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The concepts discussed in the following sections of this reference form the foundation for small-group instructional methods. Central to the approach is the use of the social-psychological forces in small groups to enhance and maximize the conditions under which learning occurs.

In the final analysis, the responsibility for learning must rest with the individual student. Learning can occur only within the individual, and he/she must be the final determinant of whether change will, in fact, take place. Thus, the old axiom which states that "if the learner hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught" can never be altogether true. But the fundamental responsibility of every instructor is to create around the student those conditions that will be most conducive to learning. This is, in effect, the role of the teacher.

Small-group methods of instruction are one approach to the creation of conditions conducive to learning. Regardless of the particular method used, the rationale for small-group instruction rests upon the premise that learning is partly a function of attitudes, and education or training is a matter of overcoming resistance to change. This can be accomplished by discussing issues or problems and, in many instances, arriving at decisions about how they might be handled. Because the group resolves the problem itself with each student participating, members are committed to the solution through the functioning of group norms endorsing the new ideas or behaviors. Under this rationale, two purposes are assumed to be accomplished: (a) students get new insights into problems by hearing many different viewpoints and by having their own ideas critiqued and (b) they learn new ways of behaving to which they are committed because of group discussion and decision.

For maximum change to occur, a group must possess a common goal for learning, a reasonable degree of cohesiveness, norms conducive to learning, and patterns of effective communication - in short, a learning culture. In permanently structured groups, these ingredients may already be present. However, in most instructional situations, where students usually meet for short periods spread over weeks or months, instructors must create and develop the requisite structure and processes of the group. The various methods used in small-group instruction are merely devices for accomplishing these purposes.


The current rationale begins with the premise that genuine learning involves a change in behavior. In short, if the student does not behave differently after the course than he/she did before, learning has not occurred. Following from such a pragmatic approach, the targets of education and training must be: (a) growth within the individual and change in his/her behavior and (b) deeper and broader goals than the mere transmission of knowledge.

The acquisition of knowledge through solely cognitive processes is one important aspect of individual growth. However, knowledge that remains merely cognitive cannot influence an individual's ability to function effectively. What is needed is a translation of knowledge so that it becomes genuinely significant in the experience of the learner.

Knowledge is important to the learner only as it contributes to modification of skills, attitudes, or the internal dynamics of the personality. According to this view, effective learning is insightful, meaningful learning, and isolated information and principles (not tied to problems perceived by the learner as related to his/her life and needs) contribute little to the insight process. Such information and principles are not really "understood." If retained at all, they are pigeonholed or converted to abstractions which possess no real significance for performance.

Learning which can be used is not a matter of filling a void with information. It is a process of reorganization of complex thought patterns, perceptions, assumptions, attitudes, feelings, and skills, and of relating these reorganized concepts to the external world and the problems faced in it. Thus, the learning process is effective only when something dynamic takes place within the learner.

Such learning must be active, participative, and involving. It is best accomplished through continuing experimentation, continual attempts to adjust concepts, and continued checking of one's ideas and interpretations against reality.

Motivation To Learn

Most theories of instruction accept the premise that there must be a readiness for learning before it can occur. In practice, this means that the individual must be capable of changing and must perceive the learning situation as one which can facilitate much change in a direction acceptable to him/her. In short, learning cannot occur unless the individual is motivated and ready to learn.

Fundamental to the rationale for small-group instruction is the concept that the motivation to learn is a matter of attitudes and, what is more, that successful instruction requires not merely the stimulation of positive attitudes toward learning but, more important, the overcoming of attitudes that make the potential learner resistant to change. Much of the methodology of small-group instruction is devoted to overcoming resistance to change.

Attitudes are generally organized and integrated around the person's image of himself/herself, and they result in stabilized, characteristic ways of viewing the world, one's work, and other people. This stable way of viewing the world is comfortable for the individual, and people sometimes go to great length to preserve stability even in the face of facts and information which appear to warrant a change in viewpoint. The suggestion of the need for change not only implies some criticism of the person but also threatens the stability of his/her relationships with the world.

