The purpose of this literature review is to determine what postgraduates gain from working together in small groups. The discussion below describes small group interaction in terms of peer learning, collaborative learning, and co-operative learning.
2.1 Conventional view vs. Modern view
The conventional view of peer learning was based on the assumption that the peer assistant is a substitute teacher, where knowledge comes from the teacher to the peer assistant to the student (Topping, 2005). This is seen in Vygotsky's notion of proximal development: "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky 1978, 86). From this, it can be seen that what the individual can achieve with the help of others is greater than what they can achieve by themselves. From Vygotsky's notion of the zone of proximal development, it can be deduced that this is a more formal type of peer learning. Formal peer learning can take place in small groups in a classroom in which it is mediated by a teacher or when a tutor is appointed to work together in or outside the classroom. However Anton Havnes (2008) cites Bruner's 1984 suggestion that an informal approach peer mediated learning has a horizontal line of communication, in which no predetermined solution exists.
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A more modern view of peer learning is where one learns with and from people who are of the same cohort -students who are studying the same course (Falchikov, 2001). According to Topping (2005) it involves gaining knowledge and understanding through the assistance of persons who are equal in title without direct interference of teachers. The value of this exercise is that the student who clearly understands a concept is able to help him/herself to remember the concept by sharing his/her understandings with others. It is a form of consolidating concepts for themselves by having to explain them clearly to others
2.2 Peer mediated learning
In high school one is forced to learn certain things, students are not encouraged to learn more than what the curriculum requires. However in higher education one is required to think for yourself and not learn like a parrot as well as to express your views on curriculum content.
Havnes (2008) reported that although the curriculum content of tertiary education enables learning it does not clarify learning that takes place beyond the curriculum. Learning beyond curriculum occurs when students work together to create their own understanding of the curriculum. Havnes (2008) also found that peer mediated learning aids postgraduates, as it is a more creative process in which no one knows the right answer. There is no one giving expert advice, therefore students need to think outside the box. Peer mediated learning also allows for more debating and promotes enthusiasm within the group to produce a solution together.
There is definitely value in small group interaction as an individual would be under more stress to reach the same goal on their own, than in a group set up where members each contribute to the solution.
According to ( Havnes, 2008; Topping, 2005) they found that informal peer learning has a positive value, as group members are free to discuss what they do know as well as what they do not understand. Individuals do not feel humiliated by admitting their own ignorance as there is no person of authority who will judge them. This gives individuals an easier environment to gain knowledge through trail and error, which builds up a person's self confidence and leads to a greater understanding and ability to solve problems.
From the above it can be seen that informal peer learning can have more of an advantage over formal peer learning, as the individual is not under pressure to perform in the informal peer learning environment.
To conclude, informal peer learning involve disagreements and confrontations. However the end result of small group interaction will develop communication abilities of all group members. A person in the group might think that they understand the idea, but it is only when they verbalise it, does the idea have concrete meaning (Topping, 2005). Within the group social skills can also be developed through working closely together. For instance one will be able to rely on each other, develop self confidence by sharing one's own views and to learn to be interactive with diverse personalities.
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3. Collaborative learning:
Collaborative learning is done in a group whereby members share knowledge so that everyone can benefit by their ideas being exchanged.
Although small group interaction is beneficial for postgraduates, it does have drawbacks in terms of group diversity (Marjanovic, 1999) .For instance one group member may be a very controlling person-"know it all" and have a narrow mindset that their view is the only correct view. This is detrimental to group interaction as everyone's ideas should be considered to arrive at a higher understanding. However other members might be too timid to express their ideas and will not participate. In addition, members might be lazy and let the others do all the work. In the case of international students, problems may arise due to language barriers and different cultural backgrounds.
In order for collaborative learning to be effective, size of the task and level of difficulty will determine the value of the small group interaction that will take place F.Kirschner , Paas and P.A. Kirschner (2008). For example a task that has a high degree of difficulty and high in work load would be beneficial to do it in a group than to do it individually. If one tried to do the task individually it would cause great emotional stress and the individual will not be able to solve the problem as well as the group. In contrast, if the task is simplistic and has a low work load, it would not be beneficial for group work. Due to the time one would spend on getting the group together, it could be more effectively used in just completing the task individually.
