Tutorial Groups

In Problem-based learning, one of the essentials is that students should work
in small groups or learning groups. The principal goal of these groups is to discuss learning issues and for their members to learn from each other.
All members of the group and the tutor or facilitator are responsible for the functioning of the group and the learning results.
Small group tutorials can be made very effective when the students themselves and the tutors understand the mechanisms and processes of such a group, how it functions most efficiently, and how important communication between its members is, if it is to reach the goals of the learning group.

The most important skill of the group is the ability to analyse the problems into sub problems, to formulate explanations, and to share the results of individual study. A critical evaluation of the information gathered by the members of the group and of the functioning of the small group itself, are other skills necessary to make PBL a success as we explained in the previous chapter. This means that every student has a task and an obligation to make the small group meeting a success, by working on the task (Task roles) and also by keeping a good climate in the group.( Group building roles). We use the word roles because students will do this in different ways. This means that every student and the facilitators(tutor) has to have some insight into the working of the group, and the ability to "play" different roles in it, just as in football a midfield player in a team also has to defend or to attack depending on the situation in the field. Learning groups are not football teams but, in exactly the same way, a member of the group has different functions and tasks, which can change depending on the situation in the group.

Group roles

What kind of roles can students "play?"
Each tutor group consits of a (student) chairman and the student who records the conclusions of the discussion. These are formal roles since these are appointed.
The chairman has to check the progress of the group, the appointments that are made, and he is also responsible for the time that must be spend to the different subjects. Experience with small group learning shows that the chairman must not engage in the discussion itself. If the chairman is responsible for the participation of every member of the group, it would be better to have somebody who is able to keep some distance.
It is also desirable to make a schedule to guarantee that every student got an opportunity for being a chairman. (also for record keeping). It allows the student to make preparations for this task in advance. He can prepare the agenda for "his" meeting for which he can consider the time needed for the different tasks, the results for the self guided learning, pause, new problems and the learning questions, task division and evaluation.
If a student is responsible for this, he will learn more thoroughly what kind of contributions from his fellow students are functional and which disrupt and block the process. In the same way the student who records the conclusions has to check whether there is consensus in the group or not about what the problems are, and what kind of questions have to be studied before the group meets again.
So in every group a student must have an opportunity to take a formal role in the group either chairman or reporter. It is part of their formal education.

But other members in the group must "play" important roles to ensure the goals of the group meeting will be reached.
This is best understood if some basic principles of communication are considered. Members of the group share all kinds of information, and every student can ask for or can give information to the others. But each one behaves in a very specific way. He or she use all kinds of (non-verbal) expressions such as the tone of voice, the way he sits or looks or even concentrates to influence the others. Words, expressions and behaviour can influence the other members. Occasional good jokes can relieve tensions , but repeated jokes can hinder the group process. The role students "play" depends on so many different factors, motivation to learn, personality and warmth, and confidence or diffidence, the kind of experience they have had in working in this kind of groups, previous practical field experience.
Many things can happen in working groups and many roles are therefore demanded. Apart from the formal, appointed roles of the chairman and the reporter the other roles can be divided into four main categories, in which three (1-3) are functional, or roles that help to make a good result for the small group sessions. The fourth is dysfunctional, and covers roles that hinder or block them. See Table 7.

Table 7. Important roles

  1. Task roles: what members must do to make the group work; these can be divided in 6 tasks or steps ( see 6 steps in PBL).
  2. Group-maintanance roles: what members must do to strengthen and maintain group life and activities.
  3. Task and Group roles: what members must do to perform the tasks of the group and to help the group to function in a good climate.
  4. Non-functional Behaviours: what members might do-conscious or not conscious- to frustrate the tasks and the function of the group.

Task roles

What can members do to serve the group tasks?. The group task is first of all to analyse problems and formulate learning questions, so the first task for every member is to take initiative at an appropriate time by proposing and suggesting ideas about the different kind of problems and the kind of questions that could be studied. (See Brainstorming )
During this process the students have to learn also to seek information by asking for clarification when necessary, or give additional information or facts, when they are able to do so. Students may learn from each other by exchanging knowledge about different subjects and topics.
Sometimes it is necessary for the students to give or seek for opinions. It may be as necessary to appraise the value or the ethical part of the problem as it is to assemble facts about it. For example in the case of Olumide. When a group likes to discuss the fear for leprosy, and the worry about possible disabilities, then students can share different opinions.
Sometimes the discussion of problems needs elaboration. Students can give examples in order to make clearer what the problem is. In the case of the male clerical worker a relation was suggested between native medicine and diarrhoea. Maybe a student may relate his possible experience of how intake of similar medicine resulted in bout diarrhoea.
Another example could during the discussion about the relation between stroke and clawing of fingers. Maybe some students need more elaboration on what stroke exactly is. Students more familiar with this subject can give examples of patients with this problem.
A problem can often be more fully understood when a student is able to co-ordinate the different ideas, and to bring them and other suggestions together. Also they may draw the different activities of a group together. When a member of the group makes a summary of the work and discussions everybody can understand how valid the discussion is for tackling the problem. The ideas are pulled together and restated in a way that everybody can then understand. This might be the task of the chairman, but also other students may invited to give a summary. For example in the case of Peter, the chairman or any member might summarise that the loss of feeling in the skin patch thus:" The leprosy bacilli invade the peripheral nerve supplying the skin area and damage the sensory nerve fibres. The nerve damage results in loss of feeling".

