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Embedding Compassionate Micro Skills of Communication in Higher Education: implementation with psychology undergraduates

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Abstract

Many students struggle with group-based assessments. The pedagogic approach of the 'compassionate micro skills of communication' (CMSC) aims to equip students with the skills necessary to work effectively in group settings. To this end, students studying on a core psychology module involving group-work, received structured CMSC learning in seminars. Following its implementation, analysis of data from four student and one staff focus groups, using thematic analysis, indicated support for the pedagogic approach. Four themes emerged: the use of CMSC for addressing unhelpful group behaviours; employing helpful group behaviours; enhancing inclusivity; and areas for CMSC improvement and roll out. Quantitative data collection is still ongoing and will be reported elsewhere. However, our preliminary analysis of the qualitative data provides good support for utilising a CMSC pedagogic approach in Higher Education regarding both its efficacy and potential positive impact.
Citation: Harvey, C., Maratos, F.A, Montague, J, Gale, M., Clarke, K & Gilbert, T.
(2020) Embedding Compassionate Micro Skills of Communication in Higher
Education: implementation with psychology undergraduates. Psychology of
Education Review, 44 (2), 68-72
Corresponding author Dr.Caroline Harvey
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Embedding Compassionate Micro Skills of Communication in Higher
Education: implementation with psychology undergraduates.
Abstract
Many students struggle with group-based assessments. The pedagogic approach of
the ‘compassionate micro skills of communication’ (CMSC) aims to equip students
with the skills necessary to work effectively in group settings. To this end, students
studying on a core psychology module involving group-work, received structured
CMSC learning in seminars. Following its implementation, analysis of data from four
student and one staff focus groups, using thematic analysis, indicated support for the
pedagogic approach. Four themes emerged: the use of CMSC for addressing
unhelpful group behaviours; employing helpful group behaviours; enhancing
inclusivity; and areas for CMSC improvement and roll out. Quantitative data
collection is still on-going and will be reported elsewhere. However, our preliminary
analysis of the qualitative data provides good support for utilising a CMSC pedagogic
approach in Higher Education regarding both its efficacy and potential positive
impact.
Introduction
Evidence is growing that focusing on the cultivation of compassion-based behaviours
has important effects on mental states and well-being (Hofmann, Grossman &
Hinton, 2011). Research demonstrates that compassion-focused interventions are
effective in both clinical and non-clinical populations (Kirby et al., 2017). Recently,
compassion-based initiatives have begun to be embraced within the UK educational
system, with Maratos et al. (2019a, 2019b) demonstrating that utilising these
approaches in educational settings may hold promise as a way of counteracting
negative issues (e.g. stress, lack of group cohesion), thus positively contributing to
well-being.
In universities and schools, the call for compassion training is set against growing
concern with the consequences of the increasingly self-focused competitive nature of
education. While some degrees of competitiveness can be useful, individuals who
are overdriven in competitiveness can become narcissistic and callous (Gilbert P,
2017), while those who feel they are failing can become stressed, self-critical,
anxious, depressed and generally mentally unwell (Gilbert P, 2009, 2017). The role
of compassion in Higher Education (HE) is explored by Gibbs (2017), in a range of
contexts, where he demonstrates that the pedagogy of compassion can improve
student emotional wellbeing and feelings of inclusion.
Pedagogic approach
T. Gilbert (2017) demonstrates the impact of implementing a compassionate micro
skills of communication (CMSC) pedagogic approach in HE, highlighting the benefits
this brings to students involved. This is drawn out through focussing on CMSC within
seminars in relation to group work and using micro-ethnography to help identify
those small communicative behaviours that can enhance group work and cohesion.
This approach helps students to identify what is happening during group discussions
by focusing their attention towards who is, and is not, becoming engaged in
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conversation and why this might be. This approach also enables students to
develop strategies to ensure everyone feels able to engage in group discussions and
fosters a sense of support and belonging. T. Gilbert, (2017) argues that this leads to
a higher level of functioning for the group and brings psychological and social
benefits to all students. To date, however, scientific evidence of the usefulness of the
approach is relatively scarce.
Thus the purpose of the present research was to assess the impact of implementing
this pedagogic approach for students and staff. The pedagogic approach developed
by T. Gilbert, (2017) was further developed within the current research, an outline of
which is provided below whereby seminar groups of 20-25 students were taught the
five key areas of CMSC through a mixture of group discussion, presentations,
handouts and video examples. The areas taught included: understanding
compassion; preventing cliques; helpful group behaviours; unhelpful group
behaviours; and coping strategies when under pressure to speak. Briefly, the
pedagogic approach employed in the present research is summarised below.
