Group effect

Making sure that students assimilate what they are taught is one of the most important preoccupations of teachers. When students are successful in assimilating knowledge, they are able to use them meaningfully, either to answer exam questions, or face real-life situations.

Yet teachers find this task daunting. Often, teachers believe that this is only achievable by a few select students in the class. The rest are usually thought to be incapable of absorbing and using what they are exposed to. This situation could be remedied and changed.

Teachers need to understand that learning is enhanced by systematically approaching and addressing the needs of the human psyche to operate in groups. Apart from bridging social-emotional gaps among students, learning in groups significantly improves students’ ability to acquire, extend and use knowledge instinctively.

The difference

This is supported by the research conducted by German-American psychologist, who is also recognized as the founder of social psychology, Kurt Lewin. The study was first of its kind as it assessed group decision-making on the attitudes of women toward certain foodstuffs. In his early investigation, Lewin divided a group of housewives into a lecture group and discussion group. The objective of doing this was to change the women’s attitude toward a set of food items which they do not normally eat.

The first group was lectured about the various nutritional values of the food items and how they could be cooked in appetizing manner. The second group on the other hand was asked to discuss the subject as a group with a nutritional expert. Each group was then asked how many of its members planned to try these food items. In addition, a follow-up study was carried out on the subsequent buying behavior of the housewives.

It was found that 3 per cent of those in the lecture group had cooked and served the food items, while 32 per cent of those involved in the discussion did so. The results of the study clearly reveal that people working in groups tend to be more persuaded about an idea or concept compared to when they are given a sales speech (or lecture).

Application

Persuasion involves a great deal of interaction with materials being discussed, examination and re-examination of one’s existing or prior knowledge and personal justification (either emotional and/or rational) for choosing to believe in or adopt a new idea. Group discussions improve the processes involved in the assimilation and usage of knowledge across subjects and learning environments.

Kurt Lewin’s research findings apply directly to educational setting, particularly to teaching and learning because attitude change involves cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects. In other words, when people commit to discussing, thinking, arguing about a concept and eventually taking their own stand, their learning of that concept is more effective compared to when they are being lectured to by a so-called expert.

Additionally, a positive change in cognition (thinking) leads to changes in emotion and behavior. Group discussions improve students’ capacity to acquire and use knowledge meaningfully and also changes their feelings toward the subject, teacher, and overall learning process. The same is reflected in the succeeding positive behaviors displayed by students. Students whose attitude toward learning is positive tend to enjoy learning and behave in ways that bring about enduring success, academically and otherwise.

Shifting the trend

Teachers who encourage group discussions provide equal opportunities to more (if not all) students in a class to understand lessons and succeed in exams. As was seen in Lewin’s research, the 3 per cent (lecture group) versus 32 per cent (group discussion) result clearly shows why students who are lectured to tend to under-perform compared to students who are allowed to actively interact with study materials through group discussions.

Psychological weaning

Experience tells us that as students get older, parents and teachers let go of them and expect them to fend for themselves. While this is necessary to prepare students for independent thinking and living when they reach early adulthood, I am inclined to think that this sort of psychological weaning has to be done with extreme caution.

Origin

Like many other child-rearing practices, this too is passed down. Our parents/teachers were expected to fend for themselves by the time they were 13 or so. They did this to us when we were growing up and now we do the same with our own children/students. However, we need to examine the appropriateness of doing so from a psychological point of view, with the aim to significantly improve the quality of life.

A typical child’s life starts with close support and involvement from parents. At kindergarten and lower primary level, parents are more than eager to visit the child at school – sometimes more than once in a single day. They willingly attend parent-teacher conferences, academic meetings, workshops and social gatherings. However, as their children move up to upper primary, middle and high school, parents tend to reduce their level of involvement.

Cause

There is a psychological explanation for why this happens. Younger children deal with easier subjects and academic tasks. Hence parents find it very easy to handle children’s academic tasks at kindergarten and lower primary level. In fact many parents take pride in doing (under the guise of helping) kindergarten and lower primary level homework and projects for their children. They have no problem in doing this because their level of efficacy to handle simple academic tasks is high.

As children grow older, the subjects they learn at school get tougher. Parents, not wanting to look bad (because of their inability to help their children with higher level math, science, language, etc.), expect them to take responsibility for their own learning. This coincides with the fact that children at this age are supposed to take care of themselves in other areas such as personal hygiene, play, and time management. Most parents, if not all, possess low efficacy level when it comes to helping their children with more demanding academic tasks at school.

Hence the process of psychological weaning does not necessarily happen because parents/teachers want their children/students to become independent, functional member of the school and society. Rather, it is a way for parents/teachers to save their image as someone who is supposed to know more than the child. As a result, children suffer the consequence of the lack of support and involvement from parents/teachers at a time when they are needed the most.

Setting a balance

From a psychological point of view, lessons on independence are not taught by letting someone go completely. Effective parenting and teaching is knowing how to set a balance between letting go and sincerely supporting the youngster at the same time. It is a huge misunderstanding that as children grow older, they do not need the involvement of parents and teachers in their growth and development, be it academic, or otherwise.

In fact, the same amount of attention, support and involvement are required throughout schooling – this may even extend to college or university. While the form of support and involvement may change over time, they are in great demand throughout an individual’s life.

What matters

What parents and teachers need to understand and accept is the fact that showing support and involvement are not merely reflected in helping their children/students with academic tasks.  Contrary to this belief, and from a child/student’s perspective, the most important thing is for parents/teachers to simply be there for them – physically and emotionally!