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Models of small group learning

Group learning theory distinguishes cooperative from collaborative learning, although both models are influenced by John Dewey's view that "education is a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility" (see Matthews et al).

Cooperative learning

Cooperative work is accomplished by the division of labour among

participants, where each person is responsible for a portion of the problemsolving.

(Roschelle & Teasley 1995)

Joseph Cuseo (1992) distinguishes cooperative learning from other forms of small group learning in terms of six procedural elements. He defines it as:

A learner-centred instructional process in which small intentionally selected

groups of 3-5 students work interdependently on a well-defined learning task; individual students are held accountable for their own performance and the instructor serves as a facilitator/consultant in the group learning process.


The six features are: 1. Intentional group formation - to create the 'optimal social learning environment'. The tutor selects group members according to predetermined criteria (such as different levels of academic achievement, learning styles, ethnic backgrounds, personality profiles) deliberately chosen to maximise heterogeneity and diversity of perspectives. 2. Continuity of group interaction - groups meet regularly over an extended period of time, so that they develop into a tightly knit social network. 3. Interdependence among group members - certain procedures aim to encourage groups to develop a group identity and a sense of 1

collective responsibility for one another's learning. For example, groups work towards a clearly defined, common goal; each group member is assigned a specific role (group manager, group recorder, group spokesperson etc); groups do ice-breaking activities when the group is first formed. "The key assumption here is that the potential cognitive benefits of small group learning are more likely to be realized in a social context characterized by group cohesiveness, mutual trust, and emotional security." (p7) 4. Individual accountability - students are graded individually. The idea here is to reduce "social loafing"; there is a danger that individuals will not pull their weight when placed in a group, so we need to be able to identify the unique output/effort of each one. 5. Explicit attention to the development of social skills - a major objective of cooperative learning. Students are taught communication and team skills to prepare them for group work, and whilst involved in it are invited to reflect on how their social interaction in groups has affected their individual learning. 6. Instructor as facilitator - the tutor functions as a "learned peer or collegial coach", circulating among the groups, clarifying the tasks, giving encouragement etc. The principles of cooperative learning are built on well established lines of theory, research and practice:

There are at least three general theoretical perspectives that have guided

research on cooperative learning. The most influential is social interdependence theory, whose roots extend from Kurt Koffka in the early 1900s to Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch in the mid-1900s, to the authors of this article. Its central proposition is that the way social interdependence is structured determines how individuals interact with each other which, in turn, determines outcomes. Positive interdependence (cooperation) creates promotive interaction, negative interdependence (competition) creates oppositional interaction, and no interdependence (individualistic efforts) results in an absence of interaction. From the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky comes the cognitive development theory, with the proposition that when individuals cooperate, socio-cognitive conflict occurs that creates cognitive disequilibrium, which in turn stimulates perspective-taking ability and cognitive development. Both the work on structuring academic controversies and research on cognitive restructuring are drawn from this orientation. Based on the work of Skinner, Bandura, Homans, Thibaut and Kelly, and more recently, Slavin, behavioral learning theory focuses

on the impact of group contingencies on learning; its main proposition is that actions followed by extrinsic rewards will be repeated.

(Johnson & Johnson 1993)

Johnson and Johnson suggest that cooperation should play the dominant role in any classroom. More than 120 studies carried out between 1924 and 1981 indicate that cooperative learning experiences encourage higher achievement than their competitive or individualistic counterparts. Cooperative activities also tend to promote the development of higher order levels of thinking, essential communication skills, improved motivation, positive self esteem, social awareness and tolerance for individual differences. Research also indicates that where students simply observe other group members working, or listen to others explaining and discussing things, this will not enable them to learn the material; they must be actively involved in the group process for learning to occur. (Tribe 1994:26

Collaborative learning
Roschelle and Teasley define collaborative learning as "a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem." (1995: 70) It differs from cooperative learning in one key way; where the output of cooperative learning is the synthesis of work done by individuals, collaborative learning has at its centre the notion of joint learning. The participants work together on a task and are jointly responsible for the strategies employed in achieving a satisfactory outcome. This has a number of valuable educational byproducts; because the process is a shared one, each participant has to articulate, justify and possibly defend their approach to the task. This obliges each participant to surface and explain tacit attitudes, values and theories of action. Collaborative learning also develops skills of negotiation, assertiveness and listening. This 'mutuality hypothesis' is, according to Stephen Draper (1995), modified by a number of phenomena. For instance, a participant with more advanced views may decide to 'agree insincerely' with colleagues because the pressure to reach agreement is so powerful; although collaborative learning promotes learning through discussion, people often take away different learning from the same interaction; the content of learning gain may not appear in the interaction at all sometimes reflection is necessary to incorporate the learning gain; the previously more "advanced" participant may advance even further - the interaction may be a 3

stimulus for development which is entirely private and unshared; learning may occur under the stimulus of a conversation, even though the thing learned may not have been the purpose of the conversation. The theory underpinning collaborative learning has developed separately from the theories supporting the development and practice of cooperative learning. Collaborative learning theory and practice derive largely from the humanities and social sciences and are founded on political and philosophical questions on the nature of knowledge as a social construction and the role of authority in the classroom. Its adherents therefore takes a less highly structured approach to group work, on the basis that that students are responsible participants who already use social skills in performing group tasks. (Matthews et al: 4) Groups either self select or are randomly selected by the facilitator. Tasks and roles are allocated by the group members themselves and no tuition is given in teamworking and group management skills. The facilitator does not actively monitor the groups or offer advice; if there are problems with the task set, or issues to do with group conflict, the facilitator will refer these back to the groups themselves to resolve.

