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Making self-managed group learning effective for postgraduates

Raymond Randall (Institute of Work Health and Organisations).

Most students indicate that they enjoy discussing their views and ideas with others from their cohort. In practice, most small group teaching is supervised in some way (usually by academic staff, researchers or postgraduate students). Working in these small tutorial groups is something that many students site as having an important influence on their overall academic importance. However, many theories of learning and instruction highlight the importance of self-managed learning in the development if expert knowledge. Therefore, many tutors take on the role of "facilitator" during small group teaching so that group becomes "self-managed" in order to make it more effective.

There is no doubt that some form of regular, facilitated, but to some extent self-managed small group teaching can be an effective component of University teaching. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some groups work better than others. What remains somewhat unclear is: (i) why this is the case and (ii) what can be done to ensure that all groups work as effectively as possible.

A particular challenge is presented by large postgraduate MSc courses. Small group teaching is a logistical challenge but is needed in order to allow students to develop the strong and critical understanding of a topic required at MSc level. This project examines students' experiences of a self-managed learning group (SMLG) system introduced (this year) in the Institute of Work, health and Organisations. In this system, PhD students and researchers (Tutor Group Advisors, TGAs) manage fortnightly group meetings. TGAs act as facilitators of discussion and progress among the group. SMLGs set their own agenda, but much of their time is dedicated to working on assignments and discussing issues arising from lectures or seminars. Therefore these groups are a particularly important component of each student's learning experience.

This project used Critical Incidents Technique (CIT) to identify the factors driving the success (or failure) of this SMLG system. CIT is a technique devised by psychologists designed primarily to identify the actions that are associated with particularly effective or particularly ineffective performance. CIT is essentially a semi-structured interview. In this presentation the findings from interviews with students from this year's cohort will be presented. The data will be used to identify common "sticking points" and "drivers of success" in the SMLGs and to identify interventions that may be used to improve the effectiveness of SMLGs.

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Paper presented at the University's Fourth Learning & Teaching conference (January, 2004).
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