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Creating an inclusive environment for discussion in large groups

Our blog-post this month is provided by Professor Alison J. Sinclair, FRSB, SFHEA, Professor of Molecular Virology and Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/26183 @ASLAB

Can active learning meet the challenge of inclusion in large groups?

I embrace active learning and over thirty-years of practice I have found this approach to effective to facilitate both student and staff learning. 

When leading discussions, there is a tendency for a few voices to dominate. Whether this is a teaching seminar, a faculty meeting or a student experience group, this runs two risks:

  • Not gathering and then considering the full spectrum of perspectives.
  • Distancing silent participants.

I shared my experiences of trying to make large group discussions participatory for all with members of the Active Learning Network at the University of Sussex in December 2019. I was hoping to come away with as many strategies as I brought to the discussion and I was not disappointed.

Starting with the global question of ‘What are the challenges of large group seminars?’, we discussed in neighbouring pairs before getting into larger groups of 4-5.  So, everyone had an opportunity to discuss the challenges. That helps any participants who are normally quiet in a large group setting – but there are more challenges to inclusivity than quiet participants.

One area of discussion was the formation of groups – students in social groups often stick together, but this misses opportunities to make new contacts and to experience the views and working methods of others. Possible approaches that we discussed were to randomly assign students to groups, either in advance or at the event, or to ask students to self-select a person that they do not normally work with. Overall, we favoured varying these approaches over time and explaining the benefits of this to students in advance of the sessions. Where ever group work is requested, it is important to consider those with social anxiety disorder by inviting individual input if that is preferred. How this is managed will depend on what information is available in advance, but an approachable and flexible attitude will generate the best results.

Another challenge raised is how to ensure that everyone understands the question being discussed and sticks to it. The provision of a short, written explanation to go with the headline question was suggested. Finally, time-management was considered to be important, a clear time limit to each discussion and feedback period was suggested as well as recommending that each group to select a chair and a note-taker, changing roles for each discussion question.

This leads to the next challenge. How to ‘hear’ the voices of all of the groups and individual students. I normally lead groups of around fifty students and technology helps considerably. In our session I asked the groups to feed back their responses to an electronic text wall so that responses are displayed in real-time on the screen and stored for future reference. In this session we used ‘Padlet’ which can be used stand-alone or can be integrated in our VLE, providing a seamless interface for students. Phones, plus a few tablets that we provided were all that was needed to allow input during the session – but I recommend having a pen and paper alternative handy – just in case. During the discussions, I circulated between the groups and during the summary I invited elaboration on some of the responses.

In a further move to increase inclusivity, I encouraged ‘likes’ and comments to be added to the group responses – this allowed for elaboration, caveats and more reflective content to be added.

On the plus side, we agreed that this approach gave everyone an opportunity to discuss their opinions with another and to contribute to the class debate verbally and through the text-wall. We collected and discussed a good range of opinions and we welcomed the increased networking opportunities that the approach brings.

But there was one question raised that we will need to come back to – how do we consider/teach/engage with cultural differences that impact on group work?

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