Group learning: what is it good for?

It can improve academic performance - cognitive and metacognitive abilities (deep learning):

Cooperative learning as a peer-mediated intervention...emphasises

collaboration among learners. At the heart of this collaboration is a group processing of the information to be studied and an exchange of the thinking involved in the cognitive processing. Students must explain how they reach a conclusion or arrive at an answer. First and foremost, they find the need to examine their own thought processes. Students engaged in cooperative learning need to reflect on what they think about the particular tasks of instruction, but they must also consider how they arrived at such thoughts and what the significance of a particular act happens to be. Thus, initially, they are engaged in a metacognitive involvement, one of the first acts of constructive thinking (Costa 1984). Bransford and Vye (1989) discuss various characteristics of knowledge mastery in thinking; many of their observations apply to understanding the reflective learner engaged in cooperative learning. Master thinkers develop skills for recognizing and constructive meaningful "chunks" of information; they are pattern seekers. Successful thinkers develop their own self-talk; they try to figure out why a particular aspect of a solution is applicable to the problem at hand. Eventually, usually with multiple experiences, they develop an notion of generalization or rule incidence and they actively search for comparable situations or other cases upon 4

which they might generalize types of particular solutions. Less successful thinkers, say Bransford and Vye, (1989:181) are more prone to using memorization strategies and show less concern for analytic confirmation.

(Davidson & Worsham 1992:4) Furthermore, students deepen their understanding by having to explain/clarify/summarise their knowledge for peers, and can test their own understandings with peers. (Some would not feel sufficiently confident to do this with the tutor). Small group work provides a supportive environment for learning which caters for students with different learning styles. Moreover, it gives students the opportunity to involve themselves in a variety of tasks not catered for in the more formal settings of lectures and seminars. They can: use their peers as a learning resource learn to evaluate their own and others' work (through process of giving and receiving feedback) share expertise, study methods, ideas, concerns generate ideas (creative thinking) identify common areas of ignorance take risks in atmosphere of trust and confidentiality develop negotiation skills learn to give and receive feedback give and receive support develop self-confidence and increase motivation work through experiences and misunderstandings produce synergy (the collective output of the group is greater than the sum of the individual contributions) learn to become less dependent on tutors and take more control over their learning

However, some students do not enjoy or benefit from small group work. It may be a new learning method which they do not feel properly prepared for. If the 'institutional culture' is didactic, students may value group learning less highly than they value the more traditional lecture/seminar methods; this is more likely to be the case if assessment is heavily weighted towards exams or the programme has a heavy assessment burden. In particular, if the assessment process evaluates the individual rather than the group, then group work may be seen to be at best incidental to 'real' learning and at worst counterproductive to the individual's own intellectual progress.

There may be 'personality' issues within the group which obstruct progress and enjoyment. Or some people prefer to work alone so that they remain are in control of both the process and the outcome of the learning; you can work at your own pace at times that suit you, with your own personal level of commitment. Moreover, group work should encourage dissenting opinions, yet some students may find this intimidating and feel 'freer' sitting in a lecture. And some students (surface learners and those low in confidence) simply prefer dependency! (On the use of academic conflict for instructional purposes, see Johnson & Johnson (1992). These strategies are especially appropriate for law, for example mooting, mock trials.)

Group learning: how do you make it work?

A group is more likely to be effective if the members come to it knowing what to expect, why they are there, and what they have 'contracted' to do (Winston et al: 1988). Also: "The potential cognitive benefits of small group learning are more likely to be realised in a social context characterised by group cohesiveness, mutual trust and emotional security". (Cuseo: 1992): explain the learning method and its rationale (especially if unfamiliar) specify the task(s) clearly (students must understand the task - this is why cooperative learning tends to be highly structured) allow enough time for the task(s) to be completed allow enough time for debriefing

The most important part of the task educationally is the review/debriefing. Some of the literature suggests it should last for at least half as long as the exercise itself. The discussion helps students generalise from their particular experience and to think beyond the immediate experience. It's also important to tap some of the emotional charge of the experience. For example, after a role play or oral presentation you can begin the debriefing by asking: how do you feel that went? Debriefing can take place in the plenary or in small groups, which then feed the more generalised insights back into the plenary. Make use of video for performance and review. If the debriefing is rushed or inconclusive, the task will appear to tail off, and students will feel frustrated - what have I learned? What have I got out of this? You can finish off by asking each person to reflect on what they have learned from the exercise - about the topic, about working in a group etc.

