Return to Table of Contents


SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTOR TRAINING COURSE

(SGITC)

STUDENT REFERENCE FOR

CHAPTER 6:

SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTION: THEORY AND PRACTICE

SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTION: THEORY AND PRACTICE18

INTRODUCTION

Objectives. The use of small groups for instructional purposes is widely practiced in a variety of contexts, ranging from conventional educational institutions to the armed forces and training within business and industry. However, despite this wide usage, concrete information and practical guidance concerning instructional methods suitable for use with small groups have been difficult or impossible to find. The purpose of this volume is to provide such information and guidance.

Contents.

The Small Group Rationale. The fundamental goal of every instructor is to create a conducive learning environment. Small-group methods of instruction are one approach to the creation of such an environment.

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 some instances, arriving at decisions about how they might be handled. Because the group resolves problems with each student participating, members are committed to solutions 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 different viewpoints and by having their ideas critiqued, and (b) they learn and commit to new behaviors from group discussion and decision.

For maximum learning 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 effect, 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 required structure and processes of the group. The various methods used in small-group instruction are devices for accomplishing these purposes.

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

Small-group methods are founded upon a rationale which is more elaborate than those for most other teaching methods. With the exception of programmed instruction, most methods have evolved through trial and error and their rationales are unsystematic. On the other hand, like programmed instruction, the rationale for small-group methods has been more or less systematically derived from an already existing body of scientific knowledge. It is the result of a rather sophisticated melding of learning theory with the techniques of group dynamics.

IMPORTANCE OF INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES

Clear and explicit instructional objectives are a critical requisite for the effective use of small-group methods. The methods differ in terms of outcomes, requisite instructors, skills, and students’ expected reactions. Accordingly, effective use of the methods requires instructors to know precisely what they are trying to accomplish.

An example involving leadership training will illustrate the importance of clearly conceived objectives. Both research and experience have confirmed that an important leadership function is to develop high motivation levels in subordinates.

However, if the exceedingly important issues concerned with the nature of this motivation are ignored, a number of questions important for training design still remain. Is it sufficient for students to be made aware of the fact that other people have motives and needs which must be considered in leadership decisions and actions? Should they be drilled in techniques of "motivating" subordinates? Should they be trained in the ethics of "group-centered leadership?" Would it be desirable to teach something about the psychology of motivation? Answers to methodological questions such as these can be determined only when course objectives have been carefully derived.

The implications of course design are crucial. The purpose of education or training is to achieve change. If change is to be achieved, the instructor must be able to control and manipulate his/her inputs into the course. This is difficult if the instructor is unclear on what is intended to be accomplished. For example, is the result of instruction to be a cognitive change based on the acquisition of information, an attitudinal change brought about by the additional information and experiences gained through the course, or a behavioral change - an improvement in specified skills? If trainers are not clear relative to the specific changes and learning expectations, valid instruction becomes virtually impossible to develop.

The principal task of course designers is to devise suitable strategies for eliciting, controlling, and channeling student behavior. Instructional method selection is based on a theory about the relation of the method to certain desired behaviors. The instructor has a hypothesis about the kind of behavior he/she anticipates following a given treatment, and he/she proceeds to test it - to apply the method and manipulate the inputs in accordance with theory.

Thus, it is clear that an explicit conception of the desired behavior is essential. An instructor who has objectives clearly in mind and, in addition, has made a careful analysis of the available instructional methods may effectively design a course to achieve genuine change.

THE USE OF SMALL-GROUP METHODS

For certain objectives, small-group methods are the techniques of choice. In other instances, they are valuable options that can provide an educational system with needed flexibility. When used properly, the methods are invaluable for increasing student motivation through greater involvement and participation. Under certain conditions, they even make it possible to ease the loads of overburdened instructors by reducing the time required to prepare formal presentations.

In general, it is feasible to use small-group methods in courses to:

1.   Increase understanding and grasp of course content.
2.   Enhance motivation and generate greater student involvement.
3.   Develop positive attitudes toward later use of presented material.
4.   Develop problem-solving skills specific to the course content.
5.   Provide practice in the application of concepts and information to practical problems.
6.   Generate ideas among students concerning ways of applying acquired knowledge.
7.   Develop student commitment to recommended ways of handling problems.
8.   Emphasize an important issue.
9.   Proceed with instruction when content experts are scarce or not available.

