When it comes to learning, the benefits of small groups are undeniable. However, there is more than one way to learn in a group, depending on what you are trying to achieve. Finding the right group design is essential to reap the benefits of group learning.
Although there is abundant research evidence regarding benefits of group learning, it is still rarely employed as a method to improve the learning outcome. A study by the CFA institute reveals that only 5-9% of the candidates who prepared to take CFA exams (a widely recognized finance qualification) actually made use of study groups.
This contrasts sharply with the results of over 168 studies showing that cooperative group learning yields significantly better results than traditional competitive or individual learning style.
Why Group Learning Matters
The main benefit of learning in a group is linked to the fact that “students can engage in discussions in which they construct and extend conceptual understanding of what is being learned and develop shared mental models of complex phenomena. Group members can hold students accountable to learn, provide feedback on how well they are doing, and give support and encouragement for further attempts to learn” Johnson et al. 2014
With the emergence of new online learning solutions, the still limited use of learning groups, outside the academic context, could be about to change and you might enjoy a whole new experience. In order to understand what makes a good group learning experience, two questions are essential:
- What is the right group size
- What is the right group design
Let us dive a bit deeper into these two questions before we discuss how things might change.
Benefits of Small Groups: The Right Group Size
One of the issues most of us have encountered (or caused) when involved in group work is the free rider problem. One or several members of the group rely on the work of other group members and reap the benefits without putting in the work. The larger the group, the more exacerbated this issue becomes. A smaller group reduces the risk of free riding.
Another problem of groups is to get everyone involved and feeling part of the group. Again, the larger the group, the more difficult it becomes to communicate effectively and involve everyone in the discussion.
According to MIT, the right size for a group is 3-5 people. Beyond this size, it also becomes increasingly difficult to organise tasks and achieve consensus.
Setting Group Design
The second key feature to successful group learning is group design. We all remember, either at school or work, being involved in group work without any clear instructions or goals. This leads to procrastination and low group effectiveness. In order to achieve success in a group several conditions must be met and these depend on the purpose of the group.
Based on Johnson et al. 2014, research is focused around 3 types of group learning:
- Cooperative learning
- Collaborative learning
- Problem based learning
All of these approaches have one common denominator: they are focused on active learning vs. passive individual learning. While cooperative learning is more structured and geared towards a strong role distribution and external input from an instructor, collaborative learning provides more freedom to group members to decide how to structure their activities (Davidson & Major, 2014). The collaborative set-up seems therefore more suitable in a context where group members have already gained experience on the subject.
Problem based learning, as the name suggests, is designed for groups which have to solve a clearly defined problem. It is situated somewhere between collaborative and cooperative design in terms of structure. Beyond this, Johnson et al. underline that several conditions that need to be met to achieve cooperation in a group:
Use the Benefits of Small Groups in your Learning Process
Extensive research has been conducted in an academic setting and surely group learning is now widely used in academics. But how about personal learning and development? Imagine you want to learn how to create a website, improve your negotiation skills or learn how to create podcasts in your free time? Then you should consider learning in a small group.
Everyone nowadays makes use of online resources to acquire deeper knowledge or learn a new skill. However, knowledge is still predominantly acquired through individual learning which excludes the possibility to leverage the benefits of small groups. For instance, Youtube videos, e-books or podcasts are all passive forms of learning. Also forums or Facebook groups do not offer the possibility to benefit from cooperative or collaborative learning due their large size and the lack of adequate group design. It is however clear that a cooperative and collaborative group learning approach could generate substantial benefits for learners out there.
How Vennquest Can Help You to Find and Manage Your Group
We created Vennquest to make it easy to start or find groups for practical projects in many different areas. If you’re curious to see how much easier it is to practice skills together in groups then why don’t you sign up and join a group that interests you. We will immediately be in contact with you and help you to find some group members and to get the whole thing started. Join our beta test phase now and finally get the practice that you need to do the things you always wanted to do.