Reflective Practices and Future Strategies

Introduction

When I completed my PG certificate, I was reassured to know that small group teaching (SGT) is desired as it facilitates cooperative and collaborative learning. However, after going through the readings and practical activities of SGT module in PG diploma, my beliefs and practices of SGT teaching and learning has broadened dramatically. Now I recognize that understanding collaborative learning is crucial, as useful and long-term learning arise from social interaction (Kaufmann 2014) where students share responsibility of the learning process, actively perform multiple tasks as learners, collaborators and assessors (Griffiths, 2009),that will help our veterinary graduates to grow multidimensionally and develop life-long learning skills and this has been emphasized in educational literature. In this essay, I will reflect on how my thinking and SGT practices have changed and what I am planning further to incorporate in my teaching practice to maximize educational impact on my students.

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Reflecting on my teaching practice, I now realized that I did not provide much opportunities to my students for collaborative learning, as I was previously unaware of the benefits of SGT. The DVM curriculum I had inherited did not have any structured/formal SGT session(s), therefore my so-called SGT experience was only limited to practical sessions (upto 30 students) where knowledge was communicated authoritatively to silent learners, my stereotypical Asian students (Little, 2000), largely based on concepts drawn from theories of behaviorism, cognitivism and to a much smaller extent cognitive constructivism without recognizing that many of the adult learners are social beings and learning is mainly a social activity (Dewey, 1963). Having read the course material, I now recognize that interchange of ideas, sharing knowledge and information and interactive discussions in a safe learning environment helps to foster conceptual thinking and sharpens logical reasoning skill in students. Initially, to see a student’s acceptance of the concept, I planned to get the students’ feedback and surprisingly received a variety of responses- some can’t focus, are unable to understand, and even what teacher will teach then. I was well aware of the fact that bringing true SGT can be very complex and challenging due to underfunded condition of institution, additional teaching time, resources as well as lack of facilities such as sufficient additional smaller, proper classrooms to accommodate several of these smaller groups and above all overcoming passivity and teacher-dependence of Asian-learne (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996). Bearing these limitations in mind, I have tried to incorporate some social interactive techniques with some adaptation to maximize learning in groups, such as problem-based (PBL) learning and group-discussions, since these do not need special classrooms.

I have tried to introduce PBL for undergraduateas as it relies entirely on SGT method that involves acquisition of knowledge by a learner to solve problem beyond his/her zone of proximal development with the support from peer and/or tutor (Kate and Dennick, 2019).At first, I questioned myself about the acceptability of this technique by my students as they are used to didactic teaching in their formative years therefore may not be comfortable with a new style of teaching. Therefore, more suitable approach may be slow transition from traditional teaching to PBL techniques in order to avoid mismatch of teaching approach with student learning (Grow, 1991). I believe that taking PBL approach enables my students to become self-regulated learners as it involves them in White and Gruppen framework of SRL learning process through planning, progress monitoring, reflection and self-evaluation (Laura 2014; White, 2014). My colleagues feel that PBL provides ideal learning using real/clinical problems with loads of opportunities for interactions with the teacher as well as peers. My institution has not PBL session/activities incorporated in undergraduate DVM curriculum. Upon my query, I feel relieved to know that a teacher has no institutional restrictions to integrate these while designing and structuring the lesson, have the liberty to choose teaching resources, in-course assessments and even can split class into subgroups within the respective time-table slot. As I have not involved in planning or designing of PBL session therefore was unsure of its outcome. My perception was that presenting 1-2 PBL tutorials would prime students for clinical context, as students would start clinical courses after pathology as students take effective approaches from traditional curriculum to clinical setting (Woods et al., 2011).I structured my practical group into sub-groups of 6-8 students, as this number is appropriate for the learning purpose and ideal for PBL (Edmonds and Brown, 2010; McCrorie, 2014) owing to its smaller group size exert less pressure on reluctant students to speak and contribute, promote coherence and avoids social loafing (Booth, 1996, Jaques 2004). Initially I plan to introduce more structured format with comparatively simple PBL set-up and discussed problem diagnosis as co-operative group goal.As an external motivation that I encourage them to realize, this skill is needed in their clinical years in order to personalize/internalize motivation and relevance (Kember 2008).To avoid any undesirable situations and for smooth group functioning, we discussed, mutually created rules and basic norms of acceptable behaviours (McKimm,2012). To make them familiar and prepare them I explained group processes/frameworks, group development from forming to performing, associated challenges, sequence of tasks explicitly designed according to learning outcomes (Butcher,2017, McCrorie, 2010) and shared session plan with students as this is the basic principal of andragogy, to include learner in joint planning (Knowles, 1980). I aimed to guide them by assigning roles and discuss roles and responsibilities of tutor considering the student level and assuming that they are not sufficiently skilled in their formative years for problem-solving/reasoning skill. Novice learners may pose the risk of spending too much time on resource options for basic knowledge (needed for cognitive scaffolding). Here I help them by guiding them to resource-based learning material and giving pre-session handouts as suggested by Race (2001) aligned with learning outcomes to ensure constructive alignment as suggested by Race (2001). I am aware of the risk involved in giving such learning material (Campanella and Lygo-Baker, 2014) I have used this practice in previous semester, giving skeletal notes containing required basic knowledge and related complex English vocabulary and it worked very well, as English is not the main language here, therefore it addresses the comprehension issues of those learners who are struggling with English and on part of tutor it saves class time and also satisfies diverse learning preferences of students (Neel and Gridem, 2010). Furthermore,as pre-session reading material contains enough basic information, therefore this practice also addresses well-perceived weaknesses of PBL like lack of depth of acquired knowledge, traditional structure and development (Lee and Kwan, 1997).Following the reading when students come in class, during brain storming activity I encourage them to construct a‘concept map’ collaboratively, emphasizing key concepts and their relationships as interrelatedness of various concepts to solve problems is essential component of acquiring new knowledge(Ruiz-Primo & Shavelson, 1996; Kamble and Tembe, 2013. I personally feel concept map is very useful particularly for asynchronous session as every participant can contribute in their own pace/available time and therefore even if participants are miles apart it can be a group-activity. I used concept map strategy in my online teaching practical assignment of PGDip, my first virtual teaching experience that provides me an opportunity to look at both sides of learning, in real time being a tutor and student, simultaneously. Though I got very encouraging and positive feed-backs on use of concept map but low participation of learners in development of concept map was quite frustrating for me as this was not what I was expecting, as I have given every possible information online how to construct a map using Padlet. Later I realized from learners who were not able to contribute that it was not the concept map but the technology as participants quit after repeated attempts, but I was unaware of this until I got a student’s feedback, lack of verbal and non-verbal interactions is the main problem ofsynchronous online teaching method, (Elwyn et al., 2001). Students of in-person PBL session find concept-map a very exciting experience as they can visualize logical relationship with their hierarchies and cross-links. Even though construction of Concept map is not challenge free (Duarte and Loureiro, 2017) but I believe that this skill is important for both teachers and learners as mapping provide insight of cognitive process, promote critical thinking, metacognitive and problem-solving skill (Hsu, 2004).

