Group Learning or One-on-One?

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Are you one of those people who loves to attend class? Do you really like the give & take of classroom discussion, while loathing the process of learning independently such as through a one-on-one tutorial? Or, perhaps it’s the other way around. You love learning independently on your own, and could take-it-or-leave-it when it comes to learning within a classroom setting?

But probably for most of us, we are in the middle. We like both approaches, and would love opportunities to learn both independently, and within a group setting, as we continue to learn throughout our lives. Luckily, there are guidelines as to which form of learning is best depending on the type of outcome desired.

This kind of learning dichotomy is often referred to as structured vs. non-structured learning. For subjects that you are not at all familiar with or when the context is brand new, learning occurs best in a structured environment – e.g. one-on-one tutoring, either by human or by electronic means. In this way you are guided, hands held, throughout the learning. There is ‘scaffolding’ which means that you are given a clear path through the learning. If you need extra help, the scaffolding directs you to the additional instruction or provides hint/tips as to the correct outcome. Both human tutors and electronic tutoring programs perform this kind of guided scaffolding, and it is the reason why tutoring works well in subjects such as Math and English/writing, where there is much new academic learning that can be independent of what we already know.

But when you are highly knowledgeable in a subject area, it is unstructured learning that can actually lead to the highest outcomes. You can work in a group or on a project that requires some ‘filling-in-of-the-gaps’ through your extensive background knowledge. And this is why team activities can be so productive for higher achieving students and for professionals in the workplace. A structured hand-holding tutorial process is often considered ‘boring’ for people with this level of background knowledge. They want to be challenged.

So you need to decide what instructional method is best. Are you learning something very new, such as a new computer software program? Then it may be best to complete a step-by-step tutorial. You can easily do this on-line and receive a certification/badge for the learning. But if you are advancing your knowledge in a subject area that is very familiar to your, then an unstructured learning environment would be better, such as taking an on-line course that requires a lot of project or group work. In this way, you can ‘scaffold’ the learning process itself by filling-in the missing information when it is needed. You might even come up with something that is totally new and innovative.

It doesn’t have to be a question of either-or. We can partake in a variety learning activities and continue to learn throughout our lives. You just have to take the lead to find out what the best learning method is out there to achieve your goals.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.

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