Small Group: A New Learning Dimension

There are four dimensions of learning commonly described in learning psychology. They are declarative (statement learning) which means requesting information i.e. learning what. Second is technical practical (procedural) learning, which means learning in what way and to what extent things happen (how), third, is conditional (conjunctional) learning, concerned with when and where. The fourth dimension is reflective (thoughtful) learning that is learning of the cause or why (Angelo, 18-20).

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The underlying principle of small group learning is the argument that learning is partly a qualitative expression of orientations and attitudes and its basis to induce change (not only in behavior) despite resistance. Small group learning methods provided a more detailed and thorough basis and developed learning, mostly, through trial and error (Olmstead, 4-5). The advantages of small-group learning have raised the probability of student participation, students share experiences and learn from one another (social cognitive aspect), increased motivation among students, and better group solutions of problems (synergy). On the other hand, there are some disadvantages to small-group learning; these are increased hardship in evaluating activities, longer class time, the instructor must plan activities well, and must be ready to loosen control of the class for a brief time to interfere frequently into discussions. Still despite that, it gives an appealing alternative to ordinary lectures (Svinicki, 1).

There are various group types and structures of small group learning. Jaques (492-494), described the following types: 1- group round, where every member is given, in turn, a very short time to give a point in the discussion. Second, is buzz (humming, excited) groups, this occurs with larger groups (as in conferences) where the group and instructor need a break mainly to think of new stimulating ideas. Third, pyramid groups, where subgroups form and discus to report to the whole group later, in this sense, it is a subtype of the previous type. Fourth, an inverted glass bowl (fishbowl) group where an inner circle discusses a topic, and the outer circle looks at themes, patterns, and reasons for discussion. Fifth, horseshoe groups as in workshops, where there is swinging between the lecture and discussion structure and layout. Finally, Brainstorming group discussion, which is a technique of creative thinking that aims at getting new ideas by freeing individual capabilities in thinking. Whatever type, the principle of success is the instructor (facilitator) clarifying the purpose of discussion and occasionally, written instructions are helpful.

In 2007, the Quality Assurance and Continuing Professional Development Committee of the Australian Royal College of General Practitioners (page 2) defined the facilitator of a small group as a current constant member of the group who is a keen unpaid helper taking the duties of helping the group to do its assignment properly. The group should not look at the facilitator as a group administrator or a superior instructor; moreover, group members should support their facilitator to develop skills. In a discussion, most group members direct their attention to the contents and issues of the subject. A pivotal role of the group facilitator is to take a step back and have an overlook consensus on the group process, quality, and criteria of ideas exchanged among participants.

Fink (4-6), described three methods to employ in small group learning. First, the casual (unpremeditated) method, where a student turns and talks to the one next to, needs little planning beforehand. Second, the use of organized well-defined activities (supportive or cooperative method), needs that group activities should be well structured and integrated into the course so as not to make a change of the course. Third, team (converting or transformative) learning, where small group activities are the most important in-class activity. It profits from the special abilities high working effectiveness of learning teams and may include a change in the course structure.

In conclusion, small group learning is an outstanding option to ordinary lectures especially when superior processes of acquiring knowledge are needed. It is more interesting to students and more demanding to the facilitator.

Works Cited

Angelo, T. A. “Ten Easy Pieces: Assessing Higher Learning in Four Dimensions.” New Direction for teaching and learning Vol. 46 1991. p. 18-20.

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Olmstead J A. Small-Group Instruction: Theory and Practice. Alexandria – Virginia: Human Resources Research Organization, 1974.

Sviniski, M D. “Using Small Groups to Promote Learning”. Section 5. Improving Scientific Teaching Techniques. 2007. Web.

Quality Assurance and Continuing Professional Development (QACPD) Committee. Dept. home page. The Australian Royal College of General Practitioners. 2008. Web.

Fink L D. Team Learning: Putting “sTEAM” into Learning Groups. Instructional Development Program Dept. University of Oklahoma. 2008. Web.

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