During the whole PBL-sessions I moved around to see group progress and to monitor verbal and non-verbal interactions at group level. I was particularly careful to explicitly guide students on how to learn and while going through discourse and motivate them to intentionally engage in learning-to-learn methodology where they predict, read, and learn by answering the questions. I found that this exercise of learning from peers addresses the diverse learning preferences of the students, feedback and self-assessment (Butcher, 2006).I encourage students to write down their responses and peer-review each other’s responses. Here I explicitly guide students about the importance of kind and respectful peer feedbacks, it may help the learner to feel more confident exploring new ways to reflect and assess peer knowledge.I find that my external feedback on learning help them not only to compare their progress with desired goals but also highlights wrong concept(s) thereby helping the learning process through transformative learning. As students become increasingly familiar, some of them started to generate internal feedback and monitor their own progress by identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the session, the acceptable responses were discussed along with my feedback. I have practiced this way of assessing achievement of learning outcomes in the previous semester and the most striking benefit was that the students understood and accepted the mistakes made by them and even critiqued their own responses after getting peer and tutor feedback. At the same time, it gives me an opportunity to identify areas of improvement in students. I am happy to see that mostly students who were at factual level of knowledge, are now at application/analytical level and are more empowered for their own learning (Biggs and Collis 1982, Zimmerman, 2002).

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I will now ensure to incorporate PBL in my teaching practice frequently as it offers plentiful parallel opportunities for integration and application of knowledge through co-operation and collaboration (Lee and Kwan 1997). Although I think I am very good at adjusting according to situations, I also recognise that I will now need to train myself to develop ‘case expertness” so I can move from being an expert to being a facilitator during these PBL sessions and also how to prepare students for new approach (Laura 2014). Once a learner has achieved this skill, they can gain a higher level of proficiency through deliberate practice as learning is best accomplished by repetitive exposure to real cases that will have positive effects on socio-cognitive aspect of wider life competencies (Ericsson 2004).