Despite these benefits, small-group methods are not always used in the best possible ways. One reason may be that their flexibility and relative ease of administration can lead to the belief that the methods are foolproof. Like all instructional methods, the success of small-group techniques depends largely upon the care with which they are designed and used. For this reason, it is important to state several important cautions with regard to the most effective use of the methods.

First, it is essential that methods be selected and used with the instructional objective clearly in mind. Thus, the time, effort, and thought expended in accurate definition of objectives, in selection of proper methods, and in use of the methods appropriate to the objectives will usually be well-repaid in the quality of learning that is achieved.

Second, although small-group methods are effective for certain purposes when used alone, they are most successful when students are also equipped with background information concerning the topics or problems under study. The foundation for small-group methods is discussion, but instructive discussion cannot be accomplished unless students have some informational basis from which to talk.

Finally, groups in which members work together over periods of time are, in general, likely to be more efficient and effective vehicles for learning. Therefore, where small-group methods are used repeatedly throughout the duration of a course, it is usually advisable to assign students permanently to groups and allow them to remain together whenever group sessions are considered desirable. An exception is the case where a stated objective is the stimulation of students through exposure to a wide range of ideas and viewpoints. With such an objective, periodic realigning of groups may be advisable.

REQUIREMENTS FOR INSTRUCTORS/SGLs

It is axiomatic that no instructional method is better than the person who uses it. This statement is especially true with respect to small-group methods of instruction. However, the requirements for effective use of the methods are somewhat different than those for other instructional techniques. For example, it is not essential that leaders be content experts although preparation and expertise contribute to the quality of learning. Since responsibility for most of the learning rests with the students and since guides for discussion leaders can be prepared by experts, complete mastery of content is not an essential requirement for instructors.

On the other hand, solid grounding in the rationale and uses of small-group methods is necessary for their maximum effectiveness. Thus, it is important for instructors to be well-trained in use of the methods. This includes not only skill in conducting group sessions but also familiarity with the purposes of the various methods. Understanding of purposes is necessary because they determine which techniques should be selected and how they should be used.

Finally, it is important for an instructor to understand, accept, and be comfortable with the premises embodied in the rationale for small group instruction. Principal among these are the premises that (a) a group of reasonably capable adults can learn on its own if the instructor will let it, (b) it is not essential for an instructor to control every input into a discussion in order for it to be an effective learning experience, and (c) maximum learning occurs when a group breaks its dependence upon its instructor and assumes responsibility for learning.

SELECTION AND USE OF METHODS FOR SMALL-GROUP INSTRUCTION

Scope Of Reference

The focus of this reference is small group methods of instruction. For the present purpose, the term "small group refers" to not more than 16 students. This is an arbitrary definition; however, experience strongly supports the view that instructional effectiveness is reduced when groups consist of more than 16 students, while any number less than 16 can be readily managed in most learning situations.

Furthermore, this reference is concerned with methods that are specifically designed to use the social-psychological forces inherent in small groups for learning purposes. The mere reduction of class size to less than 20 individuals does not constitute use of a small-group method for instructional purposes. Small-group methods are specific techniques. Accordingly, the term "small-group methods of instruction" is restricted to techniques through which group processes are used to stimulate learning.

Approach

Fundamental to all small-group methods is use of the social-psychological forces in small groups to enhance and maximize the conditions under which learning occurs.

Conditions necessary to learn (overcome attitudes that are resistant to change) include (a) a learning climate that provides emotional support to students, (b) opportunity for them to practice an analytical attitude through controlled observation, (c) opportunity to experience varied and realistic learning situations, (d) opportunity for experimentation with new concepts, and (e) opportunity for the student to obtain feedback concerning others' reactions to his or her newly developed ideas.

These conditions can be provided best within the context of a small group which possesses (a) a common goal for learning, (b) a reasonable degree of cohesiveness, (c) norms conducive to learning, and (d) patterns of effective communication - in short, a learning culture. Small-group methods are designed to systematically use these group forces to influence and increase learning.

Producing a Master Instructional Plan

After objectives have been identified and a method has been tentatively chosen, it is useful to assemble all of the principal variables that are involved in a master instructional plan. Here, a master plan is a broad outline of the activities that must occur, the sequence in which they must occur, and other variables, such as instructors, facilities, and so forth, that are required.