Due to the increasing advances of technology in education, collaborative computer mediated technologies were established.
There are two forms of collaborative technologies:
Asynchoronous collaborative technologies are "any time any place" (Marjanovic, 1999, 129). The group members work at their own place when it suits them. This has value for students who are not able to enrol full time at a university due to living far away.
Synchronous collaborative technologies are "same time same place" or "same time any place" (Marjanovic, 1999, 129). Students get together on their computers at an allocated time and results are obtained quicker and a conclusion can be reached sooner than asynchoronous collaborative technologies. The value with this group support system is that all students can work at the same time without waiting for one member to finish talking. All members' ideas form an electronic transcript which can be accessed immediately by the group.
According to F.Kirschner et al. (2008) there are four reasons why research that is done on the testing of the value of small group interaction in collaborative learning does not provide sound concrete evidence of the value of learning in small groups.
Firstly the positive value that is concluded has been used by test results which have measured the performance of the individual by seeing how many times they have shared information as well as the relevance of type of information they shared with the group. Therefore research conducted in this way does not directly test the knowledge gained by the individual (after having shared group experience) by giving the individual a written test. According to (P.A. Kirschner, J. Sweller & R. E. Clark, 2006; J. Sweller, P. A. Kirschner & R.E. Clark 2007) they found out that during a group learning phase problems were solved effectively and good communication took place amongst learners but this does not necessarily mean that learners as individuals actually learn something. Similarly (Kester & Paas 2005) concluded that results achieved in a learning phase amongst a group do not mean that each individual has successfully acquired the knowledge. They firmly believe that this can only be accurately measured by testing the performance of individuals in a test phase.
Secondly, research done in a very strict controlled environment does not maximise the potential for positive results to be achieved in small group interaction. The reason for this is that students might feel inhibited by the environment which will lead to students not being able to give constructive contributions. The results achieved in this type of research will not be as positive as they would have been if the environment had not been rigidly controlled.
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Thirdly, research done on computer mediated collaborative learning typically focuses on successfully achieving the goal set out by the task. This research does not necessarily take into consideration the degree of difficulty in achieving the end result as well as the volume of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve the end results. For instance if a small and easy task that can be accomplished by an individual successfully there will be no value in for that same task to be done in a group set up as it would not provide positive results.
Lastly research that concentrates on the end results by the goal that needs to be achieved as a group, excludes the measuring of knowledge acquired by the individual. With this method of research the positive value of an individual gaining of knowledge can not be accurately measured.
Fernando Olivera and Susan G Straus conducted research to determine how much an individual gains from working in a group and what methods contributed to the individual gaining this knowledge. Their research experiment involved observing individuals working alone, working together in groups and working alone while observing a group. By doing this research they found that collaborative learning in groups enhances the transfer of learning to the individual. These results imply that this transfer of learning is due to the cognitive elements in the group interaction.
However in this specific research study, the value that was found in small group interaction could be undermined due to the following three points. Firstly, the research was done in a clinical environment, which was not the natural and relaxed environment in which group work would normally be done in the real world. Secondly, the time duration for the group work was very short and the students did not have enough time to interact effectively. Due to the once off activity, students are not motivated to give their best because whether they do well or not with the task in the group it does not matter as students will not be working in that group again. It was found in (Goodman & Leyden 1991; Michaelson & Sharp 1991) that the benefit of small group interaction on individual learning increases as group members get to know each other better. Thirdly the task that the group had to work on in this study was not as diverse as would normally be encountered in the real world. Therefore there was not much of an opportunity for individuals to exchange knowledge back and forth.
From the above it is seen that results gained using these set conditions is positive but it could have been more positive if conditions under which the research was conducted were different.
4. Co-operative learning:
Co-operative learning involves working in small groups to reach a common goal, and the reliance on individual effort and group effort to achieve the goal. However it is not just a general pooling of ideas, it involves being accountable for the acquiring of knowledge for yourself as well as for all other members of the group.
