Small group interaction has been seen to have a positive effect from early biblical times, as seen in the following verse from the Old Testament: "Two can accomplish more than twice as much as one, for the results can be much better. If one falls, the other pulls him up; but if a man falls when he is alone, he's in trouble." (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10, 1975, p 629, The Living Bible).From this verse one can understand that in life it is very difficult to solve problems in isolation. However if one seeks the help of others, problems can be solved quicker and easier than trying to do so alone. Furthermore in recent times, the benefits of small group interaction are seen in teaching and learning environments.
This literature review will focus specifically on postgraduate teaching and learning, and aims to give a critical review of the literature on the benefits and the shortcomings of small group interaction specifically for this group. The discussion below describes small group interaction in terms of peer learning, collaborative learning, and co-operative learning. The review expresses some of the many varied viewpoints that have been gained in trying to determine the value of small group interaction for postgraduate students.
2. Small group interaction in teaching and learning
2.1 What is small group interaction?
Small group interaction involves a group of people, working alone or working in small groups with a facilitator or a tutor (Basturkmen, 2003). Furthermore, this leads to working together in a non competitive environment to reach a common goal. In short, small group interaction gives the opportunity for individuals to increase their skills in problem solving, leadership and communication.
2.2 Small group interaction as defined in literature from the different viewpoints of peer learning,
collaborative learning and cooperative learning
2.2.1 Peer learning
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). In addition 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" (as cited in Havnes , 2008, p. 199). 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. Furthermore 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. In contrast Havnes (2008) cites Bruner's 1984 suggestion that in an informal approach to peer mediated learning, there is no tutor or qualified person present and that there is a horizontal line of communication, in which no predetermined solution exists.
A more modern view of peer learning is where one learns with and from people who are of the same cohort, which are 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. Furthermore 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. In other words it is a form of consolidating concepts for themselves by having to explain them clearly to others.
2.2.2 Collaborative learning
In collaborative learning, students work on a real problem for a long duration, using different types of channels which promote cognitive processes- collecting, arranging and assessing information (Donnelly & Fitzmaurice, 2005). Likewise Kumpulainen and Kaartine, (2003) view collaborative learning methods as the working together of individuals to achieve the same goal. This is achieved by actively looking for a mutual understanding which surpasses the individual's intellectual ability. Similarly another view of collaborative learning is that students express their own views and based on this information, the other group members articulate solutions. Another point is that through the interaction of ideas students will eventually arrive at a mutual solution for the task at hand (Van den Bossche, Gijselaers, Segers & Kirschner, 2006).
2.2.3 Co-operative learning
Co-operative learning is defined as a process which aids the collection of knowledge and gaining of skills as pointed out by Scherman and du Toit (2008). Similarly Siegel (2005) expands on the idea that co-operative learning methods include the necessity of students being able to work productively together to acquire knowledge. In addition it involves being accountable for the acquiring of knowledge for yourself as well as for all other members of the group.
2.3 Benefits derived from small group interaction in terms of peer learning, collaborative learning
and co-operative learning
Boud, Cohen, and Sampson (2001) point out that peer learning will enable individuals to work together with other people of different diverse backgrounds. This interaction enables individuals to examine different intellectual outlooks and to be able to derive a unified solution that will enable individuals to best fulfil the needs of the task. In addition Boud et al. also noted that peer learning will facilitate the expression of concepts and ideas which leads to a deeper level of knowledge and ability. Therefore this knowledge and ability aids the individuals to improve on the manner in which they learn effectively. Finally Boud et al. concludes that the process of peer learning will also increase the individual's ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their peers' performance as well as their own performance.
In addition, Hunter (1999) states the benefits of collaborative learning in terms of the following outcomes. Collaborative learning enhances the ways of acquiring knowledge by actively involving the students in the process. Furthermore this provides a medium for intellectual exchange to take place, which motivates verbalising and disputing issues concerning learning concepts. This leads to an individual's further personal growth that will aid the individual in their professional career. Similarly, Olivera and Straus (2004) 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.