Group Maintanance roles

The work of the learning group will be pleasant and stimulating when students can encourage each other, praising good ideas when others give them. Students can show that they agree with and support the contributions of others. The climate in the group can become friendly and responsive to others. When the group functions well, the group members make it possible for other members to make contributions. They simply check if every student has had an opportunity to contribute and if a student has been left out or has been silent, to invite that a student to give an opinion.
Following decisions that are made by the group is important. All the members of the group show that everybody thoughtfully accepts the ideas and decisions.

Task and Group roles

Difficulties in the functioning of a group are not uncommon in the early stages of group work. Than roles are required which are neither specific task roles nor building roles but combine both. For example evaluating. This means that, as we explained in the previous chapter, that the group discusses whether the activities are appropriate. In working through the different problems it is worthwhile to submit the group decisions or accomplishments to comparison with the goals the group has. Is the group really learning what they want to learn or is too much time spent to other matters and subjects that are not relevant. A good learning group must also be able to determine the sources of difficulties when they arise during group work. When the tutorial group is not progressing as it would like to, what are the reasons for these?
During the discussions, all kind of ideas about problems and causes for problems will arise which is really the task of the group. But when the ideas and suggestions of its members are conflicting or differ too much , the group must be able to mediate in order to harmonise and conciliate differences in points of view, and then to make compromise solutions. If, this is done, it is very important to test for consensus. The group must find out whether its members are nearing a consensus and so can reach its decisions. In other words, somebody can send up a trial balloon to test the group opinions. When the participants do not resist this trial suggestion, they are probably ready to accept of decisions that have been made.
A tutorial group must also be able to deal with conflict and to relieve tensions. Not every participant is always co-operative and some may obstruct the work. Sometimes students like to compete with other students all the time. Or they are in other ways nor very co-operative.(non-functional behaviour, see next paragraph). The group must than find ways to defer the aggressive behaviour and to drain of its feelings.
To give or receive appropriate feedback, or to convey mutually observations and impressions to the members of the group is very important. See Evaluation of the "self directed learning"

Non-functional behaviour

As was said before the members of the group not always work in harmony with the goals of the learning group. They can become aggressive for all sorts of reasons, or can block progress by arguing too much on a point or rejecting ideas without real consideration. The group and the facilitator must find ways to defer this sort of unacceptable behaviour.
Sometimes students like to compete with others. They like to be the best in any situation, they vie about the best ideas, and they talk the most in general. Sometimes students like to play around, and to clown, joke and mimic others in the group. This is done under many circumstances. This kind of behaviour can disrupt the work of the group and distract the members from the group work. In such situation the group members should try to appeal to such member's conscience and persuade them to desists from such behaviour.
On the other hand it may be very difficult to cope with a group member who withdraws from the groups discussions. For all kind of reasons they are indifferent or passive or they start whispering to others, daydreaming or looking around the room, excessive yawning, leaning back in their chair, not concentrating on the group's work.
Other members of the group should then encourage members with such group distracting postures/behaviours to participate more seriously. Sometimes it is necessary to take some student's aside to talk to them, in order to get insight in the attitude to the small group work.

Who is playing what sort of role?
Every member of the group can play one or more of the roles described in this paragraph,--hopefully the more functional ones in most situations-- dependent on the subject and dependent on their experience and personality. The choice also depends on the roles of the other participants. This is best understood from the example of the soccer team, which was given above. Thus a student can take the initiative, for example, to evaluate the progress of the group, if he has the feeling that the progress is too slow. Many other similar examples can be given of the different roles every student may play. But every group soon finds that some members have their preferences. Some like to structure the discussions all the time because they feel more responsible for reaching the learning goals than others: some really like to talk and discuss, while others hope to improve the climate of the group by making jokes. It is the task of the whole group however to harmonise all these contributions.
For an overview of all different roles see Table 8.

