Placing study circles at the centre of the student learning experience

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In this blog, Dr Rosie Stenhouse, a lecturer in Nursing Studies, describes how she uses study circles as a key learning strategy in a year 4 course, Professionalism 4, on the undergraduate nursing programme…

BAckground

Study circles are based on the critical pedagogy of learning circles (Suoranta and Moisio, 2006), which aim to develop collective social expertise. In the Professionalism 4 course,   approximately four students are allocated to each study circle. Allocation by the course organiser is intended to replicate the work context where employees have to work with people beyond their immediate social group. Working in small groups provides opportunities for learning from each other as well as developing teamwork, communication, delegation, time management and other skills which are relevant for future employability.

Students work in learning circles for two hours per week, so the group becomes a key medium for student learning. However, learning within the group context requires students to engage with this process. This is addressed through the structure and framing of the study circles, and the assessment process.

Structure and framing

The weekly study circle sessions relate to the lecture that week. Lectures provide the theoretical concepts that students then can use as tools to understand social mechanisms contributing to failures in care as described in inquiry reports (e.g., Francis 2013; McLean 2014). Groups work independently, taking responsibility for negotiating suitable times and venues for their weekly meeting. Structure is provided through identified reading and reflective questions that can be used to guide the group’s weekly discussions. However, the emphasis is on the development of learning through group interaction and moving beyond these reflective questions. Students are encouraged to divide up the reading, making detailed notes, and presenting the papers they have read to the group. This develops a range of academic and teamwork skills; students also report a sense of responsibility for others’ learning when each has a different contribution to make.

Assessment

The summative assessment for the course focuses on the outcome and process of the study circles. The outcome of the group work is assessed through the individual submission of a portfolio containing critical accounts of the study circle discussions, where students demonstrate not only their subject knowledge but reflect on the impact of the discussion on the development of their thinking. The end point of the study circle process is a group presentation relating to a recurring theme or issue arising within their group discussions. Alongside this group presentation, submitted as part of the portfolio, students individually develop a piece of critical writing which evidences the development of the argument presented.

Assessment of the group process acknowledges the effort and skills required to enable effective group learning. At the end of the course, criteria-based facilitated group discussions are used to explore students’ engagement with the process. Each group meets with the course organiser who facilitates the discussion. Constructive and honest feedback is encouraged. Marks are allocated by group members to their peers, and, in my experience, it is not a case of everyone getting 100%. This process can be tough for students. However, it is a valuable way to develop the skills required to feedback and negotiate with colleagues in the employment context. Finally, basing the assessment on the study circles places group learning at the centre of the student learning experience.

Evaluation

This approach to learning can be experienced by students as stressful initially, making the provision of support critical to engagement (and preventing an inbox full of anxious emails!). Equally, I have found that the more time spent explaining the rationale for using study circles, and the anticipated benefit to their learning (including reference to feedback from students about their experience the previous years), the more easily students engage with the format. Whilst the groups are not facilitated directly by myself, I am available during the scheduled time to answer any questions they have.

Evidence from course marks indicates excellent levels of engagement and learning, and the course has consistently received positive comments from the external examiners over the three complete cycles that it has run. Whilst there are some challenges in supporting engagement in a year 4 course, where students are concerned about a new approach to learning and assessment when they are in their final year, the feedback at the end of the course in relation to the impact on learning is positive, and indicates the extent to which students recognise that working in study circles has enhanced their knowledge.

References

Francis, R. (2013) Report of the inquiry into the Mid-Staffordshire Foundation NHS Trust. The Stationary Office: London.

McLean, (2014). The Vale of Leven Hospital Inquiry Report. APS Group: Scotland.

Suoranta. J., and Moisio, O-P. (2006). Critical Pedagogy as Collective Social Expertise in Higher Education, International Journal of Progressive Education, 2(3): 47-65.

Rosie Stenhouse

Dr Rosie Stenhouse is a Lecturer in Nursing Studies, in the School of Health in Social Science. She is keen to support the learning experience of students through the use of engaging methods such as groupwork, film, and the arts.

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