According to Johnson, Johnson and Holubec (1998b, cited in Johnson & Johnson, 1999) they have identified two small groups that contribute to successful group interaction. Firstly there are co-operative learning groups. Students interact together to achieve shared goals and look for answers that will help everybody. Not only do students talk freely with each other to make sure that all members know what is going on, but also motivate each other to do their best. In addition 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. As a result the outcome of this is that learning in this type of group is more beneficial than learning alone. Secondly there are high performance co-operative learning groups in which this unique group achieves more than what was originally expected. Consequently the degree of loyalty between members and dedication to achieve the goal is far greater than a normal co-operative learning group. Therefore 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.
Johnson, Johnson and Holubec (1998a cited in Johnson & Johnson,1999) stated that there are five factors that will contribute more value to small group interaction within co-operative learning groups. The first factor is 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. Consequently if there is no element of positive interdependence this will ultimately make each individual fail. The second factor is individual accountability. All members are responsible for their own work as well as helping others in the group to do well. This leads to the individual becoming stronger. The third factor is face-to-face promotive interaction. Contributions of each group member are of more value when individuals give each other credit for successful work. Furthermore praise for excellent achievement inspires members of the group to maintain a positive attitude. The fourth factor is social skills. Learning within the group allows for members to learn to take control, think rationally, develop loyalty between members as well as increasing the ability to verbalise with others. That is to say that the members will be able to communicate with each other better. The fifth factor is 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 improve. It follows that problems have to be effectively identified and successfully solved together within the group. All in all these factors will have a positive effect on small group interaction.
Furthermore, according to Johnson and Johnson (1989, cited in Johnson & Johnson, 1999), three positive outcomes of co-operative learning were identified. To begin with, achievement is one of the positive outcomes. This refers to the sharing of ideas together in a group, to reach a common goal. As a result a larger amount of work is achieved by the group collectively than what would have been achieved by doing the task alone. The next positive outcome is interpersonal relationships. 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. In other words, 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, it does allow for the possibility for friendships to develop. Ultimately the last positive outcome is psychological health and social competence. If the individual sees their value in a group, it will build up the individual's well being and develops the individual's self confidence. It follows that the individual will be more comfortable in the group and be able to give more constructive contributions in the group.
2.4 Disadvantages derived from small group interaction in general
According to Johnson, Johnson and Holubec (1998b, cited in Johnson & Johnson, 1999) they identified two small groups that contribute to unsuccessful group interaction. Firstly there are pseudo learning groups which comprise of a group of students who are reluctant to share information, loyalty does not exist as they withhold valuable information from each other. The reason for this is that the students have a 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. Secondly, in 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. In addition to this the 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. Consequently, 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.
3. Small group interaction in teaching and learning on a postgraduate level
3.1 Research conducted on the value of small group interaction in teaching and learning on
a postgraduate level.
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 to learn like a parrot, as well as to express your views on curriculum content. According to Havnes (2008) he 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. In addition 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. Due to the fact that there is no one giving expert advice, students need to think outside the box. As a result peer mediated learning also allows for more debating and promotes enthusiasm within the group to produce a solution together. One can conclude that 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.
Similarly Havnes, (2008) and Topping, (2005) 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. It stands to reason that individuals will not feel humiliated by admitting their own ignorance, as there is no person of authority who will judge them. This results in a non threatening environment for individuals to gain knowledge through trial and error. It follows that a person's self confidence will grow and this leads to a greater understanding and ability to solve problems. 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. For example, 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). It follows that social skills can also be developed through working closely together within a group. 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.
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 and may have a narrow mindset that their view is the only correct view. This will be 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. Furthermore concerning international students within the group, problems may arise due to language barriers and different cultural backgrounds.
In addition, the term diversity mentioned above does not just include differences in personality and culture of each group member. It also involves each group member's preferred learning style. Erdem (2009) clarifies four different types of learning styles: converger, diverger, assimilator and accommodator. In his research, he concluded that students performed better when they were in groups of heterogeneous learning methods as opposed to homogeneous learning methods. Similarly Kayes, Kayes, and Kolb (2005) found out that a number of groups with similar learning styles performed at a satisfactory level. However Kayes et al. also found out that that groups with mixed learning styles achieved much better results than the groups with the similar learning styles. This finding confirms the research done by Erdem (2009), that there is more value in diverse group interaction. In contrast in another study done by Sandmire, Vroman, and Sanders (2000, cited in Erdem 2009) it was found that small group interaction with students with diverse learning styles did not achieve the group task considerably better than students with similar learning styles.