Table 8. Different roles subdivided
  Task Roles

  • Initiating activity
  • Seeking/giving information
  • Seeking/giving opnion
  • Elaborating
  • Coordinating
  • Summarizing

  • Group maintanance roles Task and group roles

  • Encouraging
  • Checking of other contributions
  • Following decisions
  • Evaluating
  • Mediating
  • Testing for consensus
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Recieving/giving feedback

  •   Non functional roles

  • Agressiveness
  • Competition
  • Playing around
  • Withdrawal

  • The tutor (facilitator)

    The task of the tutor is really to facilitate the learning process in the students and to facilitate the Cupertino of the members of the group. The tutors do not structure the process all the time because this is the responsibility of the group itself and of the chairman particularly, but they do have a kind of overall responsibility for the group and for it to reach its goals. They have to give special attention to the need to work through the different steps of PBL, the full participation of every member and the work and functioning of the chairman. The tutor also has to guide the members so that they fulfil their different roles in the learning group as necessary.
    This list of tasks is very wide but it is critical if the group process is to work, that tutors learn to recognise the different kind of mechanisms in the group , in order to strengthen them when they are going well, or move to a different pattern when a group is not doing very well. Sometimes this is very difficult: here are some examples. How is it possible to stimulate a member of the group who is very silent and who has a tendency to withdraw from the group discussions? Of course silence does not mean that an individual is not involved. The silent ones may be listening very carefully to all discussions, but sometimes they do not grasp the essence of these discussions so that they disengage from the group's processes. The silent members have then to be brought into the work of the group, but this must be done in a way that this does not make them feel embarrassed, or afraid when invited to contribute. Encouraging such people all the time, when they try to contribute is a must to help them to overcome their reluctance. Then there is the opposite extreme, how to deal with somebody who is seeking for recognition by pushing his ideas and knowledge, so that he dominates the group. In these situations the tutor has to structure the discussions in such a way that he convinces the person that there is only limited time for everybody to make their point or to suggest solutions. But it is also possible that this person may withdraw, or may disrupt the group and its work by continuous clowning or joking. When this extreme form of dysfunctional behaviour continues, the tutor has to speak with the particular individual in private. Of course many examples can be given to show how complicated in group dynamics are, but tutors must be aware of the different kind of roles members can play in the group, in order to be able to encourage or to intervene when the process in the small group is blocked. Therefore a structure which ensures that the different steps in PBL are followed in a clear way helps the group to accomplish
    the task in a good atmosphere. But this must not be rigid and inflexible, because if it is rigid, the whole purpose and process of PBL will be frustrated.

    Tutor roles

    To help the members of the learning group to accomplish their tasks, the tutor roles can be according to Marchais, and with some modifications elaborated as follows. See Table 9. PBL tutor's task.

    Table 9. PBL tutor's task

    Tasks Description
    Manage the PBL method During the tutorials, the tutor observes the Conscious and specific execution of the 6 steps of PBL
    Facilitate the functioning The tutor supports or, if need be, replaces the student leader. He tries to channel the energy according to the task at hand.
    Guide the study of specific contents Through his activity, the tutor orients the learning Of the students toward the mechanisms and concepts having been identified
    Stimulate motivation Motivation of an individual drives learning therefore it allows him to reach his goal
    Evaluate the learning The tutor has the responsibility of measuring the capacity the students have of providing their own education

    Expert versus Non-expert tutors

    Many times a discussion arises about the special skills of tutors. Particularly the question whether a tutor must be an expert in the field or not. Or, will a non-expert facilitator be sufficient, or may such a person have some advantages? Several studies were performed to find answers to this question , but the results are not unequivocal. Some studies showed that students who had expert-tutors (facilitators) had higher levels of satisfaction and had better results on their examinations. Other studies, however indicate that tutors with expertise tended to direct group sessions more, for example by providing more direct answers and suggesting more topics for studying. These kind of results endanger important goals of PBL--the development of student's skills in active, self-directed learning.
    But several compromises are possible. At the National Training Centre for Leprosy and TB in Nigeria, all the tutors are given the most important questions the group should try to formulate and the titles of the most relevant papers and books. So they can prepare themselves without becoming a full expert in the field.

    Essential to the whole discussion is that the tutors understand the relevance of the 6 steps. In the discussion about problem solving we will see that these steps parallels in general the way doctors solve problems. If tutors become familiar with the different stages and the importance of the steps in PBL and problem solving it will become easier to facilitate the learning. We will work this out more elaborate paragraph The facilitation of Problem solving