Group(s) Work: Forum Groups & the Benefits of a Wise Crowd

friends (photo by duchesssa)

I wish I’d done this more. However much you love or hate working in a normal study group, an open mind can lead to great benefits with a ‘Forum Group’.

Study groups usually consist of a few students:

  • working toward a presentation;
  • revising together for moral support;
  • attempting to answer particular questions that have been given to them.

Forum groups go a bit further. The idea is to:

  • freely discuss open-ended ideas and concepts;
  • bounce questions off each other;
  • develop critical thinking/arguing skills;
  • ask specific questions and request help on topics that are confusing;
  • use the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to get more from a collective partnership.

The main requirement for a Forum Group is to form a team of students who wish to give a bit of their study time to rounding their knowledge, expanding their mind, uncovering common difficulties and stumbling blocks, and getting answers to questions that are bugging them.

people (photo by datarec)

Oversized Forum Group…they won’t all fit in your room.

Even when a Forum Group finds an issue that every member is having trouble with, the strength in numbers not only highlights the point, it also gives a tutor clear reason to put the points across in a more helpful way (hopefully!) when much of the class require answers to the same questions.

But don’t lose all hope that you won’t stumble across the right answers.  The larger a group is, the more unknowingly wise they can be as a collective unit.

In his book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘, James Surowiecki discusses how large groups of people can be scarily accurate.  The reason why?  Because as individuals, people don’t have all the data to make a decision, but together, all the information (or a great deal more, anyway) is there.  The info isn’t given to everyone, it just happens to make the average amazingly accurate.

According to Surowiecki, there are 4 conditions that characterise a wise crowd:

  1. Diversity of opinion (each person should have some private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts) – Even if your study isn’t based on hard facts, you need to take in a multitude of opinions.  If you can argue against opposing arguments, you’re a lot closer to having a well-rounded argument yourself…even if everyone else can make a feasible argument against your ideas too.  [I hope that makes sense.  Please tell me off in the comments if I’m talking nonsense!]
  2. Independence (people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them) – At first, you won’t have been involved in discussion.  Your opinion was new and forming in your own mind.  When you come to the table to discuss your opinions, you will not have been swayed (yet).  A Forum Group can shape ideas further, so each person’s independence begins to form even stronger ideas.
  3. Decentralisation (people are able to specialise and draw on local knowledge) – While you’re better than all your friends at some things, they will be better than you at others.  Similarly, you will hold certain information that is unique to the group that you’re working in.  If you all share what you know, you may come out the other side with an increased understanding of certain subjects, as will your peers.
  4. Aggregation (some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a collective decision) – While we all have our own thoughts, a Forum Group can open up what you’re thinking and allow others to build on it.  This allows all parties to gain and brings your private ideas into a public arena, which could ultimately become collectively agreed by everyone.  There might be some minor tweaking along the way, but that’s all part of the fun.  This doesn’t necessarily work if there’s too much conflict in the Forum Group, but that doesn’t matter either.

With these four conditions, a group can achieve good accuracy.

Fair enough, a Forum Group is unlikely to be more than a handful of people.  Nonetheless, a meeting of minds can prove beneficial, no matter how many people attend.  From 2 to 2000, there’s a lot of scope.

Groups work for some people and totally fail for others.  But the word ‘group’ has so many meanings that it’s worth trying out different types of ‘group’ in case you spot a winner for you.

At the beginning of this post, I said I wish I’d participated in Forum Groups more.  That’s mainly because I like to hear other people’s ideas.  I find it opens up my mind and brings out so many things that would never have occurred to me as an individual.

It also puts me in my place when I’m wrong.

In general, regularly working alone is crucial to gaining a good degree, but you’d be mad if you ignored working with others entirely.  Anyway, pretty much any employment looks for team working skills, so don’t get caught out on your own!

[Stop press, etc: I wrote this article before Cal published a similar – yet totally different and amusing – post over at Study Hacks.  He talks about forming a ‘Productivity Junta‘.  Not only is ‘Junta’ a fantastic word, but it’s also an opportunity to enjoy “intoxicatingly quaffable beer-coffee mixture”.  I suggest you check it out for even more ideas…and to find out how to become a legend like Benjamin Franklin.]