As a result of V. Senerman and P. Du toit's research, it can be seen that student experiences are important in determining the effectiveness of co-operative learning. Students found that co-operative groups expanded their knowledge, through working together. Co-operative groups attracted the student's attention, making learning fun and interesting. Students also realised that by working together they were able to learn from each other. Students also had a deeper understanding of concepts after the group work was complete. Students also seem to prefer this way of acquiring knowledge as opposed to one monotonously delivering of the lecture.
Although there are positive results from co-operative learning there are shortcomings. For instance, if postgraduate classes are in the evening and the majority of the students work full time, there will be difficulties in concentrating as students are tired. This impacts contributions to the group. Students working full time also have difficulty in finding time that suits all members to meet. Personal characteristics also play a role in contributing to the group, such as dominating students, timid students and students who have difficulties in working with others. In addition postgraduate workload at university is high and the group may feel stressed with everything they need to do.
According to (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1998b) they have identified factors that contribute to successful and unsuccessful co-operative group learning. There are two types of groups that do not add value to small group interaction, these are:
Pseudo learning groups. In this group students are reluctant to share information loyalty does not exist as they withhold valuable information from each other. This is due to the students' misconception that marks will be allocated to the student who acquires the most accurate knowledge. Therefore there is no value in this group learning experience as the students will learn more by working alone.
Traditional classroom learning groups. Students are allocated to work together in a group and they feel that they have no choice in choosing the members of their groups. Students are tested individually and not for group effort. Students who feel that they are doing most of the work become disillusioned and tend to give less than their best towards the end. The result of this is, that what is achieved by the group is more than what lazy individuals would achieve on their own. However the result is less than what the hard working student would be able to achieve on their own.
From the above two groups it can be seen that competitiveness within a group is not healthy as members do not perform freely but withhold information. In doing so this prevents more learning from taking place and therefore limits the value of group learning.
There are two types of groups that will add value to small group interaction, these are:
Co-operative learning groups. Students interact together to achieve shared goals and look for answers that will help everybody. They talk freely with each other to make sure that all members know what is going on and motivate each other to do their best. Each person's contribution is monitored in order to determine if everyone is submitting work and that members are increasing their knowledge by doing so. The outcome of this is that learning in this type of group is more beneficial than learning alone.
High performance co-operative learning groups. This is a unique group that achieves more than what was originally expected. The degree of loyalty between members and dedication to achieve the goal is far greater than a normal co-operative learning group.
It can be deduced from the above two groups that the effectiveness of what is achieved within the group is based on what type of people are in the group.
According to (Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1998a) there are five factors that will contribute more value to small group interaction within co-operative learning groups:
Positive interdependence. Individuals of the group must realise that every member has equal importance in the group and without the contribution of everyone in the group, the group will fail to achieve. (This will ultimately make each individual fail as well)
Individual accountability. All members are responsible for their own work as well as helping others in the group to do well. This actually enables the individual to become stronger within his/herself.
Face-to-face promotive interaction. Contributions of each group member are of more value when individuals give each other credit for successful work.
Social skills. Learning within the group allows for members to learn to take control, think rationally, develop loyalty between members as well as how to solve problems to be able to verbalise with others.
Group processing. There will always be conflict in a group, however the individual's ability to rise above the situation and look at the bigger picture will increase. Problems have to be effectively identified and successfully solved together within the group.
All these factors will have a positive effect on small group interaction.
According to (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), three outcomes of co-operative learning were identified.
Sharing of ideas together in a group to reach a joint end result leads to a greater accomplishment and a higher amount of work done than what would have been achieved by doing the task alone.
Co-operative group work has value as the individual has opportunities to develop compassion with working with people who are very different to one's own personality. If an individual was working alone, they would not be able to develop this empathetic side of their character. Although working with others could make one fiercely competitive (which would be detrimental to the group, it does allow for friendships to develop.)
Psychological health and social competence:
If the individual sees their value in a group it will build the individual's well being and develops the individual's self confidence. This leads to the individual giving more in the group.