Collaborative peer learning in the laboratory

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    Collaborative peer learning in the laboratoryD.J. Magin aa University of New South WalesPublished online: 05 Aug 2006.

    To cite this article: D.J. Magin (1982) Collaborative peer learning in the laboratory, Studies in HigherEducation, 7:2, 105-117, DOI: 10.1080/03075078212331379191

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  • Studies in Higher Education Vol. 7 No. 2 1982 105

    19. J. Magin, University of New South Wales

    Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory

    ABSTRACT

    This paper reports a study of students" group learning behaviour in a laboratory course in experimental engineering at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Observations of students at work, together with students" own reports of their group activities, indicate continuing group involvement in an extensive range of collaborative peer learning activities. Observations of variations in group behaviour strongly suggest that the different demands built into individual exercises are major influences on the nature and extent of collaboration within groups. Students" reports of group behaviour reinforce observations that most students had participated in group decision-making in all exercises, and that group decision-making was seen by students as a necessary part of problem resolution in each exercise. The special nature of the design of the laboratory course under investigation--in which student groups were required in each exercise to decide for themselves how to define the task and to determine how to proceed at each stage--was seen as a key element in fostering sustained collaborative peer learning in the laboratory setting. I t is argued that where designers of laboratory courses intend to make provisions for students to work in small groups on a common task, emphasis should be given to ensuring that each exercise contains at least one problematic aspect which engages the group in extended thought and discussion before taking decisions and actions on which successful completion of the exercise are contingent.

    Course organisation which includes some provisions for students to work in small groups has become increasingly common practice. Generally, small group teaching provisions require greater allocation of institutional resources than alternative procedures, and it is understandable that the advocates of small group teaching should be required to provide educational justifications and research documented examples of the increased effective- ness of chosen small group methods over traditional large group teaching methods. In the last two decades a voluminous literature has developed to meet this need, stimulated by pioneering work carded out by Abercrombie (1960), Beard & Bligh (1972) and Bligh (1971). Although novel techniques are still being explored, the place of small group work is well established with a substantial literature of research findings.

    In laboratory work the situation is rather different. By contrast, the use of small groups in laboratory experiment settings was not contingent on educational justifications, but had its basis in practical considerations concerning the limitations of resources. It had long been held that, ideally, experimentation in the laboratory should be an

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  • 106 Studies in Higher Education Vol. 7 No. 2 1982

    individual undertaking, with the justification for employing small groups of students in collaborating in laboratory work explained in terms of practical considerations such as:

    (i) Limitations on laboratory space and facilities often require small groups of students to work together on the same apparatus, especially where substantial equipment is needed for a particular experiment.

    (ii) Experiments sometimes require another 'pair of hands' to produce valid mea- surements and results. This occurs when observation and measurement must be made concurrently with manipulation of experimental conditions. Even in those situations where both manipulation and observation can be conducted by an individual, results can be obtained more quickly through collaboration.

    ('fii) Students often enjoy working in small groups in the laboratory. In the university setting it is one of the few situations where students are given the opportunity to work together on a common learning task.

    Because of these kinds of considerations there has not been the press to subject this form of small group learning to the critical scrutiny given to small group teaching in other situations. However there has long been expression of doubt about the educational merits of this form of student collaboration as an alternative to individual work. An often expressed concern is that laboratory work in these groups is frequently the result of the initiative of one or two members of the group, with minimal group interaction on problematic aspects of the task. These doubts, however, have not stimulated active enquiry, possibly because in a practical sense the issue can often be resolved: for those who are committed to individual work, effort is made to provide laboratory work in this mode, and small group provisions are accordingly seen as the less desirable alternative only to be tolerated until resources can accommodate individual laboratory work; for those who believe that group work in the laboratory is the desirable alternative, few arguments are encountered against this less costly method of organisation and laborato- ries are often geared to meet these requirements.

