November 30, 2010

A Different Small Group Learning Method - POGIL

by Amy Nathanson, Pharm.D., PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
Small group learning with an active component is incorporated in many curricula today. Have you been in a class where you had small group breakout sessions to discuss a case or apply learned concepts?  Many of us would answer yes.  Have you been enrolled in a course which was taught exclusively using a small group learning method?  Likely fewer would say yes.  Have you heard of or been enrolled in a process-oriented guided-inquiry learning (POGIL) course?
POGIL is a student-centered small group method of education.  The goal of this educational method is geared to develop the learner’s critical thinking and communication skills while keeping the student actively engaged in the learning process.  Students work in teams of four.  Using course materials and equipped with “guided” questions from the instructor, students explore an idea, (hopefully) grasp a concept, and then apply it.1  The instructor’s role is to serve as a facilitator and, therefore, will not answer questions if s/he believes the students have enough information to come to a conclusion.2
This method of learning was initially developed for science courses and was prompted by an understanding the needs of industrial employers.3  A survey was conducted and concluded that “employers would like chemistry-trained employees whose education includes greater preparation in communication, team skills, relating applications to scientific principles, and problem solving, without sacrificing thorough preparation in basic science concepts and experimental skills.”3
I am fortunate to have participated in a POGIL course taught by one of the founders of this methdology.  It was an introduction to chemistry course taught at Franklin & Marshall College.  Reflecting back on the course, I remember it was very different from the typical lecture-base courses and, at the time, only a few courses were taught in this manner.  I enjoyed working with other students and remember favoring certain roles over others.  As a group we taught ourselves the key concepts of chemistry.
After discussing various small group teaching methods during the Educational Theory and Practice course, I have been reflecting on my experiences in this course and how it is unique.  POGIL utilizes carefully crafted learning materials to provide information to students systematically with leading questions to promote critical thinking to arrive at the best conclusion.  In each small group students have defined roles and responsibility that rotate weekly.  The roles include:
Manager- delegates responsibilities and keeps team focused, resolves disputes and ensures full member participation
Recorder- writes up group answers to turn in
Spokesperson/presenter- presents report to class
Analyst/reflector- identifies strategies and methods for problem solving, identifies positive attributes of the team
Every student is expected to learn the material on a daily basis and ensure that all group members have learned it too.
Unlike other small group learning environments such as Problem Based Learning (PBL), POGIL is more structured.  Every member of the group has an assigned role.  PBL is less structured and requires more independence of each student.1 There are never lectures in a POGIL course, whereas occasionally there is a lecture in a PBL course.
This method of learning is rewarding to students because it actively engages them in the learning process. It’s more rewarding to the instructors as well because there is constant feedback from students.  Instructors have greater awareness of how the class is doing by getting this feedback.4
In my pharmacy education at University of Maryland we have small group case-based learning activities.  These cases often included leading questions to encourage critical thinking and further application of knowledge and guidelines of disease states and therapies.  However, the groups were often too large, consisting of 10-12 students, making it difficult to effectively work as a team.  And as is typical with most group work, certain people become the leaders or “managers” for every session, and other members of the group assumed roles that they were naturally comfortable with.  This is a problem that POGIL addresses by creating small working groups and assigning student roles.
These small group learning activities take a substantial time commitment from instructors and more effort on the part of the student too.  This likely explains why small group facilitated learning is not commonplace.  However there is a place for this methodology and I believe it can be used more in pharmacy education.  The skills POGIL works to enhance are necessary skills in pharmacy:  communication and team work with patients and other health professionals are critical skills that every pharmacist should master. 

1. Eberlein T, Kampmeier J, Minderhout V, Moog RS, Platt T, Varma-Nelson P, White HB.  Pedagogies of Engagement in Science: A Comparison of PBL, POGIL and PLTL. BAMBED. 2008; 36(4):262-73. 
2. POGIL Guided Inquiry Classroom [Internet]. Lancaster: Franklin & Marshall College. The POGIL Project. C2010 [Cited 2010 Nov 19]
3. Hanson DM. Instructor’s Guide to Process-Oriented Guided-Inquiry Learning. Lisle, IL: Pacific Crest. 2006. [Cited 2010 Nov 19] 
4. POGIL [Internet]. Lancaster: Franklin & Marshall College. The POGIL Project. C2010 [Cited 2010 Nov 17]

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