Classroom Dynamics as Group Dynamics

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Every fall now I cull my large teaching and learning article database. Yes, it’s a filing cabinet full of paper copies. Copies were the only option when I started collecting articles. But the cabinet is at capacity, and some of the very old, outdated pieces need to go. Some I still can’t part with. They were significant in my early thinking—seeds that germinated and grew into more mature understandings of teaching and learning. They feel like old friends.

Teaching Professor Blog

Early on in my exploration of discipline-based pedagogical scholarship, I discovered that whatever the field studied influenced how it understood teaching and learning. This isn’t always productive, but sometimes it is, as illustrated in an article that describes what can be learned when teachers think about a class as a group. Sociologist Janet Billson (1986) identified 15 group process principles that apply to classes. Understanding these principles can, according to Billson, raise levels of participation, increase student motivation collectively and individually, stimulate enthusiasm, and facilitate communication within the classroom (p. 143). Here’s a sampling of six of the principles she offers.

Every participant in a group is responsible for the outcome of the group interaction

This principle reflects one of my favorite sayings: “It’s not my class; it’s not your class; it’s our class, and we made it happen together.” A professor can select an amazing array of readings, assign them, provide study questions, and give quizzes all designed to get students doing the reading. But if they don’t read, the discussion will likely flounder, frustrating the teacher and boring the students. And students bear responsibility for that outcome. That doesn’t excuse the professor who also has a set of responsibilities but it’s teacher and student actions collectively that determine whether it’s a good or not very good course.

No group can work all the time

There should be class time for socializing—chatting, banter, and informal interaction—with the teacher and among students. Groups (and classes) bond in two ways: over the task they share (learning the content) and through the emotional connections that develop between them. What’s the noise level in the room before class begins? Plenty of socializing is a good sign that the group has bonded and students are connecting with each other in meaningful ways.

In large groups, leaders emerge and may benefit the group or serve to its detriment

Teachers who work with students who’ve taken a lot of the same courses together experience the effect of this principle most dramatically. One student becomes the group spokesperson. On the negative side, this student leads with the complaints, makes the requests for extensions, and passes judgment on an assignment’s merits. More positively, emergent leaders take risks, offer answers that are guesses, question an instructor’s position, or defend another student’s ideas. Student leaders can be important teacher allies.

Large groups form subgroups

Subgroups in classes can include students with the same major, students who went to the same high school, students who live on campus, and students who live off it. Research documents that when students form groups, they tend to avoid diversity. They are most comfortable with those who look and act as they do. Teachers can demonstrate the value of working in diverse groups and equip students with the skills they need to work effectively with others.

Groups set their own norms

Teachers can propose rules for working together, but the rules don’t become norms unless students follow them. Students regularly try to establish other norms—such as arguing for other answer options, seeking to change due dates, and making the case for extra credit. These and other student-set norms become part of what differentiates one class from another.

The leader of any group serves as its model

Teachers know this, but it’s easy to get away with being less than an exemplary model. Most students won’t point out spelling mistakes in the syllabus. They don’t say anything when the teacher arrives late or hands back papers a week later than promised, but they do take note. Students don’t get to choose who leads the class, but they do decide whether they’ll line up behind the designated leader.

I’m reluctant to toss this article. We think about students in a course as a group, but do we consider how they demonstrate group behaviors and how that influences our teaching and their learning?

Reference

Billson, J. M. (1986). The college classroom as a small group: Some implications for teaching and learning. Teaching Sociology, 14(3), 143–151.