Once a plan has been determined, it is useful to test the plan against the following criteria:

1.   Relevance for Student Needs. The proposed instruction should be aimed at meeting genuine needs of students. If relevance cannot be demonstrated, consideration should be given to discarding or modifying the plan.

2.   Real World Relevancy. The proposed activities should help students to link events in the training situation to "real-world" requirements. Further, the proposed activities should encourage and support the learning on the job. Preplanning activities is recommended for effectiveness and proficiency.

3.   Instructor's Range of Competence. Instructors should not try methods in which they lack the required proficiency. On the other hand, some insecurity is natural, and much skill can be rapidly developed through practice.

4.   Maximize Motivational Impact. The instructional procedures should stimulate active interest and participation.

5.   Multiple Learning. Proposed activities should provide intellectual, attitudinal, or skill types of learning, or combinations of these.

6.   Remediation. A good instructional activity should contain provisions for additional help, continuing evaluation, and self-correction.

7.   Validation. Evaluation of every session by both instructors and students permits rapid identification of instructional problems and prompt correction of defects.

Unless the master instructional plan measures favorably on all seven criteria, it should be modified until it meets each criterion to the planner's satisfaction.

Planning in Detail

The selection design should be planned in sufficient detail so all participants know what to do. The critical danger here is that plans will become so rigid that modifications cannot be easily accomplished as instruction progresses. No plan can ever anticipate all events that may occur nor can it ever predict the precise atmosphere that will develop in any particular learning group. Therefore, some modification, however slight, is almost inevitable. The most effective training designs have sufficient flexibility built into them so that adjustments can be made easily without serious trauma to either the plan or the personnel.

Conducting the Instruction

Specific procedures for conducting instruction appear in the discussion of each method later in the handbook. However, several suggestions of a general nature are relevant for all methods.

The first time a method is used with a group, it is important to provide a brief overview of the procedures to be followed so that all group members have a common perspective and understand what will be required of them.

In general, an instructor should almost never intervene in a group's deliberations unless it is revealed that serious misunderstandings of the procedures are involved. It is important, however, for the instructor to periodically monitor the activities of each group for which he or she is responsible in order to ensure that members understand and stay on the task.

All of the methods presented in this reference include at least one discussion period of some sort. In development of the training plan, it will be necessary to allocate definite periods of time for the discussion sessions. However, group discussion should continue only so long as interest and participation are high; these will vary significantly according to topic, group composition, and task. For this reason, time allocated for discussion periods should never be frozen into the training design. Experience with discussions of the topic by two or three groups will give a good indication of time required, and adjustments in the design should be made accordingly.

Evaluating and Replanning

Evaluation is a process of determining whether certain actions have led to desired consequences. Usually, one must (a) specify the desired objectives of instruction, (b) devise ways of measuring the extent to which the objectives have been achieved, (c) conduct the instruction, (d) collect the desired information, and (e) analyze and interpret it before replanning the next instructional effort. Evaluations may have differing standards of precision, and highly rigorous evaluation may not always be possible. However, the point of this discussion is that some systematic evaluation should always be performed and program modifications and replanning should be based upon the information so obtained.

COMMONLY USED METHODS FOR SMALL GROUP INSTRUCTION

On the following pages, a number of methods of small group instruction are described. It is recognized that many instructional situations include peculiar conditions which may place limitations upon the ability to use a given method in the most effective way. As one example, the time allocated for training might preclude use of certain methods. As another, the number of available instructors in relation to projected number of students might prevent use of methods requiring small instructor-student ratios. Perusal of the requirements for each method will assist in determining the capability of the method for achieving desired objectives under such limitations.

Figure 1 is presented to assist in identification of small group methods that will accomplish desired instructional objectives. To use Figure 1, select the desired objective from among those listed, and note each method for which an "X" appears in the row for that objective. Then, refer to the discussion of the indicated methods for details as to requirements and procedures for their use.

INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES ACCOMPLISHED BY SMALL GROUP METHODS

METHODS:
A.   Conference
B.   Brainstorm
C.   Incident-Process Case Discussion
D.   Abbreviated Printed Case Discussion
E.   Abbreviated Dramatized Case Discussion
F.   Topic Discussion
G.   Buzz Session
H.   Committee Problem Solving
I.   Role Playing

 
METHOD

INSTRUCTIONAL
OBJECTIVE

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

1.   Increased awareness of
issues and problems.
 
X
X
X
X
X
X
 
X
2.   Insight into possible
problem solutions.

