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What If We Re-engineered “Focus Groups” for Learning

Focus groups have been longed used to collect information, from market research, to educational research, to guideline-building consensus development. What strikes me is that in each of these models the emphasis has been on what the groups can provide the organizers – the information gatherers. In recent years my focus has been on the reverse engineering of group work – what do the group members themselves derive from these efforts. This is the essence of collaborative or social learning and this is a central theme in my book #socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Healthcare.

This month in the journal Small Group Research a series of articles were published that began to shed some more light on the impact of small group engagement on the individual – for our needs we might think in terms of the individual learner. As I read through this new assortment of research and hypotheses I was struck by the unlimited value proposition of bringing learners together within small, safe, trusted learning environments to work together through content and challenges in an effort towards building a new sense of understanding, confidence, and competence.

I was also struck by how this research blends perfectly with the Natural Learning Actions research we have been conducting:

Healthcare professionals (HCPs) acknowledge and appreciate that adult learning is built upon a core set of learning actions – note-taking, reminders/reflection, search, and social engagement – and only when these four learning actions are supported by educators and facilitators is learning truly optimized.

Our research is certainly not the first to describe the importance of social engagement in learning – though it does view it in a very unique way. Bandura’s landmark work in the 1960’s and 70’s set the stage for the field. Rosenstock was one of many who began to apply these models to health. And, more recently Godin explored these  models in the development of healthcare professionals. Safe to say that ‘social learning’ is a model with some very well-grounded research support. 

So what is our take-away message? As long as the cultural expectation of HCP lifelong learning hinges on the ‘individual’ as a free-agent learner who experiences educational content disconnected peers and colleagues, we will continue to evolve healthcare quality at a snail’s pace. For us to drive change through the educational interventions that we conceive, create, and implement, we must find scalable models to bring learners together, to enable the collective experience of learning, and to do so in ways that allows learners to trust in one another and in the environment in which they are engaging.

This is why we are spending so much time and effort advocating for virtual courses within virtual classrooms and what we have come to call our cohort-based learning architecture. When we build an architecture that support the first three natural learning actions such that we can simplify note-taking, reminders/reflection, and related search; and we re-engineer the learning experience such that learners are brought together with structure and controls to experience content and challenges together – only then will we have the impact on healthcare quality that is so desperately needed.

I will continue to collect and share more evidence for the success of these models, and I ask you to share any experience you may have with small groups or ‘focus groups’ re-engineered for learning.

Brian S McGowan, PhD

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Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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