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Best Practices for Group Learning in Higher Education

April 9, 2012 by Hanover Research


By Colin Kavanaugh

Students must do more than listen to learn, and their professors must do more than lecture to teach—This is the theory underlying “group learning,” also known as “collaborative learning,” “peer learning,” or “cooperative learning.” Central to this educational method is the premise that “students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats.” Moreover, research has shown that collaboration can promote personal reflection on coursework and mutual assessment between peers. For this reason, colleges and universities are increasingly integrating group learning exercises into their curricula as a means of promoting independent thought and healthy collaboration. In 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities highlighted collaborative learning as a ‘high impact educational practice.’

Unlike a traditional lecture, instructors must deliberately construct group-friendly assignments and supervise students to ensure productive collaboration. Research recommends several key methods for fostering positive, small-group collaboration. Specifically, collaborative groups should:

  • Be designated by the instructor – This produces more positive experiences than allowing students to choose the groups themselves.

  • Remain relatively stable (consistent) throughout the semester, to allow group members to develop cohesion and investment in one another.

  • Comprise a few individuals, rather than many, to improve the logistics of arranging to meet outside of class, and to facilitate student interaction and participation in assignments.

Instructors must also be able to effectively assess student behavior in small group learning exercises. Researchers recommend multiple strategies to support successful discussions and ensure an equitable and fair division of responsibility. Larry Michaelsen, L. Dee Fink, and Arletta Knight, of the University of Oklahoma, argue in favor of a central set of criteria for effective group-learning:

  • Require a high level of individual accountability for group members. Instructors should ensure that each assignment requires input from every member of the group.

  • Promote substantial discussion between group members. Assignments should be designed to integrate knowledge and information from all members of a group.

  • Ensure that students receive direct, immediate feedback from their peers and the professor.

  • Provide rewards for positive group performance. Without obvious “pay-offs” for good work, some group members may not feel motivated to work with their peers.

Despite an instructor’s best efforts, some common obstacles may nonetheless arise. Research has shown that when not properly organized and carefully monitored, small learning groups are likely to face several issues:

  • Social Loafing: Students resist efforts to collaborate with others, either due to their introverted nature or a desire to allow other group members to shoulder the burden of the assignment. Michaelsen, Fink and Knight note that “if left unchecked, the conditions that produce social loafing can prevent the development of the social fabric that is necessary for effectively functioning learning groups.”

  • Student Dominance: Some students—whether based on a natural extroversion or intellectual confidence—may dominate group discussion, to the detriment of full student participation.

  • Instructor Resistance is another major obstacle that can undermine the success of a group learning exercise. If a professor is resistant to group learning, or is unprepared to facilitate it, group exercises are likely to be unsuccessful. Researchers have noted that “there is still a resistance and hesitation in higher education to transform traditional college classes into cooperative learning environments.”

Ultimately, successful group learning hinges on the organization of group-friendly assignments that foster equitable discussion and promote meaningful feedback. Group learning should not be a test of strength for the most extroverted students in a classroom, but should instead treat every student as a unique contributor to class discussion.