X

X

X

X

X

     

X

3.   Cognitive learning of
course content.
         

X

 

X

 
4.   Increased skill in problem
solving.
   

X

X

X

 

X

 

X

5.   Increased awareness of
diversity of viewpoints.

X

X

X

X

X

       
6.   Positive attitudes toward
course content.

X

               
7.   Positive attitudes toward
use of course content.

X

               
8.   Increased skill in group
decision making.
             

X

 
9.   Increased skill in fact
finding.
   

X

       

X

 
10.   Increased knowledge
about specific topics or
problem areas.
         

X

X

X

 
11.   Skill in diagnosing
interpersonal situations.
               

X

12.   Skill in acting effectively
in interpersonal situations.
               

X

Figure 1

Conference

The conference method involves a series of carefully planned meetings with specific goals, in which leader and students discuss topics or problems relevant to the overall purpose of the instructional program. The method rests squarely upon group discussion but, in contrast with the Leaderless Discussion, is dependent upon the trainer's manipulation of the discussion process so that it is always directed toward specific program goals.

Usually the conference leader does not present theory, principles, doctrine, or ways of handling problems. Rather, the group is presented with a topic or problem and members speculate about possible ways of handling it. Solutions may be suggested by members and evaluated by the group through a free exchange of experiences and opinions. The group may evolve ideas that become the accepted solutions, or the leader may guide the discussion along some particular course toward a predetermined solution of his/her own. Thus, in its purest form, the conference method is a highly practical approach to education or training. Students are not exposed to theory, principles, doctrine, or expertise. Rather, discussions and solutions are derived from their own experiences or ideas and are applied to real-life problems.

In this connection, it is important to distinguish between the "free" conference and the "directed" conference. The free conference involves a completely unguided discussion and is usually problem-centered. The agenda is developed by taking a problem-census in which participants suggest potential topics. Solutions are those freely evolved through discussion.

The directed conference is more frequently used for training purposes. Here, the conference leader uses a predetermined agenda and each topic on it is discussed. The discussion may be relatively free; more frequently it is guided by the leader who makes sure certain points are covered. In some cases, the discussion is "directed" to the extent that the leader actually manipulates it to reach a predetermined conclusion.

The conference method has much to recommend it, especially with reference to training management. For example, relatively inexperienced personnel can be trained to lead conferences. Subject-matter experts are not necessary although such specialists are certainly able to improve the quality of a program. Conference leaders' guides can be prepared by experts to provide complete instructions with regard to steering a discussion. If needed, a step-by-step outline can be developed to include all points to be covered, the actual words to use in opening and closing each session, conclusions to be reached, and similar materials. The method thus permits conduct of training with whatever personnel may be at hand. Furthermore, a skillful leader can control the discussion, thus making sure that school solutions are developed by the group.

On the other hand, if the leader is not a content expert, there is much greater risk of superficiality in the discussions. Because of lack of expertise among students discussions tend to skirt issues unless the conference leader can skillfully probe relevant points and raise questions which will give students insight into underlying problems.. In order to accomplish this well, the leader must be sufficiently knowledgeable in content areas to identify both superficial diagnoses and critical issues so that the group can be guided into more meaningful discussions.

Learning from the conference method appears to be mainly cognitive, with heavy emphasis upon insight into practical problems gained through the exchange of viewpoints. Although, as its adherents claim, the method possesses potential for changing attitudes, genuine change seems to depend more upon the competence and skill of individual conference leaders rather than upon the method itself. Because the method rests almost solely upon discussion, no opportunity is provided for skill practice. Thus, students get no experience with real behavior under either experimental or practice conditions. Some trainers attempt to overcome this limitation through the auxiliary use of role playing.

Leaderless Discussion

The term "leaderless discussion" refers to a group discussion for which a formal leader has not been designated and in which an instructor does not participate. Instead, the influence of the instructor is limited to assignment of a topic, problem, or issue to be discussed. In this way, the content and course of the discussion are determined almost completely by the students.

