January 17, 2014

Less is More: Learning in Small Groups

by: Yevgeniya Kogan, Pharm.D., PGY-2 Health-System and Administration Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

College. Freshman year.  Day one.  First class. If those factors weren’t intimidating enough, imagine hurrying through a huge college campus, and locating the tucked away lecture hall.  When you enter it, before you unfold a sea of stadium-like seats occupied by about 300 hundred unfamiliar faces. You make your way all the way up to the top of the hall looking for an empty seat. Your professor is about the size of a fly from your birds-eye perspective and you are grateful for his annoyingly loud voice and 10 foot tall power point presentation.  Now, fast-forward almost 10 years and, in stark contrast, you find yourself in front of a computer (maybe in your pajamas), on your own, with faceless participants, and an unfamiliar voice permeating from the telephone leading a discussion. You are in your very first online class. Questions come to mind; which is better? What environment provides the most opportunity for growth?  Which set up will I benefit from the most? The answer might seem obvious. After all, who doesn’t love the comfort of their own pajamas over a humongous lecture hall crammed next to students, some of whom have obviously given up showering in favor of long nights of partying. Are these two extremes the only way?

Hamann1 and colleagues took on the challenge of assessing just that question in a study where they compared discussions conducted in large face-to-face classes, online classes, and (the alternative) small face-to-face classes. Based on a survey of students who were exposed to all three environments, they found (no surprise) large class discussions were rated least favorable by the majority of students. The interesting findings emerged when they compared online and small-group discussions. While online- classes tend to yield the most satisfaction when it comes to participation and the ability to express one’s thoughts, the small-group face-to-face discussions out-perform the online environment in terms of getting to know your classmates, stimulating interest, and overall satisfaction.

The authors explore participation, which is known to enhance learning and stimulate creativity, even further by looking at gender differences. It is common knowledge that male participants tend to dominate discussions. When Hamann1 and colleagues explored this phenomenon they saw the following. As expected, in the face-to-face classes, both large and small, males tended to participate more frequently than their female counterparts. However, in the online environment, this difference is virtually eliminated and equal participation emerged. The increased participation from the female students might be attributable to a less intimidating environment.  There is also evidence to support that smaller groups tend to level the playing field for students of different ethnic backgrounds.2

During my undergraduate years I was in many large-classrooms in a science-focused school for most of my science and math courses.  Indeed, most colleges and universities teach the  introductory science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses in large, stadium-like lecture halls. According to Jason Koebler3, the large classroom is a way higher-education uses a “weed-them-out” process that teaches students to sink or swim.  Luckily, I swam. During graduate school I was in both the traditional large classroom and the smaller group setting where discussions were mandated and you were held accountable for the taught content. As I reflect back, one thing stands out the most are the many faces engrossed in their laptops – such a studious bunch!   But on closer inspection, the sea of brightly lit screens were displaying social media, news, movies, and online chats.  Very few screens projected the course material.  Perhaps the large-classroom wasn’t as studious as I thought.  In contrast, my experience in small groups, while sometimes forced, yielded greater interaction, discussion, and exchange of ideas.  True, some small groups were more effective in generating discussions than others.  In larger small-groups (more than 15 people), more people took the back seat while in smaller small-groups (8 students or less) everyone was engaged. When does a small group become too large?

Class size has been a hot topic for many years.  The US Federal government allocated $12 billion (over a seven-year period) to reduce class size and states like California spent another $3.6 billion.4  There are some conflicting results when it comes to class size.  Maasoumi4 and colleagues’ analysis indicates that a reduction in class size from 20 or more students down to less than 20 students generally increases test scores for those students who initially scored below the median test score but decreases test scores for those who scored above the median.  Conversely, Konstantopoulos5  found that all students reap the benefit from being in small classes when they examined Stanford Achievement Test scores in  mathematics, reading, and science.  The greatest benefit was seen in students who were low achievers and those who spent the longest duration of time in a small class setting. Nye6 reported that when students transitioned from small classes to large ones, the academic benefits persists for two full years.

As the pressures on academia increases to produce competent and confident students, it is important to consider the benefits of small groups and the impact they have on student satisfaction, understanding of concepts, and ability to work together.  Learning in small, face-to-face groups seems to have many advantages over large, content driven, sink or swim classrooms and independent, self-directed, lonely cyberspace classes.

1. Hamann K, Pollock P, Wilson B. Assessing Student Perceptions of the Benefits of Discussion in Small-Group, Large-Class, and Online Learning Contexts. College Teaching [serial online]. Spring 2012; 60(2):65-75. Accessed December 15, 2013.
2. Pollock P, Hamann K, Wilson B. Learning through Discussions: Comparing the Benefits of Small-Group and Large-Class Settings. Journal of Political Science Education [serial online]. January 1, 2011;7(1):48-64. Available from: ERIC, Ipswitch, MA. Accessed December 17, 2013.
3. Koebler J. Experts: 'Weed Out' Classes Are Killing STEM Achievement. US News & World Report.  April 19, 2012. Online. Accessed December 14, 2013.
4. Maasoumi E, Milliment D, Rangaprasad V. Class Size and Educational Policy: Who Benefits from Smaller Classes? Econometric Review [serial online]. November 2005;24(4):33-68. Accessed December 17, 2013.
5. Konstantopoulos S, Chung V. What are the Long-Term Effects of Small Classes on the Achievement Gap? Evidence from the Lasting Beneftis Study. American Journal of Education [serial online]. November 1, 2009;116(1):125-54. Accessed December 14, 2013.
6. Nye B, Tennessee State Univ.  Small is Far Better. A Report on Three Class-Size Initiatives: Tennessee’s Student Teacher Achievement Ration (STAR) Project (8/85-8/89), Lasting Benefits Study (LBS:9/89-7/92) and Project CHALLENGE (7-89-7/29) as a Policy Application (Perliminary Results). Pager No. 5. [serial online]. November 13, 1992.  Accessed December 14, 2013.

1 comment:

Tom Farley said...

I found this blog very helpful. I will benefit from the keen observations you have made and take them into consideration as I preceed with my studies. Im sure you must be an asset to whatever program you belong to now. Keep up the good work!