Navigating small groups

“I’ll save you a seat at the back…”

For someone who now runs (distance-learning) courses for hundreds of students, Chad’s post about the perils of small groups hit home, not least because much of my career until now has been very much about those situations.

In a nutshell, small groups are great because you get that much closer to the kind of individual support we all think is most likely to generate and sustain individual learning, but also crappy because you can’t (reliably) do the kinds of things that work with larger groups.

Like many of us, I got into active learning precisely because it worked better for engaging students than a lecture-and-seminar format.

Put like that, I’m suggesting that perhaps we have to just recognise that small (i.e. 10 or fewer) groups aren’t going to be as conducive to these techniques.

One way I’ve dealt with that is building exercises where individual roles are not exercise-critical: someone’s absence then becomes just another obstacle to be navigated by students, rather than cause to grind to a halt.

For negotiation-style exercises that means not allocating roles like chairs until the class itself, or having generic roles that can flex with attendees.

I also tend to avoid multi-student groups, because that increases the chances of someone deciding they aren’t needed.

Plus, I try to align assessment to attendance, for example by saying students have to reflect on what they’ve done in class.

But mainly, I’ve found that in small groups it makes most sense to just not get into such activity in the first place.

10 of you around a table, having an engaged and detailed discussion about the topic is really valuable and something that we tend not to get very often: put it this way, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone present on that as a pedagogic technique and I doubt it’s because it’s so common.

Channeling your inner Socrates (not that one) is something we have floating around, but seldom get to put to full effect.

Yes, it’s a hard sell and I take Chad’s point that students typically want the easy option, but being able to show them that level of close attention is also a very good way to build value for them. Even if they don’t know or get much, you are able to work with that, especially if you can get everyone in the room pulling along too.

It’s active learning, but with an activer you.


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