This may seem an arcane subject to have a page all to itself, but it deserves more attention than it gets.
"Reporting back" is the usual term for the process of feeding back material from group deliberations into a plenary session (the phrase is "reporting out" in the States). It is important because, except in some specialised circumstances, it is necessary in order to give value to the group discussions. Members often put a lot of themselves into small group activities, and if they do not feel that sufficient attention is paid to their efforts, they may well be turned off the whole activity, and even the course.
The Standard Method
It is worth going through the standard method, and making a couple of points about it, because it has proved itself but is often not used "properly" (whatever you take that to mean).
- When the groups are set up, either a reporter ("rapporteur",
if you are being posh) or a "scribe" or just a note-taker is appointed;
or the groups are instructed to select one of their number to take on the role.
- There's nothing wrong with leaving it to the group, but most groups don't appoint until you tell them there are only five minutes to go—so the findings may be less thoroughly reported. On the other hand, sometimes that is what you want, because the long-winded rapporteur is a well-known hazard of the business.
- The groups should have explicit instructions
about the form of the reporting-back. If they are all in the same room, the
instructions could be on a
whiteboard or flipchart if the exercise is spontaneous or on a slide if prepared. If they go off to
other rooms, the instructions should be on a handout, although not every member of the
group needs a copy: it can be the "badge of office" of the chair, if you appoint
one. It is advisable to have a chairperson in any group of more than five people.
- The instructions may call for "three arguments in favour of...", or "a list of advantages and disadvantages of", or something else equally specific. This makes for concise reporting back, but there are occasions when the main instruction will be to answer an open-ended question. Before you give such an instruction, think how you are going to handle the responses in the time available.
- You may give the groups flip-chart paper or an overhead transparency (OHT) on which to write down their report. This does help to ensure that they do perform the set task, and relieves you of the task of writing-up the reporting back. It also avoids problems if you have to paraphrase the findings as they are reported. On the other hand, it makes it more difficult to produce a co-ordinated picture from all the groups.
- The flip-chart approach is generally preferable, as long as everyone can see it. You can display all of them at the same time around the room (whereas OHTs can usually only be displayed individually on the projector) and can then go round highlighting similar points in the plenary discussion.
- On the other hand, you can take the OHTs away more easily. But you can always photograph the flip-charts...
- Don't try to do this with a computer. It's too clumsy—and smart boards are not much better unless all of you are familiar with them, because they usually have to be written on in real time.
- You may set time limits for reporting-back. That is a good intention, but honoured more in the breach than the observance. If you allow two minutes, and at one minute thirty seconds the reporter has still not made her first point, do you guillotine her and lose that group's input and perhaps their goodwill, or let her rabbit on at the cost of other groups' goodwill, and the loss of your (appropriate) authority? If such exercises are regular events, you can train reporters to be concise, but that is a long-term strategy.
- You can always use a timer with an alarm to de-personalise the time keeping and ensure consistency. If you do that, try to set it up to sound a warning with a minute to go as well as the final bell.
- A few minutes before the expiry of the allotted discussion time, go round the groups and remind them. This helps to get everyone back at the right time, and avoids the problem of either waiting for a group or starting without them.
- Don't always take the reporting-back from the groups in the
same order. The first group have the chance to make all their points, but particularly
with some of the variations mentioned below, others may feel the first to report have
stolen their thunder. So if the first group exercise (when you are using consistent
groups) is reported 1 2 3 4, vary the order for the second and third exercises.
- You can always ask, "Who wants to go first?" but just occasionally groups spend their time chatting about irrelevancies rather than doing the work. If that is the case, the keen volunteering group can be used as a smokescreen for the others to hide behind, as they simply agree with the first report or the reporter improvises variations on the theme.
- If, however, you have a large number of small groups (five or more, for example), you may wish to exploit this. Get the report from the first group, and then ask the others for anything they wish to add, or that they disagree with: this cuts down the reporting-back time.
- Alternatively—and my preferred approach, assuming all groups have been working on the same topic—take just one new topic from each group and go round them a few times until everything has been said.
- If you do take the reporting-back yourself, do not try to take
it down verbatim. Précis it, but check that your rendering is fair. If you can, use a
different coloured pen for each group. Tear off the flip-chart sheets as each report is
completed, and use Blu-tack (which I am sure is a registered trademark and which I duly
acknowledge, etc.) or similar to stick the sheets around the room where they will remain
visible to all.
- If the class is meeting over several weeks, keeping the flip-chart sheets and putting them up before the start of each session is a good way of communicating continuity, and helps with reference back to earlier discussions. Or, as mentioned above, you can take digital photos of them and post them on the class blog or the VLE.
- After a reporter has finished, briefly check with the rest of the group that they have nothing to add—this is slightly more diplomatic than asking if the reporter has got it right, or is just passing off his own views as those of the group.
- Allow other groups and members to ask for points of clarification and information before proceeding to the rest of the plenary discussion. In the discussion, make sure that every group's points are taken into account.
Variations on the Theme
- If the reporting-back takes the form of a list, take three or so items from the first group, three more from the next, and so on. Items which come up more than once can be underlined in the colour of the group mentioning them the second or third time.
- If you are looking for "good" and "bad" features of a topic, or any similar contrasting construct, use three columns on the flip-chart instead of two — there are always likely to be some items which can be both or either depending on the circumstances, so a middle column is useful.
- If you are sufficiently familiar with the technique, and using a large whiteboard or chalkboard instead of a flip-pad, use the reports to build up a mind-map of the topic area instead of taking them down in a linear fashion. This helps to group the ideas for later discussion.
- You can similarly use Post-it (similar trademark disclaimer) notes with key-words on them. If you have an outline or structure on a whiteboard, the group reporters can come up and place their sticky notes wherever they think they best fit on the outline. Since such notes will be rather small, make sure everyone gets a chance to mill around the board and read everything: if a break follows the reporting-back, so much the better
The Plenary Discussion
- First, make sure that you have one: if you plough straight on to the next topic, participants will feel all their efforts have been ignored.
- Respect the reported findings. Be careful about how soon you point out errors in the findings, or points which have not been mentioned. In particular, if there is an "official" answer to the question, do not reveal it in such a way as to "trump" or devalue what the groups have come up with.
- Small groups can be swayed by the strong convictions of one member, particularly someone speaking from direct experience (however atypical). You will have checked that the report truly represents the group's views, but be careful how you handle the vociferous and opinionated member, who often gets her- or himself selected as a reporter. She or he can set up arguments which drift from the main topic, and (usually) the most effective strategy is to recall the plenary to that topic, without dismissing the vocal one.
- Sometimes there is no response from the whole group. This is
discouraging, and can lead to collusion with anyone who is prepared to say something, however marginally relevant. If the plenary group is secure enough, use silence
—there is nothing in your contract which says you have to fill every gap! If not,
show that you value the work they have done, by identifying themes in the reports and
commenting on them, ask if anyone has anything they would like to add or ask, and move on.
The duration of plenaries is unpredictable, so have something available as a standby in
case the discussion does not last.
- But, having dealt with the problem symptomatically, do ask yourself about the underlying reasons, and try to provide the security which will let people contribute.