Cover Story

Two heads–or more–may be better than one when students are learning new information.

Indeed, research has shown that students working in small groups tend to learn more and retain the content longer than with other instructional methods, according to educational psychologist Barbara Gross Davis, PhD, in her book "Tools for Teaching" (Jossey-Bass, 1993).

For example, Pamela George, PhD, an educational psychology professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Education, found that students working in collaborative groups received higher exam scores and reported more positive attitudes toward classroom instruction than students who worked alone. The study appeared in the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching (Vol. 5, No. 1, pages 21–30).

Group work enables students to bounce ideas off one another and may even boost student motivation since the group's success often depends on each member's participation, adds former APA president Diane Halpern, PhD, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Group work also helps students fine tune their personal interaction skills, suggests Thomas McGovern, PhD, an Arizona State University psychology professor who speaks at APA teaching-development workshops.

By working in groups, he says, students "are also learning to listen, to respond clearly to one another, and to revise their thinking by the perspectives of others joined in a common task."

When to use groups

In "Tools for Teaching," Davis describes the following three types of group work:

  •  Informal learning groups: These are temporary groups, where students gather during class to discuss a teacher-posed question or problem.

  •  Formal learning groups: Students work on a more involved, specific task, such as writing a paper together or conducting a lab experiment.

For example, Sheena Walker, a second-year counseling psychology doctoral student at Tennessee State University and a teaching assistant for a general psychology class, assigns groups a chapter in the psychology textbook to present to the class. The students, she says, take more responsibility in learning the material because, not only are they assessed by other group members, but they have to be able to articulate the information to the rest of the class.

  •  Study teams: These are long-term groups which may stretch over the entire semester, in which students provide support to one another and help each other in assignments.

For example, Karin Hodges, a fourth-year clinical psychology student at Antioch New England Graduate School, used small groups to help her students practice the skills they learned in an introductory clinical skills course. As a teaching assistant, she facilitates groups in which one student plays the role of a client, another plays the role of the therapist and the third observes, and then they discuss their performance.

"Small group learning opportunities bring students together in a way that lets them see each other's strengths and struggles," Hodges says. "Students feel comforted by the fact that they are not alone in their initial fears or anxieties."

In any case, small groups aren't "filler periods" for when you don't have enough prepared for class; rather, they should be chosen for a specific purpose, McGovern advises.

Instructors who want to control how difficult content is presented and make sure students come away with the same information may want to avoid small group activities for that particular unit, says Loreto Prieto, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Akron.

But, when you want to have students apply what they've learned or have discussions about the content with others, group work may be the answer, experts say.

For example, Todd Vance, a fourth-year clinical psychology doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), divided students in his "Psychology of Religious Experience" course into groups to develop a scale to measure religion or spirituality. He wanted the students to experience the difficulty of measuring and defining such terms and illustrate gaps in religion and spirituality research.

Creating effective groups

But how can you ensure students achieve the learning objectives you want them to in their group work? Experts offer the following tips:

  •  Focus the project. Provide each group with a specific objective–such as a set of questions to answer–and make your expectations clear, experts say.

"It's really not just ‘get in groups and go learn,'" says Halpern. "It requires prep time on the teacher's part."

  •  Create heterogeneous groups. Groups made up of like-minded friends may not work together as effectively as heterogeneous groups, experts say.

"I want them to get different input, and I want them to sit with someone they don't know," says Halpern, who assigns students to groups.

Ellie Zarrabian, a third-year clinical psychology doctoral student at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco, often uses group work when she covers the social psychology section in her introductory psychology class at Santa Monica Junior College by having students get into groups of mixed races and genders to talk about their diverse backgrounds and their gender roles.

Psychologists Thomas Kramer, PhD, and James Korn, PhD, who have spoken at APA teaching development workshops, suggests that groups be limited in size–no more than four to nine students. More than that, they say, can make it difficult for each student to contribute. The two also recommend changing the groups' composition occasionally to allow students to encounter different learning styles.

  •  Pay attention to group dynamics. McGovern advises instructors to circulate among groups, listen and consult on an as-needed basis. Barbara Nodine, PhD, chair of Arcadia University's psychology department, also suggests letting the group choose a group facilitator–someone to manage the discussion and keep it on track. Have another student take notes and report the main points to the entire class.

  •  Hold each group member accountable. To ensure that each group member contributes, Nodine provides her class with a list of group member names so they can anonymously rate each member's participation–as well as their own. Neil Lutsky, PhD, a psychology professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., may have each student write a report or presentation to guarantee they have participated in the project.

  •  Share final work with the class. Prieto makes sure the groups share what they discovered so the entire class can benefit each group's work. But be careful of a class filled with group presentations, which might cause students to tune out, Halpern says. Use group presentations as a way for students to connect with the content and apply it to real-world situations, she advises. For instance, some faculty may have students bring in relevant newspaper articles or research to discuss in groups and then, ultimately, share with the class.

Such strategies succeed because group work allows students to feel more relaxed, Zarrabian says.

"Even if you just put them in small groups and have them discuss the lecture topic among themselves, the energy of the class really changes," Zarrabian says. "They warm up to each other, learn from one another, break down barriers and integrate the material better while remaining more energetic throughout the semester.

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a writer in Chicago.