Action research and evaluation on line

Session B:  Learning groups



This is the second orientation session in areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (SCIAR). which some suggestions are offered for helping learning groups to start well and to function in useful and satisfying ways


This is part of the orientation to areol.  However, it also has relevance to the practice of action research.  It can provide you with direct experience, at least electronically, of the factors which help and hinder interaction -- including interaction within an action research program.  Action research is action and research.  Action researchers find it useful to be skilled in communication, facilitation, and helping others learn.
How much of the material below can you use in your action research project?


In this second orientation session:

This session is most useful for those people who have asked to join a learning group, especially if they have offered to help facilitate it.  It also provides some information for those who may wish to start their own learning group, perhaps face to face.

Other areol subscribers may or may not find it relevant.  I would guess, though, that at least some of the concepts of group facilitation have wider application.

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Areol's email learning groups

Those of you subscribed to the email version of areol will have been invited to join one of the pre-established groups:  community development;  education management and organisation development;  rural development, philosophy.  They will be set up as mailing lists at Southern Cross University.  If you've joined one of them, you'll be notified when it is available.

I'll subscribe to these groups too, though mostly as a silent observer.  You'll be able to ask questions about the mechanics of the list, which I can answer on-list.

(You were also offered the opportunity to nominate some other topics for groups -- I'll publicise these on the discussion list.  Depending on numbers of lists and people, I may be able to provide mailing lists for some of these too.)

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Learning groups:  an overview

The suggested approach for the learning groups is a form of action learning.  It is an experiential learning methodology which fits well with action research.

In its more common form, action learning brings together people from different situations to help each other learn.  Here, the different situations might consist of the action research projects you have chosen, or your normal work practice.

A face-to-face learning group, often called a "learning set", typically consists of about five people.  With members skilled in facilitation, I've had good results from even smaller groups.  There may or may not be a group facilitator.

Email groups may be different.  My recent experience suggests that the best size for them may be a somewhat larger, and perhaps even substantially larger.

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Email or face to face?

Action learning groups almost always rely on face-to-face meetings.  This remains a choice for you, too, if you are geographically close to some other areol subscribers.  It may be the best option for those of you who can assemble such a group from amongst your colleagues or friends.  I've said a little more about forming your own group, below.

In some respects electronic communication is a poor substitute for meeting face-to-face.  In particular, it does not offer the same level of interaction.

However, there are also some important advantages.  It overcomes limitations of space and time.  You can exchange information even when it is almost impossible to schedule a meeting which suits everyone.  You can prepare your material, and read the material from others, at a time that suits you.  You can easily accumulate a full written record.

You can always complement an email learning group with an occasional telephone conference if you are not too scattered geographically.  Faxes can be used for material not easily reduced to text.  And if there are any opportunities for face to face interaction, they can be seized.

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Learning group and discussion group

I see the learning group and the discussion group serving different purposes:

The discussion group provides a forum where people can react directly to the material in the areol sessions.  In particular, it gives an opportunity for you to raise questions about any ambiguities in the material, to offer different perspectives and materials, to point out errors, and so on.

I expect most of the material there to relate most directly to the current areol session.  It will probably also be of fairly general significance.

The learning group allows a smaller and more focussed group of people to help each other.  In particular, I assume that your main task there is to help each other learn from the material, and from your experience.  In many instances, it will be to make visible the learning which has already occurred.  There may be specific issues which take a particular form in your field of interest.  There will probably be interests that you share, but that may not interest the larger discussion group.

It will probably relate most directly to your projects.  It will also help you apply the material in the sessions to the projects.  I expect you'll have a chance to compare projects and experiences.  So you'll be able to examine the practical aspects of action research.

I hope there will also be some traffic between the learning groups and the discussion group.  To this end, I'd encourage you to report to the discussion group any information from the learning group which is likely to be of relevance to most areol subscribers.

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Learning groups in more detail

As I've said, the primary function of the group is to be a small learning community where you help and support each other in your learning.  I think you will find that relating theory and practice to each other is an important part of this.

