Clinical Review ABC of learning and teaching in medicine

Teaching small groups

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7387.492 (Published 01 March 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:492
  1. David Jaques

    Group discussion plays a valuable role in the all-round education of students, whether in problem based learning and team projects or in the more traditional academic scenario of the tutorial or seminar. When it works well, discussion can allow students to negotiate meanings, express themselves in the language of the subject, and establish closer contact with academic staff than more formal methods permit. Discussion can also develop the more instrumental skills of listening, presenting ideas, persuading, and working as part of a team. But perhaps most importantly, discussion in small groups can or should give students the chance to monitor their own learning and thus gain a degree of self direction and independence in their studies.

    “By separating teaching from learning, we have teachers who do not listen and students who do not talk”

    Based on Palmer P (The Courage to Teach. Jossey Bass, 1998)

    Problems associated with leading effective small groups

    • The teacher gives a lecture rather than conducting a dialogue

    • The teacher talks too much

    • Students cannot be encouraged to talk except with difficulty; they will not talk to each other, but will only respond to questions from the tutor

    • Students do not prepare for the sessions

    • One student dominates or blocks the discussion

    • The students want to be given the solutions to problems rather than discuss them

    All these worthy aims require active participation and the ready expression of ideas. Yet it frequently doesn't work out this way. Indeed many tutors too readily fall back on their reserve positions of authority, expert, and prime talker. Many of the problems associated with leading small groups effectively are likely to be exacerbated with larger groups. So how can we avoid the common traps?

    If you are leading a group discussion you will need to consider both the configuration of the group and your own behaviour. …

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