Students In Groups Vs. Individual Learning

One of the most exciting developments in modern education goes by the name of cooperative (or collaborative) learning and has children working in pairs or small groups. An impressive collection of studies has shown that participation in well-functioning cooperative groups leads students to feel more positive about themselves, about each other, and about the subject they’re studying. Students also learn more effectively on a variety of measures when they can learn with each other instead of against each other or apart from each other. Cooperative learning works with kindergartners and graduate students, with students who struggle to understand and students who pick things up instantly; it works for math and science, language skills and social studies, fine arts and foreign languages.

Alfie Kohn from Punished By Rewards

Students In Groups Vs. Individual Learning

In the traditional face-to-face classroom setting the instructor controls the in-class learning agenda utilizing pacing and style of learning through the lens of a monopoly of information. Given the immediacy of access to large volumes of information and an increasingly collaborative environment that is the virtual classroom this traditional type of instructional model may be less applicable in the modern world on online learning. Non-traditional techniques and instructional paradigms (methods) must be considered and implemented to guarantee better results for both student and teacher. To that end designers of course content must consider alternate strategies which will work best for the online environment.

It has been shown that group collaboration can be used to positively affect learning outcomes for students and teachers alike: for students by encouraging critical thinking skills in the context of the course work, for teachers freeing them up from the normal processes of day-to-day teaching: course and lesson plans, instructional notes etc., allowing them to focus on other design related considerations . My feeling is that this forces students into types of communication and interaction which might not normally occur in the face-to-face classroom environment.

This is not to say that techniques and strategies from the traditional setting cannot be adapted to the online environment but rather that they may become another tool to use effectively with some prior consideration. Several questions arise when considering the use of groups in the online environment to complete course work. How do group dynamics affect learning in the online environment? Should students be allowed to choose which group of people they associate with to complete online assignments or should this be an instructor driven consideration?

Advantages of Online Group Work

Listed below are factors which positively affect student outcomes when groups are used in online course work:

  • critical thinking is encouraged and stimulated;
  • there is a free exchange of relevant ideas information, and course related  concepts with associated student interaction;
  • problem solving is encouraged;
  • normal geographic and time constraints are less of an influence on students;
  • discussions which occur will take place on a higher levels: such as evaluation, analysis or synthesis;
  • develops a sense of cooperation and teamwork, creating a social framework between geographically distanced students;
  • encourages peer-to-peer feedback;
  • heterogeneous groups encourage differing points of view, discussion and better learning;
  •  encourages reflection.

Disadvantages of Online Group Work

Listed below are factors which may negatively affect student outcomes when groups are used in online course work:

  • poor group dynamics may affect student outcomes;
  • not all students may contribute at the same level;
  • subject matter may not be conducive to group work (a very real concern for the courses I am considering);
  •  without direction the group may take valuable time to sort out roles, meaning there must be direction from the instructor;
  • groups which are more homogeneous in nature may isolate or alienate individual members.

Should Groups Be Self-defining or Instructor Selected?

The question above is problematic as no matter which way the course designer decides to place the emphasis someone may suffer. Those students who learn best on their own may not like or see the need for group work. The majority of adult students who engage in online learning are self-motivated, enthusiastic learners who wish to be considered in the educational process. They have engaged themselves and decided to take an online offering for any one of a variety of reasons: location relative to the institution, work and time constraints, course material which may not otherwise be available, pacing better suited to student needs and abilities, and economy. A fine balance must be struck between allowing these motivated students to choose their own path and ensuring that in the process of forming and achieving course goals and objectives fairness and equality are guaranteed for all students of the course.

Instructors considering the inclusion of group work as an alternative for some portions of online content must concern themselves with guaranteeing the heterogeneity of groups. This will ensure there is the best chance of a balanced perspective for all students in the group with appropriate representation in relation to gender, age, ethnicity, language capability, etc., with all the benefits which arise naturally from this as noted above; benefits which include the free exchange of ideas and information, the development of higher level thinking processes, reflection and the stimulation of critical thinking.

Whichever method is used be it instructor assignment or student choice of who joins what group, there must be adequate mechanisms in place to ensure that all students are satisfied with their group, that all students are contributing equally and that the group individually and as a whole is getting the best learning from the experience. Some alternatives might include the use of performance rubrics or forum posts which are posted between members of each group and the instructor.to evaluate individual participation.

The key consideration, as with any course design, is the employment of specific strategies which apply to the educational needs at hand which are inherent to the objectives and goals as pre-set in the course structure. Group work may not work well for all types of courses or materials and this must be considered from the outset of the design process as well.  It follows then that we must seriously consider group work as yet another tool in the box to be used to best effect for our student’s benefit but not become so caught up in the whirlwind that we include it in material for which it may not be relevant. If we do use this tool it must be in a manner which ties directly to best practices.

References:

Instructional Strategies for Online Courses, Illinois Online Network,  http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/pedagogy/instructionalstrategies.asp#SMALL%20GROUP%20WORK;

Scott D. Johnson and Steven R. Aragon, An Instructional Strategy Framework for Online Learning Environments, published in: http://education.illinois.edu/sites/default/files/online/general/NewDirections_OnlineStrat.pdf; (undated);

Becker, Karen L. (2003) Just Tell Me What to Do: Group Dynamics in a Virtual Environment . In Proceedings Women in Research Conference, Rockhampton, Australia as retrieved from: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/12187/1/12187.pdf ;

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