Working collaboratively and interacting with others are essential skills that all graduates need to learn and demonstrate. Victoria University specifies ‘working collaboratively’ in Graduate Capability 1 and it is an underlying requirement in the development of all VU Graduate Capabilities and their underpinning concepts.

Integrating large and small group learning and working in teams into your teaching provides students with the opportunities to develop essential collaborative learning and communication skills.

Group learning can occur in many learning situations including lectures (large groups), formal smaller group learning situations such as seminars, workshops, practicals and tutorials, informal learning situations that occur out of class time, and face-to-face or online. However, effective group learning requires serious commitment and understanding by the teacher and quality engagement by the students themselves.

"Group learning is about getting people to work together well, in carefully set up learning environments"

(Race, 2014).

 

Benefits of group learning

There is an increase in literature on group learning with many practical tips on how to work with large and small groups. These can be sourced using a key word search through the internet. This guide will focus on the key benefits, challenges and factors that contribute to good group learning practice.

If designed well and supported, group learning activities are more student centred and can actively engage students in their learning. They provide opportunities for students to:

  • work in teams and experience activities that require interdependency,
  • have conversations with people outside their normal circle of friends and culture,
  • listen to others’ ideas empathically and critically,
  • engage with people with different skills, cultures and experiences,
  • think creatively and originally,
  • build on others’ existing work,
  • collaborate on projects,
  • manage time and processes effectively,
  • see projects through to a conclusion,
  • manage the normal difficulties of interactions and communications between each other.

(adapted from Race, 2014)

Ensuring successful group learning practice means being aware of the complexities of group work and the diversity of the students you are teaching. As a teacher you will have several roles as students engage in group learning activities and it will be your responsibility to oversee the process, facilitating and managing some of the stages. The first role relates to the design of the group learning task or activities.

It is important to ensure that the task relates to and supports the learning outcomes of your unit. The second role involves monitoring the group learning activities and intervening to support students if needed. The teacher must ensure that groups are an emotionally safe place in which to learn. The final role involves assessment.

When implementing group learning strategies into your teaching the following factors need to be considered:

  • Suitability of group learning activities – Does a group learning activity support the learning outcomes of your unit? Is the task/activity better done collaboratively rather than individually?
  • Physical environment – Is the physical teaching space flexible and conducive to group work? If online, does the software you are using assist in group learning activities?
  • Group/team size – Is the group size appropriate to the aims? Can the group continue to work even if there are absences?
  • Group expectations – Are the students prepared for group work? Are expectations about the group and their role in it clear? Is there a shared understanding about norms and roles for group work?
  • Group composition – How are the groups formed? What considerations need to be put in place for determining membership? Is diversity of the student group being taken into consideration?
  • Participation - What are the expectations for the group members about participation? If this needs to be monitored, how is this being done?
  • Communication – Are good communication processes being practiced? If there are issues with communication are they being easily identified and dealt with?
  • Procedures – Have the procedures and processes for group work been made clear? Are these being followed and issues identified promptly?
  • Assessment – Are students aware of what is being assessed, how this is being assessed and how to monitor progress towards assessment?
  • Facilitation – Are you clear about your role and relationships with students as they engage in group learning exercises?
  • Assessment - How will the work be assessed fairly? What mechanisms are in place to ensure those who do the work receive the reward and those who have not participated well do not?

Challenges of group learning

Even though there are significant benefits to incorporating group learning in your teaching there are many challenges that teachers need to be aware of and strategies to put in place should they occur. They include:

  • communication misunderstandings
  • inequitable contributions by individuals and an imbalance of workload
  • lack of leadership
  • motivation of participants
  • cultural differences and expectations

For all students new to higher education working in groups and being assessed for this work will mean learning new skills, hence students need to be supported to develop group learning skills. This support needs to be built into the teaching process. Similarly given the challenges that might arise you will need a mechanism for monitoring group processes and identifying issues as they arise so that they can be dealt with and resolved promptly.

Group sizes & types

Many large group learning situations occur in lectures. Even though these situations are predominantly teacher directed, they can still include activities that are interactive and group based. Many lectures are now interspersed with short activities where students share information with partners or in small groups.

Some lecture theatres are physically designed to allow chairs to turn around for this purpose and for students to physically move to engage with others. Technology has also enabled greater interaction in lectures through the use of clickers (classroom response systems), and software that students can access on mobile devices.

In blended or fully online learning environments capturing a full lecture or shorter segments can be used to engage the full cohort of students in group learning through forums and discussions.

Most group learning activities occur in small groups within formal learning situations such as seminars, workshops, tutorials, practicals, studio-based work, or through online learning environments. There are many different opportunities for group learning activities to occur in a higher education teaching environment.

Defining the size of a ‘small group’ varies largely across disciplines and between individual teachers and could be from working in groups of threes up to 10 or more; however small group learning is often not defined by size, but rather by approach.

When incorporating small group learning into your teaching two important considerations need to be kept in mind: the first being that it is planned as an explicit activity as part of the curriculum, and secondly that students are prepared and supported in these learning situations.

The term ‘team-based learning’ which is often used as an alternative to small group learning is more likely associated with bringing students together to work on a specific project or problem. Working as a ‘team’ member is used more commonly in employment, and as more authentic work related activities are integrated into teaching, team based learning is becoming more common.

Questions

  • What do you see as the main advantages of group learning in your teaching?
  • What do you see is your role as a teacher in group learning activities?
  • What are the challenges you have experienced with students working in groups?
  • What practices relating to group based learning are specific to your discipline?

Additional resources

Carroll J, 2015, Managing assessed, collaborative group work involving diverse student groups, in Carroll J Tools for Teaching in an Educationally Mobile World, Routledge, Oxon.

Race P, 2015, The Lecturer's Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Assessment, Learning and Teaching, Routledge, Oxon.