1. Characteristics of a group

1.10 Structure

When a group comes together for the first time and begins to interact, various differences between the members begin to appear: differences in status, influence, role, ability, and so on. The pattern of relationships that is thus established is known as the group structure. The pattern will, of course, change according to the nature of the task or the stage of discussion and the most influential person for one purpose may not be so for another. Where there is no appointed leader, as in tutorless groups, the leadership may, therefore, move round different members of the group. A structure that emerges in these ways is known as the invisible structure.

A visible structure exists when the group agrees a division of labour, roles, and responsibilities, in order to get essential tasks performed. You could for instance distribute a set of roles to the group: initiating, giving and asking for information, giving and asking for reactions, restating and giving examples, confronting and reality testing, clarifying, synthesising and summarising, gatekeeping and expediting, timekeeping, evaluating and diagnosing, standard setting, sponsoring and encouraging. Such a method, though it is valued by some students, may be too socially demanding. A structure that encourages participation is pyramiding, a sequence of stages involving individual work, followed by discussion in pairs, then in fours, and a final session with the whole group or class.

Questions to ask about structure include:

  • What kind of pecking order(s) emerged among the students?
  • What kind of group roles or functions were missing, and what effect did this have?
  • What role did the tutor adopt - instructor, facilitator, chairperson, resource, consultant? Was it clear?
  • Did students have any specified roles?
  • Was the assessment role of the tutor clear to the students?
  • How did the invisible structure match any visible one?
  • How was the invisible structure manifest. Who influences whom, who volunteers, defers to others, etc.?
  • Was the group structure, visible or invisible, appropriate to the task?

<< 1.9 Procedures | 1.11 Aims >>