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 & P.A. Kirschner, 2009). For example, a task that has a high degree of difficulty and is high in workload would be more beneficial to do in a group than to do it individually. It stands to reason that if one tried to do a complex task individually, it would cause great emotional stress and the individual would not be able to solve the problem on their own as successfully as the group could have achieved it. In contrast, if the task is simplistic and has a low workload, 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. The asynchronous 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. The 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 asynchronous 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. That is to say that all members' ideas form an electronic transcript which can be accessed immediately by the group.
However small group interaction fostered by online collaborative learning does come with disadvantages. Research done on an online collaborative learning environment showed that when group members were unfamiliar with each other, this created many obstacles which lead to uncertainty within the group (Mäkitalo, Weinberger, Häkkinen , JärvelaÂ¨ & Fischer, 2004). In addition Mäkitalo et al. found that students in these group situations spent more time familiarising themselves, with the other group members, which reduced the time available to make progress on the task at hand. Likewise in another study done it was found that online collaborative learning does not provide concrete evidence that the group members will work together to achieve the common goal (Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochems, 2003). In addition Kreijns et al. found out that strangers working online in a collaborative task do not know how to effectively relate to each other and this hinders reaching the end goal. Likewise Goodman and Leyden (1991) found that the benefit of small group interaction on individual learning increases as group members get to know each other better. Furthermore Mäkitalo et al. identified that uncertainty can occur, when online group members do not get instant responses regarding their suggestions for the task at hand as well as how they are going to compile the final product. Therefore students will have further doubts, concerning whether their work submitted is valid or not and this leads to delays in communication which ultimately have a negative value in small group interaction.
Another research study conducted by Scherman and du Toit (2008) pointed out that postgraduate student experiences are important in determining the effectiveness of co-operative learning. Consequently postgraduate students found that co-operative groups expanded their knowledge, through working together. In addition co-operative groups attracted the postgraduate student's attention, making learning fun and interesting. It followed that postgraduate students also realised that by working together they were able to learn from each other and they also had a deeper understanding of concepts after the group work was complete. To conclude postgraduate students seemed to prefer this way of acquiring knowledge as opposed to the lecturer monotonously delivering the lecture. Although there are positive results from co-operative learning, Scherman and du Toit (2008) identified some shortcomings. For instance, if postgraduate classes were in the evening and the majority of the students worked full time, there would be difficulties in concentrating as the students would be tired. This would impact the contributions to the group. Another shortcoming was that the postgraduate students who were working full time would have difficulty in finding time that suited all members to meet for group activities. Furthermore personal characteristics also played a role in contributing to the group, such as dominating students, timid students and students who have difficulties in working with others.
Similarly Hancock (2004) took into account what the effect of peer orientation would be in co-operative learning. He particularly paid attention to motivation and achievement while observing postgraduate students in group activities. Hancock (2004) reported that groups of postgraduate students with a low peer orientation (students that would rather work alone than with others) did not achieve significantly less than groups of postgraduate students with a high peer orientation (students who prefer working in groups than alone). One would have actually expected greater achievement to be produced by the group of high peer orientated students as they had a greater desire to work together. However the reasons for students with a high peer orientation not achieving significantly better than students with a low peer orientation, could be due to the fact that high peer orientated students were more keen to socialise in the group than acquiring knowledge. In addition these students misinterpreted key concepts as their attention was more focused on the socialising aspect of the group activity. Therefore Hancock (2004) confirms the fact that co-operative learning amongst postgraduate students promotes achievement, despite group members having a high or a low peer orientation.
3.2 Is value achieved in small group interaction on a postgraduate level negative, positive or inconclusive?
F.Kirschner et al. (2009) argued that 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 some of the positive values that have been concluded have been based on test results which have measured the performance of the individual in the learning phase. This performance is measured by seeing how many times the student has shared information, as well as the quality of information they have shared with the group. Therefore research conducted in this way does not directly test the knowledge gained by the student by means of doing a written test after the group activity has been completed. Likewise another research study revealed that during a group learning phase, problems were solved effectively and good communication took place amongst learners but this did not necessarily mean that learners as individuals actually learnt something (P.A. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006; Sweller, P. A. Kirschner & Clark 2007). Similarly Kester and 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 them 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. However research done in an uncontrolled natural environment could also have inconclusive results as the participants may behave differently when they know that they are being observed, as stated by F. Kirshner et al. (2009).