Understanding compassion
Students are taught the concept of compassion using the simplified definition of
noticing distress or disadvantage in themselves or others and doing something
about it” (T. Gilbert, 2018, personal communication). Students learn that it is
everyone’s responsibility to take a compassionate approach and ensure the group
communicates effectively. This allows everyone the opportunity to contribute and be
heard. Taking personal responsibility is a key component of the CMSC approach, as
it encourages self-reflection and self-monitoring, which can contribute to a more
compassionate communication style.
Preventing Cliques
Within each seminar of approximately 20-25 individuals, students engaged in small
group discussions (4-5 students per group) and directed study activities. Each week
students are directed by the tutor to work with a different group of 4-5 students to
prevent cliques from forming, providing students with a wider social network and
encouraging wider inclusion.
Helpful group behaviours
Students are taught to notice and develop helpful group behaviours such as:
encouraging everyone to contribute to the discussion; active listening; and
supportive body language e.g. open posture, establishing eye contact etc.
Unhelpful group behaviours
Students learn to notice unhelpful group behaviours in others and themselves
through reflection. Importantly, the seminar tutor will highlight that it is the group’s
responsibility to address this, not just the individual/s exhibiting the unhelpful
behaviour. Unhelpful behaviours might include: monopolising the discussion;
development of an alpha pair (where two group members monopolise discussions);
lack of eye contact with others; closed or dominant body language; not listening; not
contributing; etc.
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Coping strategies when under pressure to speak
Some students may experience shyness or social anxiety during group discussions.
Here, other group members are taught to notice this and gently encourage
contribution. At times group members may feel under pressure when they do not
feel ready to participate. In this situation students are taught strategies to move the
conversation on by using phrases such as “I’m not quite sure about this as I am still
formulating my ideas, what do you think?” Other group members are taught to
recognise that this strategy has been employed, and act accordingly.
In summary, the CMSC approach taught during seminar discussion groups
encourages students to reflect and become increasingly self-aware of their own
communication style, as well as those of others. This includes equipping students
with the skills to develop a more compassionate communication approach to other
group members.
The case study reported here, of research in progress, outlines the application of
these CMSC teaching methods in HE, alongside evaluation and a summary of
findings to date.
Methodology
Pedagogic Approach Employed
The CMSC approach described in the introduction was implemented with 148 first-
year undergraduate psychology students studying a core psychology module. The
module was delivered weekly for 12 weeks via a 1-hour whole group lecture and a 2-
hour seminar of approximately 20-25 students per group. The module included a
group-based assessment and group work along with CMSC learning activities were
embedded within the seminars and directed study activities, facilitating the
development of CMSC skills generally and in support of this assessment.
Design, Participants & Procedure
The qualitative data reported below is analysed using thematic analysis (Clarke and
Braun, 2013) and is part of a larger, mixed methods study. Quantitative data
collection is ongoing and is not reported here.
All students enrolled on a core first year undergraduate psychology module (N=148
students) were invited to participate in evaluation of the CMSC approach along with
the staff teaching team. Sixteen students, and all six members of staff responsible for
delivering the CMSC approach participated in five focus groups (four with students,
one with staff). The focus group discussions explored whether, through the
development of CMSC, students were equipped with an improved ability to work
effectively within group settings. Participation was voluntary and informed, and the
focus groups were conducted by an independent member of the research team not
involved in the module delivery.
The focus groups were audio-recorded, and the resulting data were transcribed
verbatim. Transcripts were analysed using thematic analysis, following guidance
from Braun and Clarke (2013). Each transcript was read and reread individually, and
important points highlighted. Once each transcript had been coded in this way, the
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resulting highlighted sections were brought together and patterns across the data
were identified. Through this process, clustering similar ideas together from each of
the transcripts, four main themes were identified. These are discussed in the
following section.
Results
The four themes that were developed from the data are: Addressing unhelpful group
behaviours; Employing helpful group behaviours; Enhancing inclusivity; and Areas
for improvement and rollout. These are illustrated below with a sample of comments
included to reflect the nature of each theme.
