Small group learning is one effective method health care educators can use to enhance student learning. As noted by Crosby (1), it “recognizes a movement towards learner-centered, problem-based and self-directed learning.” Crosby notes that there is no definitive answer to what constitutes “small” in terms of number of students, but what is important is that a small group must exhibit three attributes: active participation, a specific task, and reflection. By this, she means that those involved must all actively engage in the interaction, must have a clearly defined task and must reflect so that deep learning is achieved.
There are a number of benefits to small group learning. They include:
Actively learn. When one works alone, it is often difficult to be able to understand what you have learned, what you do not understand and what you need to understand. Using group discussions can aid in understanding and in determining what information a student is not comprehending. Further, it helps that each student brings to their discussions an individual knowledge base which can be shared.
Encourages self-motivation. Being actively involved motivates persons to learn and to learn more effectively.
Allows application and development of ideas. Ideas generated by the group can be applied and tested, and therefore also help understanding of the issues involved.
Promotes deep learning. Surface learning is the learning of facts, which requires nothing more than memorization. Small group work has been found to be better able to achieve deep learning, a better sense and understanding of the material.
Promotes an adult style of learning. Part of our goals in educating our students is to expose them to adult learning principles. Our students come in as a mix of both traditional students (such as those who have come straight from a traditional undergraduate background) and adult learners (those who may have had experience in a work setting for some time before entering chiropractic college). Once everyone graduates, adult learning styles become critically important; the newly minted doctors need to know how to locate, synthesize and apply information without being led there by an instructor. Small group learning works with these principles and encourages individual responsibility for learning.
Develop transferable skills. These skills include leadership, teamwork, organization, collaboration, time management, etc. They are skills that can be used in many settings within health care.
Cosby also notes the challenges to small group learning:
Students do not like small group work. They are not accustomed to it, particularly those who come in from traditional undergraduate programs. It is alien to their experience. They don’t see the value, have been acculturated to passive learning, can wreak havoc in group dynamics, and it can be difficult for the students to see how learning is occurring.
Staff do not know how to teach in small groups. Most of us grew up as traditional teachers, content experts who know our discipline and have found means to effectively (we think) teach our craft. This experience requires a new role for an instructor, one that differs from our past experience.
We do not have enough teachers for small group work. This is always a challenge, because it does require additional time involvement by the instructors.
There are too few rooms. This is also a problem in many institutions, and could potentially be so here were we to use this form of teaching in more widespread fashion.
It is a waste of time- students do not learn anything. We feel that because we did a lecture on a topic and because students were there to hear it, they have learned it. And there is solace in that. We cannot see the learning in small group like we do in lecture, because we cannot see “the lecture” in those sessions. Therefore we often may believe no learning has occurred.
There are certainly challenges in using small-groups, but there is also great opportunity as well.
1. Crosby J. Learning in small groups. Med Teacher 1997;19:189-202