Active learning is essential for students, but the rapidity, intensity, and volume of information available online can encourage passive rather than active learning. Educators aware of this problem can counteract its effects by employing methods such as small groups to engage students in active learning. Small groups are extremely valuable, especially when they include the integration of faith in learning.
Small group learning can be achieved through cooperation, collaboration, or a combination of both. Cooperative learning refers to structured, systematic learning in which students work towards a common goal. This type of learning includes communicating a common goal to group members, offering a reward for achieving the goal, assigning complementary roles to group members, holding group members accountable for their own learning, providing team-building activities or discussion of social skills for effective group work, and discussing methods for improvement. Cooperation can have favorable effects on achievement, productivity, physiological health, self-esteem, motivation, intergroup attitudes, and attitude towards learning.
In contrast, collaborative learning is a relatively unstructured process in which the small group members negotiate goals, define problems, develop procedures, and produce socially constructed knowledge. Sometimes this free collaboration fails to systematically produce learning. One way to enhance its effectiveness is to structure interactions by engaging students in well-defined scripts. A collaboration script is a set of instructions prescribing how students should form groups, interact, collaborate, and solve problems. Methods like this that employ elements of both cooperative and collaborative small group learning can achieve the best outcomes.
My university’s undergraduate Geography and Social Science program often engages students in small group projects reproducing small group dynamics including personality, social interaction, work ethic, time management, and compliance with requirements. We encourage students to understand the needs of their community so that they can proactively address those needs and to engage in peer mentoring so that stronger students assist weaker students.
We recently asked our students to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of last year’s small groups and give recommendations for future improvements. Students identified these attributes as contributing to their small groups: research skills, oral presentation skills, equal participation and contribution by all members, faithful attendance at team meetings, effective communication skills, cooperation, collaboration, and meeting deadlines. Students perceived that small groups were weakened when these attributes were missing and when there was misunderstanding of scripts and tasks, disorganization, poor time management, and personality weaknesses such as laziness or procrastination.
In their recommendations, students reflected the influence of our efforts to integrate faith in learning. They affirmed the importance of cooperation and collaboration, commitment, faithfulness, time management, organization, responsible leadership, clear understanding, and equality in task distribution, among other qualities. Students value the godly influence of Adventist education as they experience it through small group learning. What an opportunity for personal, professional, and spiritual growth and development!
As Adventist educators, let us frequently incorporate opportunities for small group learning. This will permit students of our educational institutions to apply and practice godly values, peer mentor each other, and grow in such areas as leadership, organization, time management, cooperation, collaboration and faithfulness.