Such threats are especially common in learning situations. The need for learning implies the existence of a deficiency. The suggestion of a deficiency, or the need for change, is likely to be perceived as a threat to the individual's sense of identity and to his/her status position in relation to other people. Therefore, information too threatening for him/her to accept because it attacks the self-image is blocked out or interpreted in such a way as to pose less of a threat. The result is that learning does not really occur.

Furthermore, to learn raises images of potential discomfort or even failure. Learning new things means leaving the tried, sure, and comfortable ways of thinking and behaving, unsatisfactory as they may be. It means setting out along unknown paths and the possibility of encountering unanticipated obstacles which may prove difficult or impossible to overcome. Accordingly, each person inevitably enters a potential change situation with at least some apprehension, either conscious or subconscious, and at most, some severe anxiety.

Thus, both learning and the maintenance of change, once it has occurred, are assumed to have emotional as well as cognitive aspects. Stimulation of the motivation to change in thought and behavior, and to maintain these changes, is considered to be mainly a matter of overcoming both resistance within the student and forces in his/her environment that push against change. Much of small group instructional methodology is devoted to creating conditions intended to minimize resistance and to stimulate motivation to learn.

Conditions For Learning

Changes in behavior do not come easily, either for the student or for the instructor. On the other hand, instruction which is not genuinely intended to achieve change is a waste of time, effort, and money. Accordingly, the most critical problem facing every instructor is the creation of conditions under which change can occur.

Since learning is not solely an intellectual process, the rationale for small-group methods suggests that conditions under which instruction is to occur should take into account both cognitive and emotional aspects. If learning is to be achieved, resistance must be minimized, the student must be exposed to new ideas, and an active functioning frame of reference must be developed which will encompass both an awareness of the need to change and recognition of the real-life benefits to be derived from new ways of thinking and acting. Instructional methodology intended to accomplish these purposes must meet several requirements.

A Climate for Learning. Probably the most important requirement is a supportive climate that reduces resistance to learning. The process of changing one's patterns of thought and behavior is difficult, and a climate that reduces individual defensiveness and anxiety about exposure of inadequacy is paramount in overcoming resistance to learning.

The purpose is not to protect the student from exposure of inadequacies but rather to create a supportive atmosphere which will encourage him or her to undertake the task of learning, to cope with anxieties and concerns, and to experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving. Development of a supportive atmosphere requires at least two essential conditions within the learning situation. First, threat must be minimized. The climate must be such that defensiveness is reduced and emotional support is provided while the learner is undergoing change in thinking and action. Second, the learning situation must provide reinforcement for new ways of behaving. As the student tries out different ideas and skills, "correct" responses must be reinforced positively and "incorrect" responses must be reinforced negatively so that they will disappear.

Controlled Observation. Much that is presented in the conventional instructional setting never reaches a useful level of explicitness or clarity. For this reason, skill in applying knowledge received in conventional courses is extremely difficult to develop and usually takes years of on-the-job experience. However, the process can be speeded dramatically if opportunity is provided for students to experience situations where a range of thinking and approaches to problems can be made open to observation and analysis.

Passively watching a demonstration or listening to a discussion of a problem is not enough. What is needed is calculated and purposeful observations made under controlled conditions so that the learner becomes actively involved in developing and practicing an analytic attitude. Therefore, a second requirement is for learning situations in which conditions can be so controlled as to maximize practice in observation and analysis.

Varied and Realistic Situations. As stated earlier, the rationale for small-group methods rests upon a conviction that the problem of instruction is not solely to transmit facts or viewpoints but to help the student to translate knowledge so that it becomes meaningful in his/her experience. According to this view, learning occurs when the entire person is involved, that is, when the individual is affected by the knowledge acquired.

The extent to which a student becomes ego-involved in the learning process appears to be a major determinant of its effectiveness. Involvement is greatest when the learning situation can be structured so that students actively participate, rather than remain passive. Although a student may be taught about self-insight and skills of living and working, these can become a part of his or her repertoire of behavior only through living through and learning from a stream of life events we call experience.

