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The Benefits of Group Learning

Some of the best learning activities give learners opportunities to work in groups. They engage in peer learning, and can carry out authentic, complex tasks and build real-world skills.
three learners working together sitting at a table and using their phones/calculators
© Wellcome Connecting Science

Some of the best learning activities give learners opportunities to work in groups. They engage in peer learning, and can carry out authentic, complex tasks and build real-world skills.

Group working is also one of the best ways to promote active learner engagement with the topic; there are few opportunities for passively absorbing material and many for discussion, analysis and application.

Promoting this high quality learning requires a specific set of skills in managing the groups and facilitating. As you have learned, facilitation is different from traditional teaching; rather than telling the learners what to do, a facilitator guides the learners and helps to create a context where they can learn effectively.

Forming Groups

A group may form just for a moment, such as when you ask learners to discuss something with the person sitting next to them, or send people into breakout groups to solve a specific problem. Groups may be more persistent across the course, for example when you ask learners to work together on a large, complex project that spans a longer time period. The stakes are higher with a persistent group, but temporary groups still need to be managed.

Allocating Groups

There are two main approaches to allocating learners to groups:

  1. Let the learners pick who they want to work with
  2. the trainer allocates people into groups

There are advantages to both approaches. If learners self-assort into groups, they may be able to work with people they have something in common with, perhaps shared professional interests, or similar approaches to learning, or even a shared background. Many people feel more comfortable and may be able to participate more fully if they have a pre-existing connection to their group.

On the other hand, if groups are allocated, there is a higher chance that learners will meet someone new and potentially form useful contacts. Learners may be exposed to a wider range of ideas and backgrounds. The trainer may simply randomize learners, or may use deliberate strategies to ensure group diversity. For example, if your participants come from different sub-disciplines, you could form groups covering a range of different specialities, such as mixing computer scientists with biologists, or healthcare workers with policy-makers.

Group Dynamics

Some group behaviours promote learning and collaboration. Others are individualistic and may even be detrimental to productive work.

Helpful, task-promoting behaviours Individualistic and detrimental behaviours
Asking and answering relevant questions False consensus / group-think
Offering suggestions Distractions and irrelevant comments
Giving information, explaining concepts Withdrawal from group process
Assigning tasks Taking credit for other’s contributions
Keeping track of progress Disorganization and poor time planning
Sharing resources with the group Competitiveness
Seeking input from all and listening to everybody’s views Talking over others, dominating the discussion, not listening
Supporting or agreeing with others Aggressively insisting on own view
Building on others’ ideas Blocking suggestions, being unreasonably negative
Compromising, smoothing conflict Conflict over disagreements or personality differences

Setting Expectations

If all group members buy in to working together effectively, good experiences are more likely. Strategies may need to be explicitly defined and modelled, since not all learners will have the necessary skills and experience. It can be helpful to set expectations at the start, for example using ground rules or a code of conduct. These may be set by the educators, or you can ask the class or members of persistent smaller groups / teams to reflect together and create rules they will follow.

Group Facilitation

One of the big advantages of dividing a class into groups is that as a trainer / instructor, you can spend focused time with each group, checking everybody’s understanding, answering questions and giving prompts to help the group move along if they are stuck. You may have experienced this informally in situations like a lab practical, where a group of students share equipment and may call the instructor over to help them, leading to useful discussions.

Find a way to visit each group, whether that is circulating round the classroom, or visiting breakout rooms, or taking part in group discussions electronically. Many learners really value these brief but focused conversations with their educators. It is important not to “take over”; the group should remain self-directed and not start to depend on the authority figure.

What do you think are the most important skills needed to facilitate group work effectively?

Do you feel confident in your own skills?

What would you need to learn and practice to be able to facilitate group learning?

© Wellcome Connecting Science
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