Theme 1: Addressing unhelpful group behaviours
One clear theme arising from both student and staff focused on addressing unhelpful
group behaviours, particularly monopolising, both in terms of becoming more aware
of one’s own behaviour and addressing that of others.
“I am always thinking about it ...even in normal conversations now I find that I don't
want to be like overtaking the conversations or being too quiet” (Student)
“talking about the dominators …I think it made the students recognise in themselves
where they fit into one of those categories” (Staff)
“they suddenly discovered they were a monopoliser or a shy person ...it helped them
recognise and understand that more clearly” (Student)
Theme 2: Employing helpful group behaviours
A further theme, around the benefit of employing helpful group behaviours, also
emerged:
“I think the non-verbal skills were really useful to learn” (Student)
they might be used towards you…the eye contact….you make eye contact with
people but to make sure like it’s inclusive.” (Student)
In one case, this was discussed in relation to the students doing group presentations
in class with one particularly nervous student:
“she said she would get up and do it ...I could see she was starting to tear up and
another student came up to her and took the paper off her and read her part …it was
so kind and so nice ...she just sort of came in and saved the day and saved her …it
was lovely and thoughtful” (Staff)
“there are people who are ...more dominant and there are quieter ones and it made
them more aware of how to handle that” (Staff)
Theme 3: Enhancing inclusivity
In this theme students indicated that they felt more able to include shy students in
group discussions.
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“some of the students ...were really nervous about the mixing up different groups to
start with ...now they actually look forward to the sessions because they felt they
would be part of the group” (Staff)
“if they are like sitting on the edge of the group …it’s okay …you know being
involved in the conversation, I just make sure I try not to cut them out” (Student)
“an exchange student who didn’t know anyone ...she goes into this module and sits
with other people and doesn’t feel like an outsider and she felt part of it” (Staff)
“the shy people in my group had some benefit, I saw some real differences, every
week” (Staff)
Theme 4: Areas for improvement and roll out
Staff commented that some of the reflective activities became a little repetitive as the
same activity was included at the end of a number of seminars:
“at the end of each seminar for a while there were a set of four questions that they
had to discuss within the new group …they got very bored of that very quickly …they
seemed fairly repetitive” (Staff)
However, aside from this, there was generally positive support for the approach with
both students and staff, indicating that they would like to see the CMSC approach
made available to all students on the course:
“I don’t know if it works just having it in the one module ...I was also teaching on
(another) module …some of the students in the first weeks mentioned the
compassionate stuff ...so having that approach throughout” (Staff)
“anyone on the course will benefit from it …it could be applied anywhere” (Student)
Conclusions
Initial analysis of the focus group data indicates positive support for the
implementation of the CMSC approach within this specific HE population, providing
support for the work of Gilbert, T. (2017) and Maratos et al., (2019a). A number of
themes emerged concerning the possibility of the CMSC approach to: improve ability
to address unhelpful group behaviours; enhance helpful group behaviours; and
increased inclusivity for all students. Support for the roll out of this approach more
widely was provided by staff and student feedback, and steps are being taken to
address this for the following academic year, as well as enhance some of the
activities.
To sum up, the application of the CMCS in pedagogic practice demonstrated several
benefits, including positive experiences of group work and increased group/social
cohesion. Whilst quantitative data collection and analysis is still on-going, this
research highlights that utilising compassion-based approaches within HE promotes
positive learning experiences, especially in group-work settings.
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References
Clarke, V. & Braun, V. (2013) Teaching thematic analysis: Overcoming challenges
and developing strategies for effective learning. The Psychologist, 26(2), 120-123.
Gibbs, P. (Ed.) (2017). The pedagogy of compassion at the heart of higher
education. London, UK: Springer Nature.
Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in psychiatric
treatment, 15(3), 199-208.
Gilbert, P. (2017). Compassion: Concepts, research and applications. London:
Routledge.
Gilbert, T. (2017). When looking is allowed: what compassionate group work looks
like in a UK University. In P. Gibbs (Ed.). The pedagogy of compassion at the heart
of higher education. Springer.
Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A meta-analysis of compassion-
based interventions: current state of knowledge and future directions. Behavior
Therapy, 48(6), 778–792.
Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and
compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical psychology
review, 31(7), 1126-1132.
Maratos, F.A., Gilbert, T & Gilbert. P (2019a). Improving well-being in Higher
Education: Adopting a compassionate approach. In S. Gibbs, Editor (Eds) in Values
of the University in a Time of Uncertainty. Springer
Maratos, F.A., Montague, J. Aziz, H., Welford, M., Wood, W., Barnes, C., Sheffield,
D. & Gilbert, P., (2019b). Compassion in the classroom: Evaluation of a
compassionate mind training intervention with school staff to improve well-being.