Most commonly, leaderless discussion is used in conjunction with large-group sessions to introduce issues, to generate involvement among participants, and to provide opportunity for the exchange of ideas. When used in this way, the leaderless discussion groups are, in effect, sub-groups of the larger classes. The usual procedure is for the instructor of a large class to divide it into small groups that are then required to discuss some topic, problem, or issue for a specified period of time. The discussion may occur either before a formal presentation (to introduce issues or generate involvement) or following it (to exchange ideas). In either case, the purpose is to generate more effective learning by overcoming the formalities inherent in large classes through subgrouping and spontaneous discussion.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming was initially developed in the U.S. advertising industry in the 1950’s. The purpose of brainstorming is to generate ideas or solutions that will help to solve a problem. It works best with 6-15 people, a recorder and a group leader. The brainstorming method separates idea generation from idea evaluation. Judging ideas halts idea generation and discourages contribution. Therefore, in the idea generation stage phrases like "that will take too much time," "it would cost too much," "would never work," "we’ve done that before" are not allowed. Screening and evaluation of ideas comes later.

Buzz Sessions

A "buzz session" is a brief but intensive discussion held among a small number of participants without advance preparation and with a minimum of formality. In this procedure, a question or issue is posed to a class. Members are then asked to turn to one or several neighbors (or to form convenient groups) and to engage in discussion for several minutes.

Buzz sessions appear to be most useful for introducing issues and problems, and thus, laying groundwork for learning to be achieved from later formal presentations or guided class discussions. Some evidence exists that buzz sessions result in both improved problem solving and participation in class discussions. They do not appear to exert much effect upon attitudes.

Topic Discussions

Another type of leaderless discussion is the "topic discussion." In this form, the instructor assigns a specific topic or issue for discussion and allows a fairly lengthy period of time, such as 30 minutes or an hour, for completion. Advance readings may be assigned to prepare students for the discussion. The instructor may also provide students with a list of issues for discussion, guidance as to questions to be answered, and so forth. In all instances, however, responsibility for the nature and quality of the discussion rests with the students.

The topic discussion is useful for identifying issues or for introducing a problem to students. When students discuss a problem prior to a formal presentation such as a lecture or film, their attention becomes focused upon critical issues, and their involvement with formally presented material is greater. Another use for topic discussions is to develop solutions to problems. Here, a limitation is that clear-cut solutions are sometimes difficult to obtain because of lack of the direction that could be provided by a discussion leader.

Learning achieved through topic discussions appears to be mainly in the form of increased sensitivity to issues and problems and, in better groups, perhaps a fairly superficial insight into solutions to specific problems.

Case Method

In general, the case method involves the exposure of students to accounts of concrete situations with some temporal and developmental span in which a variety of factors are at work. The cases are descriptions (printed, tape-recorded, or filmed) of actual situations from real life. Students discuss them with the objectives of discovering underlying principles, if any, and applying the principles to diagnosis and solution of the problems. Although case discussions may be held with large classes, much of the effectiveness of discussion is lost as size of class increases; the greatest learning seems to be achieved when discussion groups are small. For this reason, the case method is included in this analysis of small-group instructional methods.

Several approaches to the study of cases have been developed. In fact, some practitioners consider role playing and even sensitivity training to be derivations of the case method. However, for this report, the distinction will be retained. Here, discussion of the case method will be limited to the Incident-Process method and the abbreviated case.

A Case Discussion allows a group to review a printed case which describes an actual situation, together with all surrounding facts, contributing factors, and incidental conditions.

Cases are presented to students for considered analysis, open discussion, and final decision as to the action that should be taken. Because cases are lengthy and complex, they must be assigned for reading and analysis prior to the class meeting. At the option of the instructor, written analyses of the cases may be required prior to the class discussion. The instructor plays an active but nondirective role in stimulating discussion and encouraging mature analysis.

Composition of the case is a highly important and critical determinant of success with this method. Although single case-discussion sessions may be beneficial, maximum learning occurs from repeated exposure to analysis and discussion of a variety of cases.

NOTE: The quality of the printed case is critical to this method. A teaching case is a carefully designed description of a problem situation, written specifically for the purpose of provoking systematic analysis and discussion. As such, it does not necessarily represent a complete description of all facts and events. The case must be composed with the objective of creating a challenging problem for the student and the outcome is never revealed - the case is brought to a point requiring decision and action, then it stops. Success of the method requires that cases be structured so as to challenge mature analysis and stimulate discussion.

