In the closing years of the twentieth century, advances in computerized imaging technology gave researchers the opportunity to study how the brain actually learns. To date, their findings appear to confirm what many educators have believed for centuries. Actively engaging the mind of the learner leads to better learning than allowing them to sit back and passively receive information presented by a teacher.
In theory, this conclusion is hard to dispute, although some do. In practice, finding methods to allow active involvement while at the same time ensuring sufficient time to cover required course content is difficult.
One of the favorite methods of many instructors is group discussion. In situations where all members of the group are eager to participate, it is easy to assume everyone is learning. However, in the real world, this is not always the case. Individuals can and do get lost in the group process and learn little more than they would in a formal lecture setting.
Yet because of its efficiency, teachers often opt for group discussion, forgetting that its purpose is to enhance individual learning. Is there really such a thing as “group” learning?
Brain-based research tells us the learning takes place in “chunks” and the brain needs rest between bursts of learning. If you believe the research, this goes a long way towards explaining the inefficiency of the lecture method. A long lecture presents more content in an uninterrupted setting than the brain can endure.
Today many teachers who believer there is still a need for content presentations seek to break down their content into bite-sized chunks the brain can handle. This often takes the form of short content presentations followed by group work.
However, following a content burst with a properly structured individual assignment can have the same effect. It allows for an active response from each learner. It eliminates one of the major drawbacks of group discussion. Some individuals are reluctant to participate and avoid active involvement in the group discussion activity.
Some effective group discussion tasks can easily be adapted to the individual level. For example, if the group task is to rank order content topics according to some criteria, individual learners can be assigned the same task.
However, there is no denying some tasks lend themselves to group work, such as comparing and contrasting content. If you have presented four different approaches to coaching in an industrial training workshop, there is significant benefit to be gained from sharing ideas and opinions.
The point here is simple. There are more ways than one to promote active involvement of learners. In many ways, individual assignments are superior in that they force everyone to get involved. To get the best of both worlds, many teachers alternate their student involvement periods between individual assignments and group discussion activities. In both cases, the end goal is the same – allowing each learner the opportunity to put bits and pieces presented to them under a microscope for their own examination.