Mindfulness, 10 (11), 2245–2258.
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... Both pre-and post-intervention, the questionnaire on Group Work Behaviours (see Appendix A) explored the participants' experiences of those group work behaviours that had been cited by staff and several hundred students at the host university as-in their experience-most damaging to the effectiveness of offline/physical group meetings [13]. Both Gilbert, T and Harvey et al. [13,16,66], had earlier identified that monopolizing (talking so much in offline group meetings that others have little chance to speak) and non-contributing (or speaking very little in the meetings) were the two behaviours that most undermined inclusivity and group critical thinking in offline group meetings. (Those results pertained to the view of most student respondents in two UK universities and across four disciplines.) ...
... The study identified that screen gaze was key to the kinds of non-verbal signals of social connection most likely to mediate learning outcomes for the whole online group/teamwork meetings. This aligns with the findings in previous studies [13,16,66] that inclusive eye contact (around the group) was a key feature of the pedagogy of compassionate communication in offline classroom group work. ...
Article
Full-text available
HE’s pandemic-driven shift to online platforms has increased social and learning disconnection amongst students. In online group work/teamwork, many are reluctant to switch on their cameras to be more present to others. Compassion in group work/teamwork is defined as noticing, not normalizing, one’s own and/or others’ distress or disadvantaging and taking wise action to prevent or reduce this. This notion of compassion is being assessed in the HE sector using filmed task-focused in-class group work meetings to identify levels of both inclusivity and criticality around the team. This study investigates the use and outcomes of using the compassionate communications strategies (that were developed in and for the offline classroom) in online team meetings. In this mixed-methods study, two groups of four international STEM students, each from a sample of five UK universities, were video-recorded in task-focused group work meetings (TGMs) before and after an online interactive 90-min training session (‘the intervention’) on the Cognitive Skills of Compassionate Communications (CSCC) in teams. A comparison of the (pre and post CSCC intervention) quantitative and qualitative data results indicated, post-intervention, a significant increase in students’ screen gaze attentiveness to each other, and reasons why students’ motivation to switch on their cameras had changed. Keywords: cognitive skills; compassion; team/group work; online; screen gaze
... Both pre-and post-intervention, the questionnaire on Group Work Behaviours (see Appendix A) explored the participants' experiences of those group work behaviours that had been cited by staff and several hundred students at the host university as-in their experience-most damaging to the effectiveness of offline/physical group meetings [13]. Both Gilbert, T and Harvey et al. [13,16,66], had earlier identified that monopolizing (talking so much in offline group meetings that others have little chance to speak) and non-contributing (or speaking very little in the meetings) were the two behaviours that most undermined inclusivity and group critical thinking in offline group meetings. (Those results pertained to the view of most student respondents in two UK universities and across four disciplines.) ...
... The study identified that screen gaze was key to the kinds of non-verbal signals of social connection most likely to mediate learning outcomes for the whole online group/teamwork meetings. This aligns with the findings in previous studies [13,16,66] that inclusive eye contact (around the group) was a key feature of the pedagogy of compassionate communication in offline classroom group work. ...
Article
Full-text available
HE’s pandemic-driven shift to online platforms has increased social and learning disconnection amongst students. In online group work/teamwork, many are reluctant to switch on their cameras to be more present to others. Compassion in group work/teamwork is defined as noticing, not normalizing, one’s own and/or others’ distress or disadvantaging and taking wise action to prevent or reduce this. This notion of compassion is being assessed in the HE sector using filmed task-focused in-class group work meetings to identify levels of both inclusivity and criticality around the team. This study investigates the use and outcomes of using the compassionate communications strategies (that were developed in and for the offline classroom) in online team meetings. In this mixed-methods study, two groups of four international STEM students, each from a sample of five UK universities, were video-recorded in task-focused group work meetings (TGMs) before and after an online interactive 90-min training session (‘the intervention’) on the Cognitive Skills of Compassionate Communications (CSCC) in teams. A comparison of the (pre and post CSCC intervention) quantitative and qualitative data results indicated, post-intervention, a significant increase in students’ screen gaze attentiveness to each other, and reasons why students’ motivation to switch on their cameras had changed.
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