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All groups create roles for members to occupy. In very small groups a single member may have to take on many roles at the same or different times. In a large group, there may not be enough distinctive roles to go around, creating a sense of anomie (role-lessness, for present purposes) for many members.

Does a learning group have necessary roles?

One of the most-quoted and extensive studies of role in groups is Belbin's work on management teams (2004). He identified eight roles which characterised successful management teams—but only management teams. You wouldn't expect to run an effective football team with a front-row Shaper–Chairman–Completer/finisher line-up. Nor should you expect to find the same roles in a learning group. Management is a complex task, usually undertaken in a fight/flight environment: learning is different, and often takes place in a dependent environment. The successful outcome of management is usually evident at a corporate level, but learning is something which—in the final analysis—is acquired by individuals. So forget Belbin!

Even so you will remember your classes in school. There was one formal role—that of teacher—but he wasn't really a member of the class. There may have been several other informal roles, which pupils acquired as the class developed, such as:

  • swot
  • rebel
  • joker
  • teacher's pet
  • dunce
  • scapegoat
  • chatterbox
  • bully
  • victim

Even in a large class of 30+, there were rarely any more distinctive roles, and while there may have been two or three incumbents for some of the roles, others might have been doubled up. The interesting phenomenon is that even if the class changed, with some children moving out and others moving in, it is probable that the same roles re-established themselves, although not necessarily with the same people in them.

The class seems to need them. Projection may be at work here. But does the class need them as a learning group, or simply as a social system? And do they continue to exist in the less cohesive class groups of post-compulsory education? We don't know.


What experience does suggest, however, is that since learning is about change, the dangerous thing is for anyone to get fixed in any role. This happens when the expectations of the other members are such as to insist on interpreting every contribution in the light of the role—nothing the joker says is ever taken seriously, for example.

It is not even to a student's benefit to be the class "swot". Both fellow-student and teacher expectations can be such that the swot dare not get anything wrong, dare not fail, and dare not confess failure to understand. The pressures can inhibit openness to real learning.

Some people have roles thrust upon them, sometimes to their distress, as in the case of the gay or black or disabled student who is regarded as deviant. Others set themselves up, sometimes because the pattern of interaction the role engenders is one they are comfortable with—they would not know how to cope in a different role. Such people will take up the same role in every group, given the chance, perhaps as butt of the jokes, but perhaps as leader. In the latter case, fixing is less obviously disadvantageous, but it can still deny opportunities to others or lead to factional in-fighting.

So do all you can to keep the social structure of the group flexible. That doesn't mean keeping everyone off-balance so that you can exert your power, but

  • it does mean getting the quiet members to contribute a bit,
  • It means taking answers from all members of the class.
  • It means selecting less obvious people to chair small groups
  • It means finding something useful in the most inane contributions
  • It means not relying on the "usual suspects" when things go wrong
  • It means picking up on lateness etc., by the "good" students as well
  • And of course it means not discriminating against anyone on the grounds of their basic roles

You may not be able to change the class culture, but at least you can avoid colluding with it.

But as mentioned above, because of the structure of courses—particularly modular courses—class groups in further and higher education tend to be less stable and cohesive than in schools. Some seminar groups may meet in total for less than twelve hours.

Developmentally, this means they may not have enough time to settle down (i.e. get past "storming") and form a group identity or—more important—concentrate on what they can do together, rather than on what they are. For this reason, many students do not act as if membership in the course group means much to them. Indeed, the problem of "fixing" mentioned above may seem quite irrelevant; their experience is of continually moving from one short-term group to another and having to re-establish their membership over and over again. And yet in a sense they are fixed in a position of minimal membership.

In many cases this does not matter too much. The characteristic pattern of interaction within the group may be "hub and spoke" with most of the talk either taking the lecture form of the tutor addressing the whole group, or a series of exchanges between the tutor and a succession of individual students, asking and answering questions. That may be both a response to the non-involvement of many members, and a means of minimising its significance, while having only a limited impact on the teaching and learning process.

But it does matter when you want the students to learn from each other. Under those circumstances you may need to be quite proactive in setting up pre-designated roles (such as a chairperson and a rapporteur or scribe for a syndicate group exercise)—and indeed procedures—to ensure that group members do not waste time sorting them out between themselves, or fudge them and then scrabble round at the end of the exercise or session making the most of the confusion which beset most of the allotted time.

I have been quite tripped up by this issue. For most of my teaching career I have worked with professional courses, usually quite small (no more than 60 students) so everyone got to know practically everyone else, and consistent in membership for one or two years. It was important to others members of the course teaching teams and myself to utilise the group as a major resource for sharing experience and support. We usually had a quite intensive induction period which was designed at least to kick off the process of group formation, and thereafter we monitored progress carefully but on the whole we were non-directive. We did not appoint people to roles—the other members of the group did that. And it worked well on the whole.

But moving into more "traditional" undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, that did not work at all. For example I tried an introductions exercise and "share why you are interested in this module" exercise, when I took over a small "Sociology of mental health and disorder" module exercise. One of the students refused to introduce himself, left the room and never returned. (Given the topic of the module, there might have been something more behind that, of course.) 

More generally, though, what I thought of as a "liberal" or even "andragogic" approach did not go down well with these students. They kept asking for more structure. I saw them as copping out from their responsibilities and denying themselves great learning opportunities. But if I did reluctantly concede to their requests, I did find that contributions improved, and attendance became more consistent. Adopting the structured approach as routine, in situations where class membership was not a critical issue, was a useful innovation. For all my pontificating for years about groupwork practice, I had finally realised that it wasn't the presence or absence of structure and authority per se which was the issue, it was its appropriateness to the task and the group.

At which point you are entitled to say, "Even I knew that! Why should I pay any attention to this prat?" Hey-ho!

BELBIN M (2004) Management Teams—why they succeed or fail (2nd edn.) Oxford: Elsevier [Back]

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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