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Shining a Light Into the Black Box of Group Learning: Medical Students’ Experiences and Perceptions of Small Groups

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Group work is seen as serving multiple positive purposes in health professions education, such as providing an opportunity for students to master course content, transfer knowledge into clinical practice, and develop collaborative/teamwork skills. However, there have been relatively few studies exploring medical students’ experiences of the small-group learning context or what they learn in and from that context.


Between January 2018 and January 2019, the authors used grounded theory methods to conduct semistructured interviews with 9 medical students to explore their perceptions of the value of the group as a mechanism for learning both content and teamwork skills. Sessions were audiorecorded and transcribed verbatim. One author coded the transcripts and identified codes, which the team then discussed, refined, and used to develop themes.


Students were able to express all the expected goals for small-group learning, such as retaining course materials, mimicking future health care team interactions, and creating a collaborative environment. However, when their experiences were further explored, students seemed to have perceived that the value of group learning was as a mechanism for reviewing rather than for deepening their learning. Further, students frequently expressed the opinion that the tutor was the primary factor in the success of a group, and when group function was suboptimal, students described giving up on the group or relying on the tutor to address the problem.


Formal, small-group, tutor-led learning sessions, at least in the context of single-term groups, may not be accomplishing what educators might hope. Although students understand the intent of small-group learning, it cannot be assumed that such groups are deepening learning or solving the teamwork problems in health professions education.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2020

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