Although it is not always possible to create instructional situations identical to those encountered in the world of work, learners can become involved when problems or content are interesting, realistic, and relevant to the work in which the learning is to be applied. Accordingly, a third requirement for learning is opportunity for the student to actually experience functioning in situations which are as realistic and as relevant as possible.

The effective individual possesses the ability to identify the essential elements in a situation while stripping away and disregarding the many factors that are usually present but not relevant. However, in life, conditions are constantly changing, and the effective person must be able to identify the unique characteristics of each situation encountered. Skill in coping with unique situations is best developed when students are exposed to numerous problems which are sufficiently different to require a variety of responses. Accordingly, this requirement includes the opportunity for students to experience not only realistic and relevant situations but a variety of them as well.

Opportunity for Experimentation. Observing the performance of others does not, by itself, lead toward individual growth, even when good conditions for controlled observation in realistic and relevant situations are provided. Such observations help develop an analytical attitude, but they make no demands upon the student to examine his or her own ideas nor do they enable him or her to see himself or herself in action.

Learning new ways of thinking and acting is difficult. Improved learning usually comes in a series of small steps in which the learner tries out a variety of ideas, discarding those that are inappropriate and reinforcing those that are successful. This can occur only when there is freedom to make mistakes. Accordingly, a fourth requirement is the opportunity to experiment with new concepts and new ways of behaving under conditions where mistakes will not have serious consequences for the learner.

Objective Analysis of Own Performance. Although the opportunity to experience new situations is critical for learning, experience alone never benefits anyone. The important factor is the use the individual makes of personal experience. Thus, while the opportunity to experiment is needed, it should be provided under conditions whereby the student can receive information about the effectiveness of new behaviors which have been tried.

Learning is best when students can consciously test their ideas in action, obtain knowledge of the results of the testing, and analyze this information in terms of consequences for future behavior in actual situations. Accordingly, a fifth requirement is opportunity for students to obtain feedback about the quality of their learned concepts and behaviors and to analyze their learning in terms of consequences for the future.


Considering the stressful aspects of learning and the requisite conditions outlined in the preceding section, it would seem that the most effective learning can be achieved in situations which provide emotional support to students while also enabling them to practice an analytic attitude, experiment with new concepts, and obtain feedback concerning others' reactions to their newly developed ideas. According to the rationale under consideration here, the above conditions can frequently be provided best within the context of a small group.

Much of education takes place in loosely structured group situations. For example, most normal instruction involves some sort of transaction between teacher, learner, and other students. Although learning is an individual affair, it most frequently occurs within a social context and much of the more complex learning can come about through social interaction. Thus, group forces, either active or latent, are present in almost every educational situation, even though they may be untapped or uncontrolled. Small group instructional methods are designed to systematically use these group forces to influence and increase the learning of individual students. The objective is to build and maintain groups geared to the purpose of learning and to use the forces inevitably present in such groups to create conditions that will be maximally conducive to learning.

Group Forces Affecting Learning

The social-psychological forces that operate in groups are many and varied. Of these, however, a number have been identified as operant in most situations and as particularly relevant to learning. In one form or another, these appear to provide the underlying bases for most small group instructional methods.

Group Goals. A group goal is an objective that is held in common by all or most of the members. Since behavior is goal-directed, a group goal has the properties of concentrating the efforts of members and of mobilizing their efforts toward its achievement. Thus, under proper conditions, group goals have motivational properties that can exert considerable influence upon the behavior of members.

Both research and experience have shown that a greater degree of learning occurs when students are psychologically involved and actively participate in activities in which learning is supposed to take place. Fullest involvement and participation occurs when students accept and become committed to goals of their instructional groups. A principal purpose of small-group methods is to develop instructional groups that possess the goals of increasing opportunities for individual learning.