For example, you can help each other to...

  • draw conceptual insights from your experience, whether areol activities or other experience
  • understand better how to apply the areol material in practice.

Your learning group can serve a number of other valuable purposes, including

  • providing support and friendship
  • helping each other decide how to proceed with your work or your project
  • exchanging material relevant to the more specific interests of the learning group
  • learning vicariously from one another's experience.

I suggest that, in your group and on the discussion list, you also share the experiences from your projects or work settings.

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In my experience, most face to face groups can work without a regular facilitator.  However, I don't think they can function well without facilitation.  At any moment it is best that someone, and preferably several someones, has an eye on the process.  It doesn't always have to be the same person.

I suspect that most of you will choose to operate in the following way.  So that there is facilitation, I imagine that a number of you will share the task, perhaps in rotation.  But in any event I strongly recommend that, whoever is facilitating at any moment, you do what you can to help them.

In fact, to help you develop an effective and satisfying process, I suggest that all of you take responsibility for keeping the group functioning well.

I invite you to take a moment to think...
What are some of the features of groups you've been in which have been productive and satisfying?
What has hindered productivity and satisfaction?
What can you do, personally, to bring about the positives and reduce the negatives?

I also suspect that the learning group will get off to a quicker start if some one or two of you help it to do so.  There are three important early tasks that such a person or persons can guide you through:

  • building a sense of community
  • agreeing on goals
  • deciding how you are going to function.

The sequence doesn't seem to matter all that much.  A bit of each allows you to get started.  Then you can pick them up and develop them further as that seems appropriate.

I say a little more about each of these below.

I suggest that you make a start on your learning group activities before beginning the areol content sessions.  Those of you subscribed to the email version will therefore find it useful to get your learning group operating well as soon as you can.

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Building a sense of community

It is easier to help each other with your learning if you have some knowledge of each other, and of your projects.

The following information applies only to those subscribed to the email version of areol:

I'll post (on both the discussion list and the archive) the file "areolwho.txt".  It will contain the names, email addresses, and introductions of each of the subscribers to areol.

If you can't find the copy posted to the discussion list, you can retrieve the archived file "areolwho.txt" at the areol text archive

You might like to skim that file.  Then, to help get things started, you might decide what else your learning group colleagues might find useful to know about you.  Send this to the learning group.  The addresses are:

novice group

practitioner group

academic group

thesis group

(These lists are open only to subscribers.)

When you begin to exchange email, useful information includes:

  • what you would like to get for yourself from the learning group -- in other words, your learning goals (see below)
  • what experience you have to offer other group members.

In the past, some learning groups have found it especially helpful to exchange telephone and fax numbers.

Three final thoughts on building community...

First, I think people get to know each other through achieving a certain level of openness.  It can be overdone -- early and deep self-disclosure can scare people off.  But appropriate self-disclosure can help to reveal something of the person behind the name and position.  I believe this helps.  And someone has to break the ice.

Second, I think a climate of mutual enquiry is much more helpful than one of competitiveness.  Some people thrive in a hothouse of belligerence, but others are rendered entirely quiet.  Combining openness with support seems to work well for mor people, including some of those who may otherwise lurk in the shadows.

Third, some years ago I heard Reg Revans speak about action learning.  One of the things he said stuck in my mind as particularly relevant.  He said that action learning groups work when people are able to express their ignorance or confusion about what they are trying to do.  They are then better able to learn, and to help each other to do so.

I offer these thoughts to you for your consideration.  For all three I offer the observation that they seem to work best in the absence of compulsion.  I think it's important that people are free to choose their own level of participation and disclosure.  Ultimately you and your group colleagues will make up your own mind.

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Agreeing on goals

Relationship, discussed above, helps task accomplishment.  But having a task can also help relationship.  Most of the people who subscribe to areol and to the learning groups, I suspect, are busy people.  I think many of them will be reluctant to spend time in much purely social interaction.

