Group Work & Learning Theory

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Group work is the therapeutic technique where a psychologist brings individuals with similar problems together to work through and discuss common issues. Learning theory is the collection of research and theories aimed at understanding how the individual learns, thinks and develops into a self-regulating individual. Together these ideas help individuals address their problems and work through their challenges.

General Principles

Individuals are able to learn through observations of others around them, especially from observations of individuals who are going through similar problems or situations. Learning theorists point out that learning can occur without direct changes in the individual's behaviours. Group work provides a medium where other individuals with similar problems and challenges surround the individual. This environment promotes the discussion of these problems and provides a learning environment where a group of individuals can observe, learning from the successes and failures of others in their group.

Role of Environment

Environmental influences include the group's positive or negative reactions to the individual's decision. Group work provides an environment where the group can provide the emotional and psychological support for the individual, while providing environmental influences to encourage individuals to make healthier choices. For instance, a substance abuse group provides an environment where the group frowns on the use of drugs and alcohol. The group provides positive reinforcement when members make the choice to avoid those substances. Additionally, group work provides models for healthy behaviour. The individual can learn how to make healthier choices by listening to and watching the healthier behaviours of others in the group.

Cognitive Factors

Learning theory suggests that teaching cognitive decision-making factors can help individuals make better decisions on their own. Cognitive factors include the potential criminal punishment for an activity, social awareness about the effect of a decision on others and a philosophical awareness of the right or wrong of an action. A group work environment provides a forum for discussing these cognitive factors and their effects on each individual's life. As an example, the substance abuse group may discuss the time that some members spent in jail, the distance they created between themselves and their families because of the abuse and the immoral decisions they made to get their substance.


Group work uses conversation and dialogue to share lessons that members learnt outside the group, such as the legal ramifications or health ramifications of their decisions. Learning theory suggests that this method allows people to learn from the mistakes made by another individual. Group work also encourages group members to evaluate the actions of others, deciding if an action is right or wrong. Learning theory suggests that this technique teaches members the cognitive tools they need to make their own decisions. Group work also relies on reflection when members relate their experiences to others. Learning theory suggests that reflection is a tool that individuals can use to self-evaluate their own past actions and reinforce their personal cognitive tools.

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