Lyons: Using Small Group Learning Effectively (TOTW #9)

This is a post from the “Tip of the Week” series by Richard Lyons which is no longer available, although it is archived on Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine.  

Using Small Group Learning Effectively 

One of more effective student-centered learning methodologies being employed by successful professors today is small group learning. While there are nuances of difference between “cooperative learning,” “collaborative learning,” “peer learning,” and “small group learning,” many treat the terms synonymously. The advantages of small group learning include:

  • The more active engagement of each student’s mind, fostered by interdependence and other group processes.
  • Empowerment of each student to pursue learning perceived as personally relevant, thus engendering personal responsibility.
  • Development of interpersonal skills that lead to increased civility.
  • Development of solutions to problems that integrate more perspectives, and the groundedness that flows from group processing.
  • Provides the professor with the opportunity to spend more time with students having difficulty in mastering course concepts.

In using small group learning, the instructor must:

  • Plan in advance the issues of group size and composition, arrangement of the learning environment, and materials on which activity will focus. Effective learning requires a well-developed case study, carefully-chosen video clip, or other learning material, and clear activity guidelines and evaluation criteria.
  • Monitor group processing closely to ensure understanding of learning goals, clarify issues, and full participation by all group members. While summarizing and orchestrating reflection and analysis, the instructor must be careful not to provide solutions.
  • Lead debriefing activity to foster connection to and increased understanding of learning goals.

Employing small group methods does not remove the professor from the learning process – it merely changes the role from “sage on the stage” to proactive facilitator. After initial adjustment to this student-centered strategy, most professors report an increased appreciation of students’ problem-solving abilities, and increased opportunity to dedicate additional time to students having the greatest difficult understanding and applying course concepts.

Rick W. Burkett runs the John A. Logan College Teaching and Learning Center, teaches history, and heads an educational nonprofit. He publishes blogs on a wide variety of topics, including history, teaching and learning, student success, and teaching online.

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