Size Matters: Shifting Small Groups to Active Learning

active learningAs Education Manager at the Commission on Professionalism, I have the opportunity to attend a lot of CLEs. Surveying these courses is integral to our mission of fostering high-quality professional responsibility education for lawyers in Illinois and beyond.

While the CLEs we evaluate include a broad range of providers and topic areas, one commonality that has struck me is the similarity of course format, no matter the size or composition of the learner audience. This has been especially true since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most courses online.

Our course reporting data shows that 85% of courses submitted in the first half of 2020 used lecture as the primary method of delivery. Unfortunately, while attending courses, we have observed that lectures often include little active learning opportunities, such as scenarios, problem-solving, and group work.

How adults and children are different

Adult learners are different from children and adult education needs to be different too. Malcolm Knowles, the highly respected adult learning theorist, laid out four principles of adult learning based on the characteristics of adult learners:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) must provide the basis for learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that are immediately relevant and impactful to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.¹

Let’s think about the concept of a lecture for a moment. We’re usually introduced to it in college. It’s primarily a way to transfer concepts and ideas to a large audience, where the lecturer is established as the expert and the learners as neophytes who are there to absorb the content and maybe ask some clarifying questions.

The lecture method’s limited effectiveness has been well established in research – passive vs. active learning – and I would argue that the reputation of CLE as a concept suffers as a result. What’s more, a single person speaking at length can have a number of perhaps unforeseen drawbacks, including limiting exposure to diverse and dissenting opinions and the pace and direction of the conversation being dictated by one person, silencing those who prefer to process, deliberate, then speak.

To lecture, or not to lecture

Sometimes the lecture method is necessary (see this blog for caveats). This is especially true when presenting to larger groups online, which often requires the audience is muted to avoid feedback, background noise, and dogs barking from interrupting the course.

However, if you are delivering a CLE to a small group (~20 or less), the need to lecture goes away. You can explore other ways to impact your learners, like opportunities for active learning.

By now, I hope you are beginning to think that lecturing should not be the go-to method for CLE, but rather a method of last resort. But what are the alternatives and how feasible are they in practice?

Small groups naturally offer several attributes that don’t corollate with lectures:

  • A greater likelihood of affinity between audience members
  • Time for all to participate
  • Power dynamics that can be addressed in small groups
  • A more informal process
  • The option to take a temperature check of the room
  • Solutions can be created, not dictated
  • A possibility of consensus, if decisions are needed

First and foremost, shifting from lecture to active learning starts with a mindset change. In a lecture, the raison d’etre of the session is that the audience doesn’t know something and therefore is doing something incorrectly. This was a fine idea 100 years ago, but in the age of the internet not knowing something isn’t really a valid rationale for training.

Instead, if your mindset shifts to “What is the issue I want to solve?” or “What is it that I want the learners to be able to do?” then the focus of the course shifts to active learning too. The participants have an opportunity to practice behaviors and solutions for the issue at hand, or at least engage together on the topic.

Moving to active learning

Now, I have reached a fork in the road. I can continue for another 400 words telling you the concepts (lecture) or lay out some ideas for you to practice (active learning). See what I did there? I’m going with the latter.

Below is an overview of a sample course structure for a small group session that doesn’t focus on lecture. It’s not perfect but may trigger some ideas. In the interest of brevity, I have kept the course structure to the basics. Specific instructions for each section can be found in this PowerPoint (also linked to below).

Share in the comments if this is something you would try. Good luck!

Sample Active Learning Session for Small Groups (1 hour)

This structure isn’t set in stone, so adapt as you see fit. The overall goal is to move the group to reflect and contribute to the content while making decisions and practicing behaviors they adopt after the session.

From a facilitator’s perspective, the vibe you’re going for is: “We are trying to find a solution” and “I’m here to act as a resource.”

Introduction: Your introduction is probably the most important section. It sets the tone and clarifies the value of the session for learners.

  1. Set the stage
  2. Introduce the overall goal and structure of the session
  3. Identify the issue (as the expert) and open it up to the group to comment and refine

Understand the content: This is where your expertise and preparation adds value. By curating and highlighting the diverse content to be discussed by the group, you can draw out a range of perspectives and conclusions.

  1. Introduce the content to learners
  2. Discuss the content and resources the group will be using

Solve the problem: This is the hands-on section of the session. The group works through an issue or a particular set of issues, exploring different solutions and possible impacts of those solutions. Having a well-organized participant guide with resources makes this section a lot easier to manage.

  1. Outline the problem to be solved
  2. Conduct group work to develop solutions for the issue
  3. Facilitate a group teach-back
  4. Revisit iterative group work based on the feedback

Repeat the steps beginning at “Understand the content” onward for additional concepts to be covered.

Reinforce the learning: As you wrap the session, it’s important to confirm the group’s achievements and key takeaways. It’s useful to have some takeaways ready, but very important to highlight what the learners uncovered during the session.

  1. Confirm the decision point and consensus
  2. Share a summary of solutions and next steps

Again, I share more detailed steps for this process in the PowerPoint below.

Download the Powerpoint

¹Kearsley, G. (2010). Andragogy (M.Knowles). The theory Into practice database.

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