What Group Dynamics Can Teach Us about Classroom Learning

I am unabashedly proud of my pedagogical article resource file. I’ve been collecting good articles on teaching and learning since the early ’80s. I use the file almost every day, and in the process of looking for a particular article, I regularly stumble onto others whose contents I remember when I see them but have otherwise forgotten.

I ran into just such an article recently. It’s old, published in 1986, but it was the first article I remember reading where the content of the discipline (in this case sociology) was used to explain certain instructional dynamics. Actually, there’s a whole genre of pedagogical scholarship that does this, not just in sociology but also in many disciplines.

In this article, Billson compares the classroom to a small group. She applies the principles of small group dynamics as they are studied and understood in sociology to what happens in the classroom. And she does so for this reason: “Deeper awareness of small group processes can enhance the teaching effectiveness of college faculty through improving their ability to raise student participation levels, increase individual and group motivation, stimulate enthusiasm, and facilitate communication in the classroom.” (p. 143) I’d say those outcomes are still of interest to most of us.

So what principles of small group dynamics might help us better understand what’s happening in our classrooms? Billson identifies and discusses 15—four are highlighted here.

Principle 1: Every participant in a group is responsible for the outcome of the group interaction. Billson acknowledges that the major responsibility does belong to the professor, but she maintains that students share a “significant responsibility” as well. (p. 144) She recommends discussing that responsibility with students and explores the possibility of letting students plan certain segments of the course or maybe offer input as to the weight of the course’s various assignments.

Principle 4: When people feel psychologically safe in a group, their participation levels will increase. This isn’t a particularly new or novel idea, but it’s something professors often take for granted. Most of us do feel safe in the classroom. We’ve been going to college classes for years. For students, classrooms don’t feel as comfortable. They can be made to feel safer when students are known by names, when their first attempts to contribute garner positive feedback, and when the professor avoids sarcasm and ridicule.

Principle 8: The leader of any group serves as a model for that group. “The way in which professors play their role, including how they present expectations of students, carry out responsibilities, and handle privileges implicit in the professorial role, has a profound effect on how students enact their role.” (p. 147)

Principle 13: A group will set its own norms of behavior and will expect conformity to them. These norms may extend to the professor. The same policies and procedures can be used and yet classes respond to them differently. In some classes, students argue at length about exam answers. In other classes, they want assignment deadlines extended. In many classes, a designated few become the only students who participate. Professors need to be aware of these norms and if they work against course goals, they should be discussed openly with students.

Although “small group” isn’t a label that feels like it fits classes with more than 100 students, even large classes exhibit many features typical of groups. Applying these principles can result in classroom climates where learning is a more likely outcome. I’d say Billson was way ahead of her time in identifying what helps to make classrooms learner-centered.

Reference: Billson, J. (1986). The college classroom as a small group: Some implications for teaching and learning. Teaching Sociology, 14 (July), 143-151.

Reprinted from What Classes and Small Groups Have in Common The Teaching Professor, 26.3(2012): 6.