Distance education students’ experiences of informal study groups in higher education
Keywords: Informal learning, informal study group, interaction pattern and experiences
AbstractAlthough informal learning is an important way of modern adult learning, the experiences of distance students in informal study groups have remained unexplored. The theoretical framework that best informed the study is the informal learning theory. The purpose of the study was to investigate distance education students’ experiences of informal study groups. The study had four key objectives, namely to: identify interaction patterns of adult education distance students’ informal study groups, establish adult education distance students’ experiences of informal study groups, determine practices in adult education distance students’ informal study groups, and explore challenges faced by adult education distance students in informal study groups. A qualitative research paradigm was used, in particular a descriptive survey using an explanatory sequential mixed methods research design. Twenty-five participants were drawn from a class of 93 fourth year adult education students at the University of Zambia. Data was collected using a questionnaire. The study participants were asked about how they interacted within study groups chiefly in terms of age, gender and number. They were also asked to describe the activities and experiences they had in their respective informal study groups. Data collected was coded manually and analysed thematically and descriptively. The simple figures and statistics in this study are justified by the researchers who followed a sequential mixed methods approach. The extent to which gender was a factor in interaction patterns in informal study groups was not clearly established due to variations in the sample representation. However, the findings established that there was no significant variation in the manner informal study group were organised. The study revealed many benefits that accrued to students’ participation in informal study groups such as improved academic performance. The findings are in tandem with the informal learning theory which recognises the fact that learning among adults can be collaborative. Despite the many benefits, a number of challenges were identified such as the lack of suitable and sufficient study materials. It is, therefore, recommended that the integral link between informal learning and formal learning should be emphasised through professional development of lecturers so that in turn they can encourage students to form informal study groups. Further, lecturers should support students by providing them with links to various online resources so as to enhance learning in informal study groups.