Creating a Learning Environment with Group Work

Monday, November 25, 2013

Making participants work in groups is a fun way of engaging the audience. It’s a method used by facilitators (and teachers) all the time. However, there are certain times when group work can be successful, and others when it is not very effective.  Here are some basic guidelines for adding group work into your training.

 Benefits of group work 

  • Group work helps create a more effective and engaging learning environment because it increases participation and experience sharing.
  • Group work encourages participation. As they are not as big as a whole class, small group work allows most participants a chance for expressing themselves. Participants who may be shy in opening up in front of the whole class may feel comfortable talking in a smaller group
  • Group work helps bring out more perspectives because more participants are able to contribute.
  • Group work offers support, but it does not put one individual on the spot. This encourages more people to contribute, even take risks in searching for and sharing answers. Many times wrong answers actually enrich discussions taking discussions even to deeper levels
  • Group work is fun and, therefore, individuals are more engaged. Depending on the topic, there is an energy created in group work, setting off spontaneous competition, good natured humor, and a tedious discussion or topic can become fun. All this creates more dynamics and allows for rich debriefs. 

Design considerations of group work 

  • While any topic may be suitable for group work, the exercise has to be designed to suit group work. Case Studies are great for group work or group discussion after a session. For other topics you can create group quizzes or get groups to work on specific problems or  scenarios related to the topic
  • It may be best to form groups through random assignment (counting off 1-2-3-4 will do). This is especially true if you know that the groups of friends will not result in productive discussion. In other circumstances, you can allow groups with friends or those who want to be in their own groups—maybe when the discussion is not central or critical to your pedagogy.  
  • Sometimes you may want to create groups to represent a group in the organization or context. For example, you may have a group that is say multi-generational or multifunctional if the topic requires it.
  • Sometimes you may spontaneously decide to do a group activity, but try to design the group activity in advance. Have a plan in mind, in case you want to use group work on the spot. This includes how many people you want in each group and how many groups you can have in the session
  • Groups that are very large (more than six to eight participants) may not be very effective, so decide how many groups you want in your session, depending on the total number of participants and if group work makes sense.
  • Size of the room and room layout can affect your group work. Sometimes you may have to change the original activity to consider these constraints.
  • You must provide materials, such as papers, pens, data, and so forth to work with, so have enough supplies for all groups.
  • Even with six to eight participants, sometimes you may need to create “subgroups within the group. Observe and use for debrief. 

Situations to avoid group work

  • Avoid group work when a class that is not motivated. Energy and morale are low. In this instance, try other means to engage participants, or first uncover the issues. Do this at your own comfort levels.
  • Avoid group work when group participation is already low, attendees are quiet, or attendees are already chatting about other things. If you know this may happen, or if you see it happen, it is best to assign individuals to different groups to ensure that participation is optimum.

Facilitation guidelines for group work

  • Schedule plenty of time in your session plan for group work and group discussion.
  • Create activities that have some specific outcomes. For example, a case study or a group discussion should elicit learning from the groups and, hopefully, give different perspectives on the topic from different group experiences.
  • Always create observation sheets. Even if you do not have well-structured observation sheets, at least jot down points you want to observe, so you do not miss important data
  • Go around the class observing. Keep your ears open and listen. Make notes on who is participating, who is not, who is leading, make a note of anything interesting you see and hear.
  • If you are going to appoint observers, tell them what to observe, how many times, and so on. If relevant, ask them to take notes.
  • During group work, as far as possible do not interfere with the groups, and let them work on their own, unless the situation needs intervention. Do not advice or give opinions unless the group wants to clarify some content or instructions.
  • At the end of group work, allow the group observers and group leaders to share experiences. Then ask the group to contribute and give feedback. This makes everyone feel included and gives everyone a chance to express, which is very important.
  • Debrief with reference to the organizational context, and the lessons learnt. Always bring closure to issues which may have come up during the group discussion or even interactions between participants during group work.
  • When you see a participant very quiet or not being included, depending on the situation and topic, you may want to nudge the group to include everyone, or observe this and use this feedback during debrief. You do not have to name names. 
About the Author

Swati Karve has 20 years of experience in instructional design and facilitation. She has conducted training programs for many for-profit and nonprofit organizations, for all levels of employees including senior management. She also has designed and facilitated train-the-trainer programs, and teaches the ATD Essentials course Managing Challenging Classroom Behaviors. Karve has contributed to various ATD publications, and writes blogs for the ATD Learning & Development Community of Practice. She is author of the August 2013 Infoline titled “Planning and Organizing Training Events.” Karve also has been teaching courses in psychology and management for past 20 years for undergraduate and graduate students in India and United States. She has her own consulting firm, Arcturus Global Consulting, and lives and works in Troy, Michigan.

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