Examining the complexities of small-group collaboration and discussion

Small-group inquiry – where students collaborate and explore phenomena together – is an increasingly common pedagogical strategy in the classroom. How students operate in these groups is a crucial factor in their learning. How the students participate, interact with each other, and engage with the task shapes what they take away from the activity.

Previous studies have shown that these small-group discussions are often dominated by the most outspoken students, and those with the highest social status. Gender, race, and the students’ language abilities can play a role in determining which members of the group participate, talk, and ultimately learn, more than others. How the groups share – or do not share – leadership and the direction of the inquiry can be indicative of who will benefit most within the group.

The students’ language use – the what, when, how often, and to whom – can be indicative of their participation, and this can either help or hinder the group’s learning. Students that ask clarifying questions, prompt others, negotiate understandings, and elaborate tend to develop more refined and sophisticated understandings than those whose contributions are limited – whether in the number of utterances, or with interactions that did not build on what has already been shared with the group.

Group Talk

Dr. Umit Boz and his colleagues investigated how students in different groups organized themselves and interacted in their small-group roles, and how this related to the depth of their learning. Working with groups of pre-service science teachers, the researchers observed how the 3-member-groups interacted with each other while conducting an inquiry activity involving the burning of a candle under a jar. Each group was tasked with designing a controlled experiment to support or refute previous findings conducted using similar resources.

Recording the groups as they discussed their experiments, the researchers looked for evidence of which members of the group introduced or mentioned the different topics; the proportion and length of turns speaking; who directed others; and who addressed the problem-solving process. In obtaining such evidence, Dr. Boz and his colleagues relied on an automated discourse analysis tool (Broadwell et al., 2013) as well as a microethnographic analysis of group interactions. This provided insight into which group members were contributing, what they were contributing, how the group functioned in their collaboration overall, and the resulting level of cognitive engagement.

In Group A, the three women distributed their leadership quite evenly. Their decentralized approach meant their scores in each category were close overall. In Group B, however, a male group member dominated the discussion, both in terms of the quantity of contributions, and in time that the group spent talking about ideas he introduced. While the two females of Group B still contributed to the activity, with one maintaining some control, their scores in each category were noticeably lower.

Collaboration and leadership

By negotiating by the content of their inquiry, and attending to the cohesion of their group, Group A was able to achieve a higher level of cognitive engagement than Group B. Their decentralized leadership style, and collaborative approach, was better able to meet the socioemotional needs of their group, as well as support them in accomplishing the task. This emphasizes that group work is a social activity, involving both building friendly relationships as well as completing the activity on hand. Developing group dynamics which can do both of these is essential to learning in these instances.

Structuring collaborative inquiry by assigning static group roles (director, recorder, speaker, etc.) also has important implications for how students will work in their groups. While these roles may support students in contributing in certain instances, they may also reinforce centralized leadership and overly structure group inquiry. Considering the complexities of peer collaboration, and the dynamic nature of group activity, may help teachers support students conducting inquiry tasks to work more effectively.

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Connected Citations

Oliveira, A. W., Boz, U., Broadwell, G. A., & Sadler, T. D. (2014). Student leadership in small group science inquiry. Research in Science & Technological Education, 32(3), 281-297. DOI: 10.1080/02635143.2014.942621

Broadwell, G.A., Stromer-Galley, J., Strzalkowski, T., Shaikh, S., Taylor, S., Liu, T., Boz, U., Elia, A., Jiao L., & Webb, N. (2013). Modeling sociocultural phenomena in discourse. Journal of Natural Language Engineering, 19(2), 213-257.