Group Cohesiveness. The attractiveness of a group largely determines the degree of influence it can exert upon the individual member. If it is attractive to all or most of its members, a feeling of "groupness" develops which is manifested in attitudes of loyalty and a willingness to be influenced. This group cohesiveness is a highly potent force which can, under proper conditions, be a major factor in learning.

One function served by cohesive groups is the establishment of a climate that supports readiness for learning. Such a climate includes the following:

(1) Expectations among members that everyone will learn.

(2) Acceptance that learning and change are desirable and not a mark of previous inadequacy.

(3) Recognition that individuals may make mistakes but, since all are learning, errors will not be punished by the group or other members.

(4) Realistic levels of aspiration for the group and for all members in terms of new learning to be achieved.

Where such a climate exists, group influences can be strong in helping individuals develop a readiness to learn (overcome resistance) and then to change. For example, if the individual likes the group, it can exert pressure upon him/her to change as other members are changing. The fact that other members face the same difficulties is reassuring and, thus, there is less feeling of inadequacy. Moreover, such a group is able to offer potent rewards in the form of acceptance and recognition by other members. These rewards are usually more effective as motivators than those which can be offered by an instructor.

Group Norms. All groups with any degree of cohesiveness develop norms affecting the behaviors of their members. Norms are standards of behavior - shared expectations of what members should do, perhaps even what they should think and how they should feel. In time, these norms become stabilized and become powerful determinants of the behavior of group members. Thus, the development of an effective instructional situation is, in large part, dependent upon the evolution of certain norms which will be facilitative to optimal learning.

Norms may be concerned with just about anything related to the life of a group. Two of the more important ones for small group instruction are norms which permit every member to experience difficulty and norms of objectivity in the analysis and solution of learning problems. These norms are essential ingredients of a climate conducive to learning and, accordingly, are major targets of small-group instructional methods.

The Communication System. In a basic sense, learning is a function of communication. This is true of all learning that occurs in educational or training contexts, especially in group instructional situations. The communications that occur within the group determine the amount and types of learning that will be achieved.

Communication within an instructional group may occur at various levels. Much of the communication may be at the cognitive level, being primarily an exchange of ideas concerned with the topic under examination. However, many communications also carry noncognitive meanings. Thus, people communicate emotions, attitudes, and feelings, all of which may enter into and influence the learning process.

If an instructional group matures and develops a capacity to work as a learning team, members communicate with one another easily and well. When members do not feel the need to defend themselves, and feel secure enough to expose their ideas to the group, the communication level becomes deep enough for genuine learning to occur. Small group instructional methods are intended to provide conditions which will encourage communication that will be conducive to learning.

Functions Served By The Group

The rationale for small-group methods of instruction incorporates concepts of several kinds, including concepts about the nature of learning, factors that influence it, and ways in which it can be induced. However, underlying all of these is the fundamental premise that much of practical learning involves a social transaction; that is, it requires an interpersonal exchange between people.

On the face of it, this premise is not much different from the one underlying conventional instruction. Both conventional techniques and small-group methods operate from the assumption that much of learning occurs as the result of interaction between people. The principal difference seems to be in the place of the interaction and in the way learning results from it.

It would be foolish to claim that conventional instruction operates from any single set of integrated concepts which could be sharply contrasted with small group methods. Too much of educational philosophy and practice is presently in a state of transition. Furthermore, many of the current debates are squarely grounded in conflicting notions about learning. Yet, through much of conventional education and training runs the concept of a fixed body of knowledge or doctrine and of naive learners who have not acquired the information or skills necessary to apply this knowledge in practical ways. According to this view, learning refers to the process by which learners acquire the information and skills from someone (an instructor) who is already in possession of them.

Small group methods start with a different overall view of learning as a transaction between a learner and other learners, all of whom constitute a group. Under this concept, neither the learners nor the body of knowledge are fixed, and both undergo modification during the transaction. In other terms, this means that much of learning how to use knowledge in a practical way occurs through interaction between learners. During this process, concepts, practices, and additional knowledge from past experience can be exchanged, molded, and integrated with information from instructors, and formed into a workable frame of reference which can later be applied to problems in the real world. Thus, in small-group instruction, the principal interaction is within the learning group, and learning results from the exchange that occurs within the group.