I agree with Jacques, (2003) that group discussion promotes communication skill, team building, life-long learning and professional development as learners can collaboratively construct meaningful learning, feel autonomy, reflect on their experiences with the skill of working as part of a team. My colleagues also appreciated the concept as it provides students an opportunity to be actively involved in learning process, promote critical thinking, deep learning, develop reasoning/problem-solving skill (Edmunds and Brown, 2010; Entwistle et al., 1992; Jacques, 2003; Bligh 1986). I have used group discussions strategy with my postgraduate students as it provides basis of effective SGT and forces learners to question, challenge, assimilate or accommodate their existing knowledge and attain mental equilibrium following cognitive dissonance (Kate and Dennick, 2019;Lane 2008, Steinert, 2004). Having read that discussion/dialogue hold central position in SGT and questions are fundamental key to discussion (Mills, 2013), I have used different types of questions guided by learning outcomes and according to Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom 1956) to provoke student interest, curiosity, enhance interaction and reflection as they can be a strong trigger for starting, supporting and guiding discussion (Dickson and Hargie, 2004; Edmonds and brown, 2010) I aimed to start discussion by adopting provocative role, with recall questions to activate prior knowledge and to provoke thinking process. As new knowledge is constructed over existing knowledge so background knowledge and experiences of different learners provides lot of connection/responses to build discussion and moving forward (Cobb 1994).Additionally, this helps me to identify learners’ strengths, weaknesses, zone of proximal development, signs of confusion and interest in a group. Questions are criticized for being demotivational particularly when threatened/confused and inappropriately asked at wrong situation (refere..) However carefully structured questions that stimulate higher-order thinking and foil discussion can rectify this difficulty and can lead to greater academic achievements. As discussions get advanced, questions’ styles shifted to opinion sharing, evaluative and synthesis questions to assess how learners apply learnt concepts and principles to diverse situations, while ensuring participation from each group member. I am aware of the fact, that Asian students are often reluctant to speak in groups. One may argue that silent learners may learn through vicarious learning (Walker, 2006) however as this could be equally demotivating for others who actively participate therefore may impact effective group functioning/activities. Therefore, I ensure encouraging and equalizing participation by asking relatively simpler questions directly. The same works for the girl students who are typically in minority in my class and sometimes need to be invited or made comfortable by appreciation for their responses/contribution in development of the discussion and to promote group cohesion. Here, I specifically involve learners in silent reflection by giving time to think and scribble their responses, while giving positive and encouraging feed-backing order to create a safe learning environment, to facilitate discussion, deeper reflection and consolidate learning through interaction. Additionally, this gives me time to recognize group processes, behaviours and enables me to identify how learners are doing in relation to assessment. I have observed that my supportive role helped my students to build their confidence and self-esteem as feeling of psychological and social comfort leads to self-actualization (Maslow 1968). I am happy to see that some of my students who were uncomfortable speaking in small groups now speak confidently in large classroom. I make sure that discussion is merely task specific and follow the logical drift with reference to learning outcomes of the session while being careful not to express my opinion and/or fall back into an authoritative position as it may overwhelm the discussion. Meanwhile providing feedback in a way that it fills the gaps in the student knowledge as assessed by their responses. All this is done while keeping the principle of constructive alignment at the fore. At the end of the discussion, to conclude, I usually summarize the main point, what is being learnt in the discussion, explain unresolved questions, clarify misconceptions, give constructive feedback to strengthen learning and make learning more effective and appreciate group participation to encourage team work in later sessions.

I will now ensure incorporation group discussion strategy with my undergraduate students. In the beginning, a tutor-led step-wise discussion and once they become familiar and sufficiently trained then free-discussion as group working during this practice will encourage creative thinking, decision making, prepare them for challenges and opportunities of life, situational awareness and leadership additionally fostering communication and team-building skills which could be transferable to other situations as well. However, discussion with various blended strategies (Richmond 1984, Rea-Ramirez and Núñez-Oviedo 2008) to maximize learning in SGT requires careful planning, structuring, reflection and continuous monitoring regarding improvements in a student’s academic achievements.

I am aware of certain barriers and challenges for various SGT techniques in my class, low funded condition of my institution, limited resources, extra physical resources, over-burdened work load, pedagogic learning style of Asian learners and low epistemology (Jacques, 2003). Though I am a very enthusiastic teacher, teaching for quite a long time with sound knowledge of the subject, but I feel that I need to further develop many skills and attributes like listening, responding, accommodating different views and above all critical reflection as these are required to facilitate group dynamic and to make SGT practice more effective (Kitchen M., 2012).

In summary, this module has significantly enhanced my knowledge and understanding of effective SGT as it fosters critical thinking, self-assessment and self-direction (Bligh 1986) and particularly advantageous for veterinarians to maintain professional competencies.I now believe that positive outcomes of SGT along with strategic interventions satisfies the need for reforming the veterinary curriculum in my country according to current educational demands. In this way, students progress and become behaviorally collaborative learners with creative, team work and persuading skills desired by employers. On the part of the teacher, creating right and safe learning environment, maintaining the group dynamic requires time, careful planning and structuring of session, adapting variety of roles and skills dynamically according to situation, responding varying needs of the learner, skillfully implementing various strategies (McCrorie, 2014) to enhance interaction and motivation in students learning in groups, as this will help them in goal setting, engagement/involvement in task, increase reflection enabling more productive professionals.

The SGT module of the PGDip, readings, practical assignment, research and introspective reflection have enabled me to deeply recognize the collaborative world of learning and that effective SGT though challenging but dynamic, invaluable educational strategy for teachers to develop transferable skills necessary for practice to manage diverse activities in wider competencies later in life like leadership and teamwork.

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