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Small group teaching

This is the first draft of an articles that published in my Clinical Teacher mobile app.

Introduction

Small group learning is one of several educational strategies used to promote student learning, as it promotes a student-centred approach in the educational context (as opposed to a teacher-centred approach, in which the teacher determines the objectives, content to be covered and assessment tasks). There are a variety of benefits associated with learning in small groups, which is why they are often integrated into different learning approaches. For example, working in small group is usually an integral component of problem-based learning (Dent & Harden, 2005).

The learning objectives are what should determine the teaching strategy and as such, small group learning should not be seen as universally appropriate for all educational contexts. In addition, the success of small group learning will be influenced by the availability of resources, including physical space, facilitators and materials. In addition, the relative experience of the facilitators can play a major role in the outcomes of the learning experience.

There are four important group characteristics for small group learning to be effective:

  • There should be active participation and interaction among all group members
  • There should be a clearly defined, specific task or objective/s, that the group is working towards
  • The group should reflect on learning experiences and modify their behaviour accordingly
  • There is no defined number of students that should be in a small group, and in fact, the size is often dictated by the availability of facilitators and other resources

Advantages of small group teaching

Students have opportunities to develop important skills for working in multidisciplinary teams. They learn how to communicate effectively, as they are encouraged to discuss new concepts that arise. They learn how to prioritise tasks, which is usually a component of the PBL process (Kitchen, 2012; Dent & Harden, 2005; Crosby, 1997; Entwhistle, Thompson & Tait, 1992; Walton, 1997).

  1. Promotes ‘deep’ learning: Encourages deep learning and higher order cognitive activities, such as analysis, evaluation and synthesis. Engage by being active participants in the learning process, as opposed to passively “absorbing” information.
  2. Develops critical thinking skills: Allows students to develop critical thinking by exploring issues together and testing hypotheses that are difficult to do well in a lecture. This practice develops problem-solving skills.
  3. Promotes discussion and communication skills: Environment is conducive to discussion. Students do not feel exposed or hidden, but are comfortable. Each student is encouraged to actively participate.
  4. Active and adult learning: Help identify what a student does not understand, and discussion aids understanding by activating previously acquired knowledge. Students are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and develop self-regulatory skills.
  5. Self motivation: Encourages involvement in the learning process, increasing motivation and learning. By taking responsibility for their learning they become self-motivated rather than being motivated by external factors e.g. the lecturer (teacher-centred approaches usually do not facilitate self-directed learning).
  6. Develops transferable skills: Helps develop skills necessary for clinical practice, e.g. leadership, teamwork, organisation, prioritisation, providing support and encouragement for colleagues, problem solving and time management.
  7. Application and development of ideas: Yields opportunities to apply ideas and consider potential outcomes. Making connections during group discussion enhances student understanding.
  8. Tutor as a role model: A logical and systematic tutor approach demonstrating ‘transferable’ skills motivates student learning and development.
  9. Recognises prior learning: Students are encouraged to surface their own prior knowledge, including their own perceptions (and misconceptions) of material previously covered.
  10. Social aspects of learning: Participation and social aspects of small group learning means that learning is more enjoyable than solitary approaches.
  11. Encourages alternative viewpoints: Encourages an awareness of different perspectives on various topics and can therefore help develop an attitude of tolerance.

Small group processes

“Appropriate ground rules make students feel ‘safer’ in sharing and expressing their views” – Kitchen (2010)

Students often find that working in small groups is a greater challenge than expected, probably because they are used to situations in which they work as individuals within a group. However, when individual success is dependent on the group cohesion and collaboration, and the group struggles to perform effectively, students may resist the process. It is therefore important to make them aware of the normal progression of group development (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977).

  1. Forming – a collection of individuals attempting to establish their identity within the group
  2. Storming – characterised by conflict and dissatisfaction that may lead to the development of trust
  3. Norming – attempts to function effectively by developing a sense of group identity and norms
  4. Performing – group performs at an optimal level by being focused on the task, and manages disagreement appropriately

The role of the facilitator

“Small group productivity depends on good facilitation, rather than on topic knowledge” BUT “Less than one third (of clinicians) have received formal training in small group teaching” – Kitchen (2010)

The facilitator plays an essential role in small group, and traditionally would design the module. This would include the development or preparation of stimulus material, which can be in the form of questions, scenarios, images, video, research papers or case studies (Kitchen, 2012). In addition, the facilitator would present the objectives of the session, initiate the process, encourage participation, promote discussion and close the session. In these cases, the facilitator is very clearly leading the process and is in control. This approach is probably the one that most clinical educators are familiar with, and derives from a combination of ability, expertise, experience and enthusiasm. However, when the facilitator clearly dominates the process, self-directed learning and interaction between learners can be limited. Increasingly, small group learning is looking to students to provide more initiative, explore learning options, test hypotheses, develop solutions and review outcomes. In these situations the role of the tutor is less clear and will vary depending on the type of learners making up the groups.

