Small group teaching by David Jaques

Small group discussion fulfils several important goals of higher education. It encourages students to organise their thinking by comparing ideas and interpretations with each other and to give expression, and hence form, to their understanding of a subject. It is therefore immensely important as a vehicle for learning. Small group discussion has extrinsic value too. There is an increasing need for professionals to demonstrate oral skills in committees and in more general communication with clients and colleagues. Cooperation and teamwork have become essential features of most work situations, as have skills in listening, drawing out information, and persuading. There are greater expectations of the graduates' ability to communicate and this is further underlined by the high standards set by radio and television which make for more critical audiences. But perhaps most importantly, small group discussion can or should give students the chance to monitor their own learning and thus gain a degree of self-direction and independence of the tutors, in their studies. All these purposes are of excellent pedigree. Yet often they are not realised to a satisfactory level and both tutors and students may end up with a sense of frustration.

Content and process

In all human interactions there are two main ingredients - content and process. Content relates to the subject matter or task on which people are working. Process refers to the dynamics of what is happening between those involved. Perhaps because content is more readily definable, or at least examinable, it commonly receives more attention from all concerned. Process, on the other hand, though rarely attended to, is usually what determines whether a group works effectively or not. Group members are often half-aware of the ways in which factors like physical environment, size, cohesion, climate, norms, liaisons, organisational structure, or group goals affect discussion. These factors are common to all groups and an awareness of them, as they become of consequence, should enhance a participant's worth to the group. For no-one is this more true than the leader or tutor who has a crucial position in determining the "success" or "failure" of a discussion group.

Characteristics of a group

  1. Time boundaries
  2. Physical environment
  3. Goup size
  4. Group composition
  5. Communication
  6. Participation
  7. Cohesiveness
  8. Norms
  9. Procedures
  10. Structure
  11. Aims
  12. Tasks
  13. Climate

Leadership interventions

  1. Encouraging interaction
  2. Asking questions
  3. Getting unstuck

Evaluating groups

  1. Evaluation methods