For those of us who use small-group learning processes in the classroom, helping those small groups become effective may involve a number of important considerations. Literature on small-group effectiveness has identified several characteristics that differ between new groups and groups that have existed for some time (1). Among these are:
Group Trust and Attraction: People’s willingness to be attracted to a group (and thereby participate) relates to the level of trust members have in each other. This occurs when members see each other reliably complete tasks over time; thus, newer groups may lack trust that older groups have established. A tactic here would be to provide small tasks at the outset that can be completed, thus beginning to build that trust.
Motivation to Achieve Group Goals: Group goals are seen as a key in the development of group trust and cohesiveness. In groups with high levels of diversity, finding common goals is helpful in developing team identity. Goals also provide a basis for team interaction. Highly cohesive groups are generally more effective at achieving group goals.
Willingness to Help Each Other: Effective groups are generally comprised of people willing to help one another. They fell responsibility toward one another and are more willing to provide interpersonal support.
Awareness of Each Other’s Skills and Abilities: New groups do not yet understand what each member brings to the table, and their perceptions of each other may initially be based on stereotyping and observable physical characteristics. Over time, as they work together, each person’s skills are brought to the fore.
Effective Sharing of Task-Related Information: Information sharing in new groups is not likely to support high task performance on tasks; thus, exchange of task-related information is likely to be low and focused on lower-level learning. Interpersonal issues seem to take precedence. Over time, as groups develop, group members begin to get more comfortable with each other and shift to task-related issues. Long-lived groups have a lessened reliance on their best member.
Willingness to Disagree: Completion of tasks requires some constructive conflict, but new groups generally withhold information that would make such constructive conflict possible. That is, they suppress information that might create conflict in order to maintain harmony at all costs.
Methods of Resolving Conflict: Conflict resolution differs between new small groups and established ones (groups with more than, say, 20 hours of action). For example, voting is often used in new groups to resolve conflict, while consensus emerges as a main conflict resolution process in more established groups.
Overall Ability to Complete Difficult Intellectual Tasks: In new groups, members need to work on tasks while at the same time learn to work with each other. This can lead to some dysfunction, but this dysfunction is also actually useful for the group to later find ways to work out its issues and begin to trust one another. Give-and-take discussions need to occur at some point.
The point of all this is simply to note that you can anticipate certain problems when you first constitute small groups for classroom learning, but that you can also develop tactics and strategies to help smooth the process from new group to established group. This then enhances learning.
1. Michaelson LK, Bauman Knight A, Fink LD, eds. Team-based learning: a transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA; Stylus Publishing, 2004