Science of Learning: Group Discussions Compared to other Teaching Methods

Class or group discussions are a fairly traditional way of teaching students through the use of seminars and other tutorial gatherings. Other than conducting laboratory or field studies, the four primary methods of teaching are lectures, questions and answers, demonstrations, and discussions. Abbas (2015) compared these four teaching methods and measured each of the following aspects of learning: academic motivation, self-confidence, perseverance, willingness to work hard, academic progress, creativity, elaboration, originality and cognitive flexibility.

Academic motivation is necessary for the acquisition of higher order thinking skills, and in his work, Abbas looked for improvement in several of the foundational aspects of higher order thinking skills. I have written previously about perseverance, willingness to work hard, academic progress, creativity, and cognitive flexibility as a subset of skills that make up critical thinking as a higher order thinking skill. Since all of these subskills were examined across the four teaching methods, the question is how did the methods fare on each of these skills.

To cut a long story short, the only method of teaching that increased academic progress is group discussions. Questions and answers, as well as demonstrations, are effective at increasing all of the other skills to some degree. However, lecturing showed no increase in any of the skills listed.

Berry (2007) found that in addition to increasing basic thinking skills, group discussions increase problem-solving skills. Another of the higher order thinking skills that underlie critical thinking is the ability to build consensus. Of all the methods listed above, only group discussions will contribute to the ability to build consensus in a group. Weimer, (2011) points out that it is through discussions that students learn communication skills as well as the ability to cooperate.

Another benefit of discussion is the opportunity to exercise reasoning, logic and rational thinking with peers. Ongoing discussions that continue over the course of days or weeks provide students with the opportunity to gather evidence for their arguments, consider counter arguments and new evidence, and practise the skill of self-correction (changing direction in light of new evidence).

Finally, discussions in a group have the added benefit of being an active form of social learning, which can have a powerful influence on how well we remember and integrate new information. The emotive aspect of group discussions cannot be overlooked, nor should it be ignored. Learning is far more effective with an emotive component, found best in social learning situations, than without.

Face-to-face discussions are preferable for the development of the skills listed above, however, online asynchronous discussions can foster many of the benefits listed above and have some added benefits of their own. Because of the more paced aspect of online interaction, the interaction can be carried out with more thought and preparation. However, the greatest benefit can be found with a blend of online discussion with face-to-face continuation. This produces the most effective learning environment for students.

There remains one question. What is the role of the teacher in discussions? If the teacher leads or plays a leading role in a face-to-face group discussion, students will direct their attention to and defer to the teacher as an expert. The presence of a teacher in a discussion group acts like a damper on the interaction between the group members, stifling discussion as the students wait for the “right” answer to come from the authority. A teacher observing a discussion will have a smaller inhibiting effect, but the most effective discussions are carried out in the absence of a teacher.

This may be seen as a danger as the students may find themselves moving in a completely wrong direction in their understanding. This would highlight the desirable blend of face-to-face and online discussions that can be carried over a number of sessions. In the online world that our students now inhabit, there is far less self-inhibition when students are carrying out an online discussion, even when they are aware that a teacher will be monitoring their interactions. The online component, with monitoring, can also be a way to track participation and social loafing. Teacher interference can then take the form of an occasional nudge with a supportive “You might want to check out Jones and Jones…” sent to group members. Another tactic would be to take a few minutes to take corrective action when the students get together again in a face-to-face group. This can also have the added benefit of providing a generous nod of approval for the work a group has been doing while providing a gentle corrective nudge to move the discussion in a more productive direction.

Although question and answer learning situations are not as effective as group discussions at fostering the acquisition of higher order thinking skills, question and answer sessions can be used as a basis for starting discussions.

It must be added that if the goal of a teacher is to transmit information for temporary memorization and regurgitation, discussions are not an effective method of teaching and lecturing is far preferable.

The evidence is pretty clear and as professionals, we must select the teaching method that is best suited to the goals we have for the learners. If the goal is to foster the learning of higher order thinking skills, group discussion is the optimal method to use.

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