Abbreviated Case (Printed)

When an unabbreviated case method is strictly followed, lengthy advance preparation by students is inevitable. The requirement for full access to all facts and information in the case usually results in a fairly comprehensive printed document. Accordingly, mastery of the case requires students to engage in extensive preparation for in-class discussions. In some instances, such preparation may be desirable and, certainly, intensive analysis of a complex case should be conductive to learning. However, there may be situations when caliber of students or other demands upon student time may preclude extensive preparation. One means for providing students with full access to necessary information and still avoiding the long preparation is the printed abbreviated case.

The most important advantage of the abbreviated case is its brevity. Reading seldom requires more than 15 minutes. If desired, cases can be assigned at the beginning of each class period, thus assuring that all participants are adequately prepared. Furthermore, since the abbreviated case presents only major points in the reported situation, it becomes easier to keep discussions focused on central issues. This also simplifies the task of discussion leaders.

The principal disadvantages of the abbreviated case are that unimportant facts are eliminated and the minimal information which appears is presented in such a straightforward manner that students have no opportunity to practice sifting out essential elements from those that are not important. Thus, analysis may become too simple as compared with real situations where an individual may have to weigh and discard a number of secondary factors before arriving at a solution of the central problem.

Abbreviated Case (Dramatized)

One modification of the abbreviated case, which should be mentioned, is the dramatized case. In this form, a short case is presented through the medium of either tape recordings or film The cases are usually open-ended; that is, they reach a critical point of conflict and end without resolution of the problem. The group then discusses possible issues and solutions.

The principal advantage of the dramatized case is that it communicates important facts without preliminary reading and with heightened dramatic effect. On the other hand, its effectiveness is usually confined to the presentation of dialogue situations. Thus, the oral form of presentation mainly restricts cases to human relations problems. Cases dealing with nonhuman aspects such as planning, organization, and technical problems are difficult to portray.

Incident-Process Method

A modification of the case study is the Incident-Process method. In this method, a brief incident requiring adjudication and decision is presented to students. Then, the group must decide what additional information is required. The discussion leader, usually but not necessarily an instructor, has background and factual material that he/she furnishes only as the members of the group request specific items of information. If the information is not requested, the discussion leader never provides it. Thus, students may finally be required to decide a case on the basis of only partial information because they failed to ferret out everything needed to make a valid decision. After obtaining the desired information, each trainee writes his/her decision and the supporting reasons for it. The decisions are presented publicly and debated with pressure by the leader toward arriving at a common conclusion. Another potential limitation is the traditional emphasis in role playing upon behavior. Unless modified, role playing is weak in teaching about other elements such as decision making. By combining case study with role playing so that the most desirable elements of both are available, the student has the opportunity for learning in both the interpersonal and decision-making aspects of leadership. The students then hear the real decision and analyze the adequacy or inadequacy of their fact finding and decision making in contrast with it. Thus, over time and numerous cases, students learn to analyze brief incidents in terms of relevant facts and also to become skillful in obtaining these facts.

The Incident-Process method appears to be restricted to development for diagnostic skills. Although students seem to interact more realistically in trying to reach group decisions, there are no opportunities for studying and trying the actual skills of implementation in situations similar to those studied.

Role Playing

There is no limitation to the case method that has special significance for leadership or human relations training. Although cases often describe relationships between people, they are not capable of portraying the more dynamic aspects of human interaction or of generating very intensive involvement with the problem situation. Because cases are inadequate to communicate the numerous and varied behavioral cues available to a person who is actually involved in the face-to-face situation, some of the flavor is lost. In an effort to overcome this limitation, many instructors have turned to role playing.

Use in Instruction

Role playing is a method of portraying human interaction in imaginary situations in such a manner that realistic behavior is elicited. This rather general description implies that role playing can be used for many purposes, and, indeed, such is the case. Developed originally as a psychotherapeutic technique, role playing has also been used successfully for problem illustration, problem diagnosis, and training evaluation. Its greatest training value is in leadership and human relations situations.