Thirdly, research done on computer mediated collaborative learning typically focuses on successfully achieving the goal set out by the task. F. Kirshner et al. (2009) reports that 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 can be accomplished by an individual successfully, it will be a futile exercise for that same task to be done in a group activity. Lastly, F. Kirshner et al. point out that research that concentrates on the achievement attained by the group as a whole, excludes the measuring of knowledge acquired by the individual. Consequently with this method of research, the positive value achieved by the individual after the group activity has been completed, cannot be accurately measured.
In addition Olivera and Straus (2004) also found that the way in which research is conducted, undermines the value found in small group interaction. Firstly, research done in a clinical environment, which is not the normal environment in which a group would work in, will lead to inconclusive findings. Secondly, if the time duration for the group work is very short, the students will not have enough time to interact effectively. Due to research being done on a once off group activity, students are not motivated to give of their best. The fact remains that 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. Thirdly tasks used in research for group activities are not as diverse as would normally be encountered in the real world. Therefore this results in little opportunity for individuals to exchange knowledge back and forth.
It could be concluded from the above findings, that due to the fact that there are so many shortcomings in the way that research is conducted, results obtained cannot be perceived as
being accurate findings.However based on the findings of the majority of the other sources that
have been used in this literature survey,there is definitely a positive value in small group interaction in the teaching and learning of postgraduate studies.
There will always be some form of positive value gained by small group interaction on a postgraduate level. With respect to various requirements in terms of personnel when it comes to employing staff in companies, the following attributes are of utmost importance. Employees need to be able to integrate themselves into the working environment effectively, they need to be able to manage their time as well as to effectively resolve problems in a team (Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004). However, Oakley et al. also states that not all postgraduate students are born with these qualities. Therefore there is a need for postgraduates to practice these skills before entering the workforce. In the case of acquiring effective time management skills, Oakley et al. confirmed that small group interaction would help prepare postgraduate students for future life, where one has to juggle career and family life. Oakley et al. also state that an employee does not have the choice of whom they would like to work with. Adding to this, their performance appraisal could hinge on their ability to work effectively in teams. Consequently the experience gained in small group interaction is critically important to the postgraduate student to ensure a successful future.
Likewise, working harmoniously and productively with other people will be a major advantage for postgraduates as it helps them to adapt socially to working in the real world, once they have left the university. In a work environment one does not work in isolation but together with many different types of people. The social interaction achieved in small group interaction at postgraduate level can only have a beneficial effect for the individual in their future career.
One can conclude from the above research done, that there are many different ways of conducting research on finding out what is the value (positive or negative value) in small group interaction in the teaching and learning of postgraduate students. Furthermore there are also many types of small group interaction such as peer learning, collaborative learning and co-operative learning.
Values can mean different things to different people in terms of success. If the objective of the small group interaction has been successfully accomplished, one can conclude that a positive value has been achieved. However this positive value could have been attained at great personal cost to the postgraduate. As a result this could make them reluctant to willingly engage in small group interaction in the future. This raises the question for further research. If the same group members were involved in a future group activity would the exact same value (positive and negative) be achieved? On the contrary one could argue that if a small group interactive task is not successfully accomplished, could one say that no value has been achieved in the given situation? The individual members of the group could have increased their social and interactive skills during the process, regardless of whether the end task has been accomplished successfully or not. Subsequent studies on the same members of the group could yield more positive results in terms of the objective being successfully achieved.
Communication is the key to success in life. With small group interaction the postgraduate student has the opportunity to improve their verbal skills and to learn to get on with all types of people. One does not live in isolation in this world. It stands to reason that better communication skills can only be a valuable tool for every postgraduate student.
In theory it is plausible that small group interaction will have a positive value for postgraduate students. Although the majority of research that was used in this literature review
has proved that there is definitely value in small group interaction in teaching and learning of postgraduate studies some of the sources that have been researched in this literature review have inconclusive results. These inconclusive results were due to the limitations in the way in which the research was conducted. Negative values of small group interaction, found in some cases, do not necessarily mean that a positive value could not have been found if the testing environment was different. For this reason, there is much to be learnt about the improvement of research methods in the future, for determining the value gained through small group interaction in teaching and learning for postgraduate studies.