Teachers and Instructors everywhere committed to finding ways to increase the active involvement of students in their own learning are turning to group discussion sessions.
In theory, a discussion amongst peers about different aspects of the content they are learning should be an ideal way to engage the minds of all students and thus increase their learning.
In practice, however, there are significant conditions that must be present in order for a group discussion to achieve the desired affect. A group discussion is not some kind of magic bullet, guaranteed to increase what students learn and retain.
Group discussion of any kind requires certain skills and conditions to be present in the participants for the discussion to be effective. Here are three of the most important keys to consider:
- Communication Skills
- Conflict Resolution Skills
Communication: There are individuals who are simply not comfortable talking in groups, especially with others they do not know and trust. In addition, some learners come from backgrounds where sharing ideas and opinions is not only not encouraged, but also actually frowned upon.
If you are conducting a training seminar with employees from a work culture that expects workers to do what they are told without comment or input, the communication skills needed for discussion are not likely to be present.
Conflict Resolution: While there are occasions where a group discussion calls for nothing more than a sharing of opinion, most well structured discussions establish some kind of outcome the participants are expected to produce. The result might be a decision or a written list of comparison points.
In those cases, the group must reach agreement on their final product, which is typically shared with the entire class at the end of the discussion. However, some participants have little experience with resolving differences of opinions. This is especially true with participants with low communication skills.
Participation: While it is not necessary for everyone in a group to participate equally in the discussion, it is hard to imagine learning taking place within those learners who prefer to remain involved. Yet lack of verbal participation is not a foolproof guarantee an individual is not involved and hence not learning. It is conceivable that some learners are involved with their minds, if not with their mouths.
Some teachers might view these issues as potential reasons to avoid including group discussion sessions, especially for critical content areas. Others recognize that the required skills can develop over time and choose instead to understand fully the backgrounds and capabilities of their learners and structure group discussions accordingly.
Simply put, groups lacking in communication and conflict resolution skills require discussion tasks with more structure and direction than groups with those skills. In addition, these groups require more frequent monitoring from the instructor and even direct involvement to get the group back on track where necessary.
Perhaps when all is said and done, the most important key to effective group discussion in educational settings is the commitment of the teacher to do whatever is necessary to make it work.