For instructional purposes, a situation is presented to the group, and some members are asked to assume roles and to enact the situation toward some resolution. Other students observe the behavior of the actors. The scene may be carried to a resolution, or the instructor may stop it at some critical point in the action. Following the scene, observations, as well as thoughts and feelings of the actors, are reported and discussed by the group. In this way, faulty diagnoses, alternative actions, and discrepancies between diagnoses and action can be identified. Alternative ways of handling the situation may be tried by replaying the scene.

Role playing provides students with opportunities to observe, experience, and practice actual behavior in contexts somewhat similar to reality. Of particular importance in leadership training is the fact that the full significance of learning is only in a minor way related to the problem solution, if any. Rather, focus is upon relationships and impacts of the actors upon the situation. Therefore, analysis is concerned with actual behavior rather than concepts.

Emphasis upon experienced behavior is the characteristic that mainly distinguishes role playing from the methods discussed earlier. Because most leadership problems occur when two or more people interact, the basic approach is to create realistic interpersonal situations, use various methods of collecting information, and endeavor to draw generalizations from the analysis. Generalizations and hypotheses, in turn, are tested in action as students try out new skills. Thus learning is more than verbal. Because the learning grows out of experience and because it deals with the observed behavior of individuals and groups in a public way, role playing is quite different from instructional situations in which behavior is talked about but never examined and in which students never actually experience the problems which are discussed.

Rationale

The rationale for role playing starts from the conviction that the problem of training is not solely to transmit facts or viewpoints but to help the student translate knowledge so that it becomes meaningful in his/her own experience. Therefore, role playing has the objective of student awareness of the implication of his/her actions and of the actions of other people for him/her. The purpose is also for him/her to become skillful in diagnosing and taking actions in ongoing situations. One requirement for the development of this awareness is opportunity for the student to actually experience functioning in realistic situations. Role playing provides this opportunity.

The opportunity to experience realistic situations is an essential requirement. However, experience alone never teaches anything. The important factor is whether the student learns from the experience. Such learning can be instructors' guides that point out the important issues in each case and the directions the discussions are likely to take. The trainer is thus furnished with a ready-made course in supervisory relations. Similar manuals could easily be devised for any course, or instructors could be furnished with rationale and instructions together with materials covering a variety of problems and situations to be used as needed.

Emphasis upon spontaneity and the nature of the instructor role make external control of instruction difficult. While it is easy to obtain uniform presentation of problems across classes, it is virtually impossible to ensure that discussions will be identical. From the viewpoint of spontaneity theory, such uniformity is undesirable for learning. However, regardless of the validity of this view, responsibility for quality and content must rest more with the individual instructor than with training managers.

The fact that role playing is usually limited to portraying close interpersonal behavior is something of a handicap for courses in higher-level leadership where organizational dynamics may be an important topic for study. Some instructors have overcome this problem by designing large role-playing situations so as to enact an entire organization in the process of solving some important problem. Under these conditions, students will fill all of the key roles in the organization and remain in role for longer periods, as much as a day or more at a time. Through the use of observers, students receive data relative to their own behaviors well as to the problems occurring between organizational components. Thus, there is an opportunity provided for learning about individual, group, and organizational relationships simultaneously.

Committee Problem Solving

In committee problem solving, real or hypothetical problems are assigned to small groups of students who work together toward a final group product. Whereas the case method emphasizes analysis by individual students followed by discussion, committee problem solving stresses discussion and joint effort from the beginning.

The problems assigned may be such that they can be completed within one class session, in which case they are selected so as to parallel or illustrate on-going instruction. On the other hand, problems may require much research and work on them may extend over weeks or even a term or semester. In either event, all facts and information relevant to the problems must be available to the students or accessible through research.

Although solving a problem should certainly help students to learn more about its content, the major learning to come from this method seems to be in the area of problem-solving techniques. Students learn how to attack problems, gather data, weigh alternatives, and derive solutions. Furthermore, in committee problem solving, students learn how to reconcile differing viewpoints in order to arrive at a group decision.

Committee problem solving is especially useful for training groups of people who are required to work together on a daily basis. Thus, staffs, departments, or sections whose missions involve daily cooperative effort may benefit greatly from jointly attacking and solving assigned problems.

 


18Chapter Six has been adapted from: Small-Group Instruction: Theory and Practice, Joseph A. Olmstead, Human Resources Research Organization, Alexandria, VA, 1974.

  Return to Table of Contents