups will work less productively if constantly changed, as they are less likely to reach a productive stage.
  • Ensure that the staff is prepared for the session: Staff must be given detailed briefings for the small group work. They should have prior opportunities to see small group work in action and to attend staff development sessions.
  • Select the most appropriate small group method: The educational objectives should determine the choice of small group method.
  • Develop stimulus material: Stimulus material might include problem-based scenarios, video clips, a set of questions, key articles for exploration, a real or simulated patient. The stimulus material required will be determined by the small group method adopted.
  • Inform students about the role of the small group work: Students should be informed why small group work is being adopted and how it relates to other activities and to the learning outcomes for the course.
  • During the Small Group Activity
  • Allow adequate introductions – use ice-breakers if necessary
  • Ensure that the students understand what to do, why they are doing it and how they should achieve it
  • Facilitate learning: The facilitator’s objective is to help the student become more self-reliant and independent by establishing a climate that is open, trustful and supportive. An educational facilitator’s role has two distinct areas: maintaining the functioning of the group and ensuring the task is completed. Facilitators must understand the changing dynamics of a group through four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing
  • Debrief the group on the activity: Debriefing summarises or clarifies what has been learnt and may take as long as the activity itself. During debriefing, constructive feedback may be given
  • After the Small Group Activity
  • Evaluate the success of the session: There are two aspects – achievement and quality. Have the objectives been achieved? Was the educational experience of a high standard? Students may be asked to complete an evaluation questionnaire. Alternatively, the session can be peer reviewed. Teachers should consciously self-evaluate the session.
  • Reflect on the experience: Evaluation, formal or informal, is pointless if no change in practice results.
  • Small group methods have a valuable role to play in undergraduate medical curricula. The student-centred focus and active participation enhance the likelihood of deep rather than surface learning. Decisions to be made are how much time to schedule for small group work, and what kind of small group work to adopt. If small groups are used, they must be valued and must not be seen as isolated from other aspects of the curriculum – or from the culture of the medical school.
  • Staff development is important. Success of small group learning depends on good planning, effective facilitation and a movement away from teacher-centred learning. For a real and sustained shift in medical education, students must be encouraged to learn rather than merely catching the output of teachers.