I suggested in the previous section that you let your group colleagues know what you hope to get out of the group.  They will be best able to help you if they know this.  In particular, what do you hope to learn from areol, and how do you hope to apply it?

As part of this, I suggest you tell them something (briefly!) about your project.

As you read other people's introductions and goals, you will find it helpful to note:

  • similarities and differences between their project and yours
  • experience and knowledge which they have which may be relevant to your goals and your project
  • experience and knowledge which you have, and which appears to be relevant to your group colleagues' goals and interests.

By the way, I don't think it's necessary that you all have the same goals.  In fact, in their early days, action learning sets usually consisted of managers from different organisations, facing different problems, and with different learning needs.  The diversity of the group was one of its assets.

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Deciding how to function

I think this is the aspect of email groups about which we still have a lot to learn.  For the most part, the questions to be addressed seem not all that different as for face to face groups.  The answers may differ.

Here are some questions for you to consider:

  1. How will you manage the facilitation?  For example, how many facilitators?  Who will start?  How will the facilitation be shared?  For example, you may choose an initial facilitator from amongst those who are willing.  You might then split the remaining weeks evenly over the other volunteers.  (This information is available on the areol_who file in the archives.)
  2. How will the responsibility be shared between the facilitator and the remaining group members?  My strong recommendation is that everyone, facilitator or not, does what she can to keep the process on track.
  3. How will you manage the task?  For instance, will you give some time to each person who has a project?  Or will you deal with all projects at once, but focus on one aspect at a time?  (I can see advantages and disadvantages in both.) Or what?
  4. What are your process goals?  -- that is, what climate are you trying to create?  As I said earlier, my favoured alternative is to aim for mutual education through a balance of openness and support.  However, this is more easily said than done.  How will you achieve it?  How will you draw people's attention to styles of communication which undermine your chosen climate?

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Other things you can do?

The membership of a group needn't be fixed.  One of the learning groups in areol 3 invited a couple of people to join them for part of their discussion.  This seemed to be very useful.  Another learning group organised an electronic weekend together.  They set aside some time to allow a more intense period of communication than email usually provides.  This, too, seemed to work well.

You may well have some other ideas that you can try out, with the agreement of the other members of the group.

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Setting up your own learning group

As I indicated previously, you are welcome to set up your own learning group.  If this can be done face to face with some colleagues, that could be a good option.  Failing that, email complemented by occasional fax or phone can work well.  If you do this, and need any help, please let me know.  (I'd be interested in hearing of any learning group formed, whether you wish for help or not.)

Please feel free to use the material more widely if it's useful.  This can be electronically, or in hard copy.  I ask only that you don't use it to make a profit, that you acknowledge its source, and that you identify the nature of any modifications.

The issues you will face in such a learning group are probably much as I've described above.


  1. Rather than use "she or he", which I find awkward, I will often use the feminine gender to represent feminine and masculine.  [ back ]

In summary...

In this orientation session I've briefly described the learning groups.  I've offered some suggestions for getting them off to a good start.

Whether you've joined an established group, or set up one of your own, I've suggested some important early tasks.  Gathering them together here:

  • make some quick decisions about an initial facilitator
  • if you do not already know one another, spend a little time getting acquainted;  as part of this, let each other know what each of you hopes to gain from the group
  • describe your project or work to each other
  • exchange information on your learning goals
  • agree how you are going to operate as a group, especially about your style of interaction and if you are going to have a rotating facilitator.

If you have any problems or questions please let me know.

The next part of the orientation provides an overview of the sessions, and the associated resources from the archive

Let's practice action research on areol.  What ideas do you have for improving this orientation?  What didn't you understand?  What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience?  What else?  If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list.  Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick.



Copyright (c) Bob Dick 2000.  May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown

This document may be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (2000) Learning groups.  Session B of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.  URL:





Maintained by Bob Dick;  this version 11.02w;  last revised 20020712