In an age when active involvement of learners is recognized as crucial to effective learning, teachers and instructors in all settings are using group discussions as a method to promote more active involvement.
While some critics caution that brain-based learning research tells us there is still a need for time for individual reflection, it is hard to deny the fact that group activities promote more active involvement on the part of most learners. In addition, they are cost-effective and relatively easy to implement.
Teachers look for creative ways to structure group tasks, but some fail to recognize the importance of effective group functioning in achieving learning objectives. Simply turning over a task to a group is often not enough. The group must be able to function to perform the task while at the same time achieving beneficial learning outcomes for each participant in the group.
The academic discipline of Social Psychology has been studying how individuals perform in groups for decades. While there may be some debate over some issues, a review of the literature reveals five key dimensions for group functioning cited by most experts. Although there are differences in terminology, the underlying meaning is the same. The following five dimensions were popularized by Organizational Psychologists Robert Blake and Jane Mouton in their book, Spectacular Teamwork. Here are the dimensions:
1. Power and authority
2. Roles and responsibilities
3. Norms and standards
4. Morale and cohesion
5. Goals and objectives.
All groups – even those coming together for the first time – will exhibit these dimensions to varying degrees depending on their personal experience. In seminar and workshop settings, participants come from organizations structured under a “boss.” In the absence of a designated leader, some groups may choose to elect one. In other cases, a member emerges to fill the role. The point is, at some level, someone in the group must have or take the power and authority to provide direction to the group.
In some highly structured work groups, roles and responsibilities for different aspects of group functioning are assigned. Person A might be the designated timekeeper while Person B is the designated group recorder. In other cases, roles are assumed and different members may play different roles at different times.
Norms and standards are guidelines for acceptable behavior. For example, some work groups have discussion standards that only allow participation when the leader recognizes an individual. Other groups have norms that allow some individuals to contribute little to the discussion without being challenged. In a seminar setting, these norms and standards will develop over time, but initially, they are nothing more than the sum total of the experiences of the participants.
In the early stages of development, groups lack cohesion or a sense of togetherness. Consequently, morale is often neutral. Over time, effective functioning leads to increased cohesion and successful outcomes breeds a sense of morale.
Finally, all groups have goals and objectives. The most obvious is the group outcome as defined by the task. However, each individual in that group has his or her own goals and there can be a great deal of divergence across those goals. In some cases, individual goals can actually be at cross-purposes, making it difficult for the group as a whole to work towards a common objective.