The facilitator/s (often, small groups have multiple facilitators) must all be informed of the objectives of the session. If not, there is the possibility of different groups moving in different directions. This is not as much of a problem if exploration of a concept is the goal. However, if all groups are meant to achieve the same objective, consistency among facilitators is important. For this reason, staff training is vital whenever small groups are being considered as a teaching strategy. It is important to understand that, while content-specific expertise is useful, facilitation skills are essential.

“A fundamental feature of effective facilitation is to make participants feel that they are valued as separate, unique individuals deserving of respect” – Brookfield (1986)

One of the most important roles of the facilitator is to ensure that an atmosphere of trust and collaborative enquiry is created in the small group. This can be achieved by the group setting their own norms and objectives for the session, or if they are inexperienced in groupwork, for the facilitator to guide them through this process. It would also be useful to have the students express their own expectations for the session, especially of their role and responsibilities in the group. As the group members grow in experience, they should take over more and more of the facilitators role, until it may be difficult to tell them apart. As the learners take more control of the group session, more traditional teachers and facilitators may have a challenge adjusting to the new dynamic.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the facilitator to arrive early in order to check that the venue is appropriately prepared for the session. Arriving early is not only useful in order to ensure that the session runs smoothly, but also to set an example for students.

Assessment of small groups

“With undergraduate medical education currently carrying a health warning because of the stress and anxiety exhibited by students and young graduates, any educational process that promotes enjoyment of learning without loss of basic knowledge must be a good thing” – Bligh (1995)

As with all assessment, it is important for students to be aware of the assessment process and outcomes. Teachers and facilitators must decide beforehand on the nature of the assessment task, as well as whether it will be formative or summative, and who will be responsible for conducting it. If the person responsible for assessing the students is also involved with facilitating the groups, it is especially important for students to feel that the environment is a safe space. If not, they may be reluctant to fully participate in the process, as in doing so, they may reveal their ignorance and therefore be vulnerable. This may be addressed by the facilitator being open and discussing their role in assessment as part of the process. If students will be evaluating the facilitators, there may also be a sense of shared responsibility for assessment, thereby “equalising” the balance of power in the relationship.

Assessing the group outcomes is reasonably straightforward and can relate to either the achievement of objectives, or the process of working in a group. Determining the achievement of objectives can be be through student self-report, facilitator observations, or observation by an external assessor. While the assessment of individuals within the group is more challenging it is nonetheless possible, especially when students are able to assist in the process by evaluating their peers. Individual performance can be measured through attendance, contribution or participation, conducting research for the group, and by supporting or encouraging others.

Challenges when working in small groups

“The size of a small group is less important than the characteristics of the group” – Dent & Harden (2005)

When considering implementing small group learning in your course, bear in mind that a change in teaching approach should complement the overall programme strategy and objectives, as well as actually enhance the learning experience. Small group learning should be seen as an integrated component of the curriculum and should be related to other components. In other words, small group learning should be seen as a simple addition.

Often, busy clinical teachers struggle to find the time to implement small group learning strategies, especially when you take continuity of the teaching experience into account. However, this has an impact on scheduling of other teaching activities, which can be challenging to arrange. Careful planning is therefore an important aspect of integrating small groups into the curriculum.

There is a perception that students do not enjoy working in small groups. However, this is possibly based on situations in which students either were not able achieve the objectives, or their learning experience was poor. Careful planning and design are essential in order for the group to successfully achieve the outcomes that are set. Too often, teachers think that group work is about a group of individuals working in a team. It is essential for the groups’ success to be based on cooperative behaviour. In other words, the individuals must work together in order to achieve shared goals that are difficult to achieve as individuals.

Practice points

  • Working in small groups is characterised by student participation and interaction, in order to promote student learning.
  • The size of the group is dependent on the learning activity, although 3-6 students is usually recommended. The size of the group is less important than the group characteristics.
  • Facilitator training is an essential factor for small group success, although most small group facilitators have received no formal training.
  • Integrating small group learning into a curriculum should be carefully considered as part of an overall teaching and learning strategy, rather than as an addition.

Conclusion

Small group work can be an exciting and engaging approach to teaching and learning practice, especially if it is implemented with careful thought and consideration as part of an integrated curricular strategy. The reasons for making the choice should be pedagogical and as such, have educational advantages as the primary motivating factor for the move. Small group teaching has been shown to be beneficial in terms of developing self-directed approaches to learning, critical thinking and reasoning, tolerance of the views and perspectives of others, and the development of interpersonal skills. While there are challenges in its implementation, they can be addressed with thoughtful design and regular feedback from all stakeholders.

References and other sources

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.