One primary learning goal I set for students in my classes is for you to develop an ability to write critically and analytically about any number of topics and concerns (See Developing Skills in Critical Writing and Philosophical Writing). After all, strong writing skills are highly valued by employers. But I am committed also to assisting you in enhancing your oral communication skills. Excellent communication skills are crucial to success in the workplace, especially if you aspire to a leadership position in your chosen career. One of the key ways in which students strengthen their communication skills in my courses is through engaging in cooperative learning in small group discussions.
In the pages that follow, I describe characteristics of small group discussions in my classes. I discuss also how you can be an effective participant in these discussions. I talk about group member roles as well as about ways in which we evaluate the success of our group work. I list some strategies for success in group work that you may want to implement. I describe getting started with small group discussions. I look also at reframing disagreements in constructive ways and opening our eyes to differences among group members. Finally, I offer a check list for evaluating your skills in effective class participation.
What are the characteristics of small group discussion in my classes? When you take one of my classes, you will observe that we use small groups to generate ideas in preparation for a lecture, film etc.; summarize main points in a text or reading; assess levels of skill and understanding; reexamine ideas presented in previous classes; review exams, problems, quizzes, and writing assignments; process learning outcomes at the end of class; compare and contrast theories, issues, and interpretations; solve problems that relate theory to practice; and brainstorm applications of theory to life.
How can you be an effective participant in class discussions in my courses? In their book, "Cooperative Learning," Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (Washington DC, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, 1991) describe five characteristics of effective in-class discussions. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about ways you can act on their recommendations. To the extent that you can meet their objectives, you will enhance communication skills that are of value in the classroom now. These skills will also be viewed favorably by employers in the future.
Positive interdependence: The group sinks or swims together.
We achieve this goal in small group discussions in my courses when each group member shares a group task, a mutual goal, and common resources (a shared text or problem).
Face-to-face interaction and advocacy: Students help each other learn.
We achieve the goal of assisting, encouraging, and supporting each other in learning by the way we structure our classroom seating. Students are more able to learn together when you face each other in small circles. Students also support each other in learning when you make a commitment to solve problems jointly through discussion and shared explanations.
At first you may be disconcerted by group discussions. Sometimes students in my classes who have never participated in small groups approach their assigned tasks in highly individualistic ways. For example, rather than work together on a series of questions they have been asked to discuss, they decide that each student will work alone on one of the questions and share her/his answer with the others. I discourage the privatization of group work. More effective cooperative learning occurs when students maintain a commitment to sharing insights with each other. Four or five heads are better than one when it comes to responding to an assignment.
Individual accountability: Each group member has a responsibility to contribute to the group and do her/his "fair share."
Although small group work tends not to proceed well when students divide portions of an assignment among themselves, thereby privatizing the assignment, small group work is enhanced when students divide group member roles among themselves. Typical roles include:
When students exercise these roles, they develop skills in leading, making decisions, building trust, and managing conflict. All of these skills are of value in todays workplace.
Group processing: Each group concludes their work together by sharing the results of their work with others.
We achieve the goal of sharing with others when we devote time in class for reports from groups. Listening to each other facilitates your learning. When you present your work to others you arrive at a better sense of which aspects of an assignment you understand and which need further discussion and reflection. Group reports also enable me to do my job better. One of my key responsibilities in class is to facilitate evaluation of your work. I listen to group reports in order to determine on which areas in our assignment students need further work. I offer guidance and further help with the assignment based on what I hear in the group reports.
Group assessment: Each group needs to regularly assess the effectiveness of its communication strategies and seek ways to improve group communication.
Periodically, we reserve time in class to assess group dynamics. What is working? What isnt? How can the groups function more effectively?
You can proactively contribute to making your group work a success. In the section below are listed strategies for group success. These strategies are drawn from Promoting Active Learning by Chet Meyers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993), Collaborative Learning edited by Kris Bosworth and Sharon Hamilton (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994), and Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).
Extroverts and introverts: A Question of Style
Persons who embrace an extroverted communication style like to think out loud, composing their thoughts on the fly. They may be uncomfortable with silence in a group.
Persons who embrace an introverted communication style like to think privately on an issue, listen to what everyone else has to say, and then speak their mind. They often are comfortable with extended periods of silence in a group.
A balance of group contributions occurs when group members appreciate varied communication styles while encouraging each other to step out of form on occasion: persons who favor an extroverted style need to periodically relax and silently ruminate about an issue; persons who favor an introverted style need periodically to be encouraged to contribute, even if they havent worked out the problem fully in their heads yet.
Gender and cultural differences:
Sometimes students assign each other roles in groups based on gender socialization, relying on communication styles with which they are most comfortable in social settings. Groups work together best when group members experiment with a variety of roles in groups, even those with which they dont have as much experience.
Sometimes differences in cultural backgrounds make group communication difficult. You may have grown up in a community (in a different region of the U.S. or in a different country) in which communication styles are significantly different than those you are encountering at UNI. Typical cultural differences in patterns of communication include greater or less degrees of bluntness, greater or less assertiveness in speech, and a preference for either direct conversation or for roundabout and indirect conversation. Groups work together best when members exercise a sensitivity to these differences, value their uniqueness, and remain open to talking to each other despite their differences.
Minefields of Egothink and Clonethink:
Group work can become frustrating if a group member puts all his or her energy into expressing his or her view and no energy at all into listening to others and reaching understanding as a group. But group work misfires also when a group member puts no energy at all into the group effort, quickly agreeing with the first statement offered and deciding that the conversation is over. Effective groups monitor the energy levels in their conversation: there is a middle road between the monopolizing tendencies of Egothink and the passive stances of Clonethink. What leads to an excellent discussion? All members agree to an extended conversation in which all share their views. When they move gradually but steadily toward the integration and synthesis of views, creative, high-energy, and effective learning occurs among all members of the group.
If you are wondering about your skills in group discussion, think back about a recent class discussion. Then look at the list that follows. If you can say that you regularly achieved the outcomes on this list, you have solid group communication skills. If you occasionally or rarely achieve these outcomes, review strategies for success listed above, and try implementing some of them in future class discussions.
Now that you have reviewed these strategies for success, you may have noticed something that I missed. As you recall the most memorable classroom discussions in which you have participated, what strategies for success were present? I would love to add your ideas to suggestions listed here. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
© Martha J. Reineke. Please send correspondence to email@example.com