Know something about group dynamics

This is how groups develop and how participants behave in groups. We need to be able to recognise cues that indicate various levels of development, and to identify obstacles preventing groups from working effectively. A number of roles need to be performed if the group is to function successfully. Belbin (1993) (amongst others) has identified nine such roles. Group members have more and less preferred roles, and switch roles unconsciously. A strong preference for one role often brings with it what Belbin refers to as 'allowable weaknesses' as well as factors which contribute to group effectiveness. Caption here role implementer completer contribution allowable weaknesses

disciplined, reliable, conservative, somewhat inflexible, slow to efficient, turns ideas into action respond to new possibilities painstaking, conscientious, inclined to worry unduly, anxious, looks for errors, delivers reluctant to delegate, can be on time nit-picker single-minded, self-sharing, dedicated, supplies scarce knowledge and skills contributes on narrow front, dwells on technicalities


plant resource investigator co-ordinator

creative, imaginative, unorthodox, ignores details, often poor solves difficult problems communicator extrovert, enthusiastic, explores opportunities, develops contacts mature, confident, good chairperson, clarifies goals, promotes decision making challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure over-optimistic, loses interest early can be manipulative, prone to delegate personal work can provoke others, hurts people's feelings

shaper monitorevaluator team worker

sober, strategic and discerning, lacks drive and ability to sees all options, judges accurately inspire others, overly critical co-operative, mild, perceptive and indecisive in crises, can be diplomatic, listens, averts friction easily influenced

There are two sets of aims of group work; task aims and maintenance aims. Task aims are the stated outcomes of the group's collective activity, Maintenance aims underpin and facilitate the task aims and are to do with the social and interpersonal aspects of the group, such as creating a sense of belonging, generating trust and openness, sustaining interest and enthusiasm.

Set (or allow group to set) ground rules


All groups should have a set of ground rules communicated to members. If possible, the group members should formulate these rules; otherwise the tutor must set them. Examples:

confidentiality (to build trust) voluntary participation (no pressure to be put on individuals) attendance no interrupting, verbal abuse no smoking, drinking - etc!

Be prepared to take on the role of tutor-facilitator

Firstly, we need to think about our teaching and learning approaches and attitudes. How committed are we to student-centred learning? Are we prepared to throw off the role of expert and muck in? Do we have the necessary empathic qualities, do we know how to set appropriate tasks and contexts; to recognise when things might be going wrong and to bring a group back on course? Successful facilitation involves: 1. Building relationships of trust. Encourage a safe, secure, riskfree environment to develop. Carl Rogers (1961) opines that individuals are most likely to reach their full potential in an empathic, accepting and encouraging environment. 2. Teach groups how to give and receive feedback. The 'rules' on giving feedback should be automatic to us, but students may not be aware of them.

Provide a suitable physical environment

Ensure an arrangement of furniture that facilitates group communication and democratic participation, and explain your rationale if any students are unsettled by not being able to hide behind a table. And where are you going to be?

Assessing group work

What are the options? Focus:

outcomes or process? formative or summative? performance and reflection?


oral or written?

peer/self or tutor assessed? imposed or negotiated criteria? group or individual or 'combination' mark

Principles for assessing groups

Do inform students well in advance of the assessment schedule encourage students to plan state the intended learning outcomes - necessary even if you are primarily assessing process(es) ensure that group work is appropriately embedded in the module/course - ie it links to general learning outcomes, it is perceived by staff (and students) to be relevant, and colleagues are ready (practically and conceptually) to initiate group work negotiate the process/weighting/criteria/format ensure students accept the above and buy into the outcomes be explicit about how groups are formed and give the rationale be clear about whether you are assessing just the achievement of the assignment task or the process of learning itself make clear whether and what type of communication between groups is legitimate are students intended to co-operate with other groups - or are they in competition with them (not necessarily an either/or option - some 'competitive' tasks may require strategic co-operation) be innovative! Develop the pioneer spirit in your students! And persevere - most innovation takes a while to 'bed-in' - note evidence in respect of much educational research that innovation faces an 'implementation dip' in which staff and student experiences suggest practice gets worse before it gets better. carry out some interim formative assessment - with feedback keep in touch with group progress try and assess in timetabled time (especially with part time students) delegate responsibility for primary marking to students encourage students to monitor the group process, for example by a short reflective statement make sure you have a fall-back position ("I reserve the right...")

Don't keep group membership the same over a number of assignments let students confuse friendship groups with good learning groups (think about setting specific criteria/enabling students to set criteria for group membership - for example Belbin)

expect all students to have covered the same content give just one common grade/mark over-assess be inconsistent without negotiation change the rules as you go along without negotiation overspecify - give room for creativity and original thought