Many of the concepts derived from learning theory apply equally in small-group instruction. Perhaps the most useful are the concepts of reinforcement and feedback. With regard to reinforcement, one learns in groups as elsewhere - by responding to a stimulus. However, in the learning group, the stimulus is the behavior of other people. "Correct" responses are reinforced positively and tend to become established in the learner's repertoire of responses. "Incorrect" responses are negatively reinforced and tend to disappear. In the learning group, other members are the agents of positive and negative reinforcement.

A major difference appears, however, in the determination of which responses are "correct." In conventional instruction, the correctness of the response to be learned tends to be predetermined by instructor, doctrine, or a machine programmer. This definition of correctness is held constant during the entire learning experience. On the other hand, in small-group instruction, group members function both as learners and as environment. Standards of appropriateness of stimulus and response are worked out through the "give and take" of an evolving discussion.

Closely related is the concept of "feedback." This concept is concerned with the powerful learning effects of prompt feedback to the learner about the effects of his/her exploratory responses. In all forms of learning, knowledge of the results of trial responses is deemed essential. This is no less true in small-group instruction. A principal aim is to provide conditions under which a learner may receive prompt feedback concerning the new ideas and skills which are being tested. In small-group instruction, this feedback is supplied either by other group members or by discussion leaders, depending upon conditions and the method used.

In small-group instruction, the group provides an environment within which learning is both stimulated and tested. As a stimulus environment, the group serves three functions which differentiate small-group instruction from individual-centered education or training. The functions involve resources, social motivation, and social influence.

Resources. One of the principal functions of the group is to serve as a resource to learners. The typical group will have a wider range of information and a greater critical facility than any individual member. Furthermore, the greater potential resources make the group more likely to discover a wider range of alternatives than a single member. The pooling of individual judgments also tends to eliminate erroneous or inappropriate concepts and conclusions. Because group discussion is selective, the final product will probably have eliminated many of the poorer alternatives generated by members. Thus, selectivity often improves the quality of learning.

It cannot be assumed that more information, greater critical facility, and opportunity to pool judgments will inevitably improve the quality of learning in groups. The existence of a group merely makes these resources available. However, unless they are used effectively, they may contribute little and, under some conditions, can actually impede learning because of the confusion which may be created among members.

Social Motivation. Because motivation is a critical determinant of learning and because factors that influence motivation are, in education and training, predominantly social, the motivational consequences of group interaction are difficult to overemphasize. The mere presence of other people in a learning situation creates new motivational implications because many of the goals and rewards valued by most individuals are available only from interaction with other people. These effects are further strengthened when an actual group is developed. Under these conditions, the forces that operate in all groups channel and focus individual motivation in directions determined by the collective goals.

Just as with the provision of resources, the existence of a group situation does not necessarily insure that motivational forces will be directed toward learning. A group can be a powerful source of social motivation; however, the nature and direction of that motivation will be determined by the goals of the group and the conditions that exist within it.

Social Influence. The social influence function of learning groups is concerned with the development and enforcement of norms governing the attitudes and behavior of group members. In small-group instruction, group influence is exerted through standards related to type and amount of participation, collaboration between members, depth of discussion, feedback to be provided members, levels of communication, support given discussion leaders, and similar factors. Although many factors may affect the ability of a group to influence its members, its potential for influencing a particular individual is determined, in large part, by the extent of attraction to the group and of desire to remain in the group and to be accepted by other members.

Again, the existence of a group is not assurance that its norms will be conducive to learning. Depending upon conditions, norms may develop around any issue that has relevance for a group and may exert influence in any direction. An important problem for instructors is to create conditions that will ensure the development of norms that are conducive to learning.

1Chapter 1 has been adapted from: Small-Group Instruction: Theory and Practice, Joseph A. Olmstead, Human Resources Organization, Alexandria, VA, 1974.

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