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July 19, 2010 / mauricefli

Working with Groups: small is functional (and beautiful :-)

After just a few weeks of living in a 30 something square metre apartment in Tokyo I realised how clever small spaces can be – less house work, less distance to things I really need and less room for junk to clutter my life. E. F. Schumacher‘s concept of ‘small is beautiful’ has also become a very practical part of my teaching over the years too. As we turn to online modes of engaging learners with teaching materials small is often a very good way to get more students to take more responsibility for their own learning and achieve better results.

This semester a number of Faculty of Commerce (FoC) courses are including Learn forums in their class activities. These, of course, are a key part of student participation and ownership of online material. Ideas bootstrap each other, asynchronous inter-action allows time for reflective posts, second language students have more time to edit their contributions and … but more on forums another time. I digress.

Feed back from academics facilitating forums and other activities on Learn already indicates that whole class activities have limited value just as they do in face-to-face learning. In a lecture theatre of 100 students only the confident are willing to stand up and ask a question or offer a contribution. And as we all know, confidence and quality of contribution are rarely the same. Logistically too, large group interactions are a poor way to use class time on most occasions.  One, 15 second contribution from 100 participants, for, example, chews up 25 minutes – even  if we could tolerate the tedium!

Much more productive and engaging are small groups – let’s put our 100 face-to face learners into groups of four for a five-minute discussion. With the right task, each of them speaks for,  say, a minute, then re-groups with three new partners in a re-grouping and reports on their task in the first group for a second five minutes period. Suddenly our individual student’s contribution goes from a 15 second contribution to a two x one minute ones, she has to remember, analyse, create, explain, take responsibility in that space!

The “down-side”? Well, of course as a teacher/monitor wanting to give feedback and keep control over where things are going suddenly you have to focus on not one student but 10! The rule is, the more participation you encourage, the less direct control you have. But that is not necessarily bad. There is no proven link between dominance and learning.  Less ‘control’ from you means you are probably devolving more responsibility to learners. And that means you may need to train them to accept this meta-role. But the fact is that most of us love to be be offered the chance be accountable and students in small groups overwhelmingly respond well to gettting on with the tasks you set them, and even better to the ones they set themselves.

The good news is we can now do that and more on-line. Group forums in Learn, for instance, allow students to do all the things the face-to-face small groups do but with the added ability to upload resources they have found to the discussion, provide links to other websites with relevant resources, and give and get feedback from both peers and tutors.

Have you tried group work in face-to-face or online contexts? How did it go? I’d love to share your experiences.


Select "Groups" from your Learn page Administration

Hint: you need to set up your groups in Learn before you set up the activity you want to use them in.

If you’re interested in setting up group work in your course get in touch and I’d be delighted to help.



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