    Collaborative learning: an emerging concern

    Since 1974 the author has been associated with Dr J. A. Reizes, School of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of New South Wales, on the reorganisation and evaluation of engineering courses to develop students' skills in experimentation (Magin, Reizes & Sivyer, 1976; Reizes & Magin, 1978a, b; Magin & Reizes, 1979). Although at the onset of our work a decision was made to retain the traditional practice of students working in small groups, this aspect of laboratory organisation was not seen as particularly salient in our justification and assessment of the new approaches devised at that time. The initial aims and principles determining the form of organisation have been described elsewhere (Magin et al., 1976), as also the evaluation of outcomes (Reizes & Magi_n, 1978a; Magin & Reizes, 1979). Briefly, the major goal of the organiser of the course was to develop a laboratory programme which would provide experience in all aspects of the process of experimentation in the service of developing intellectual skills of problem solving through experimentation. This was to be achieved through:

    (i) Providing a series of problems to be solved through experiments which would require students themselves to make decisions on all aspects of experimentation, e.g. problem formulation; determination of appropriate theory; consideration of what equipment to use; designing appropriate measurement procedures and validation checks.

    (ii) Ensuring that each experiment contained problematic aspects in at least one of these skill areas, e.g. one experiment may provide challenge in determining

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  • Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory 107

    appropriate theory relevant to analysis of the problem; another may have its emphasis on determining procedures for reliable measurement.

    (if) Requiring that students not only experience these skills of experimentation in the conduct of their work, but also develop their abilities to communicate and justify their procedures and findings, and to appraise critically the validity of results obtained and suggest alternative procedures where indicated. This re- quirement was to be met by demanding of students individual reports of their group-based experimental work.

    Originally, as alluded to earlier, the small group mode was retained simply because no compelling reason was seen for change from this traditional approach to organising laboratory work. However, over the period of the investigation of the redesign of courses in experimentation, and their evaluation, it had become increasingly evident that in defining requisite skill development and specifying learning outcomes the students' collaborative activities had come to assume a central place. Although the initial investiga- tion had concluded by 1978, observations made during this period, together with survey data from students, had indicated that the collaborative activities demanded by the new approach to experimentation was providing a new dimension to the context of lear- ning--a dimension that had quite distinct learning patterns and procedures from that previously observed before the reorganisation. Moreover, it had been observed that in many experiments a significant proportion of the time spent in the laboratory was being taken up with activities relating to group processes. In a number of instances these group processes took up the majority of time available in the laboratory. These group processes included:

    (i) decision-making in planning; sharing information and communicating ideas on the nature of the problem and determining what information sources were required;

    (ii) allocation of responsibilities--who does what in the conduct of the experiment; (iii) resolving differences of opinion with respect to the interpretation and validity of

    results obtained; (iv) deciding whether further measurements or a 're-run' of the experiment were

    required, and determining the general form of their reporting of the experiment. It was evident to the investigator that not ordy was a great deal of time taken up with

    these group processes, but more importantly these collaborative activities appeared to incorporate the greater part of students' intellectual engagement with the task at hand. It might be said that such observations are not at all surprising--that one would expect people engaged in a common task for which they have a joint responsibility would frequently seek each other's opinions and views, and engage in discussion of those aspects of the task which appear problematic. But whether surprising or not, these observations led to a closer consideration of the place of such learning activities in student development, and particularly the relationship between the nature of the task set for students and their group learning behaviours. Schwab, over a decade ago, had alluded to this relationship in his study of the teaching of science through enquiry:

    The team of students which encounters a phenomenon in the raw does more than merely pull and push, time and measure, and describe. Once alternative possibilities have presented themselves discussion ensues. The feasibility and validity of different problems are debated. Ways and means must be discussed. Techniques are devised and criticised, assumptions uncovered and identified. Then, there must be a consensus and a division of responsibifities. Finally, at the end, when research reports are written, circulated and read by different teams, there are discrepancies to be checked or accounted for in the interest of further consensus. All of these things are part and parcel of enquiry as it

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  • !08 Studies in Higher Education 11ol. 7 No. 2 1982

    actually occurs--including unresolved debates, continuing diversity of problems and methods, and above all, continuing differences in concept and interpreta- tion.

    (Schwab, 1962, p. 4)

    These considerations led in 1979 to the commencement of a further study of student learning in the laboratory, focusing on students' group learning activities. Although two monographs have been published (Abercrombie & Terry, 1978; Rudduck, 1978) explor- ing the effects of different organisational procedures and teacher interventions on the learning outcomes of small group work, little is known about students' group learning in laboratory settings. Several studies of laboratory work in engineering have emphasised the importance of group work in the laboratory (e.g. White, 1945; Martin, 1969; Nuffield Foundation Group, 1974; Russell & Carney, 1978), but no definitive study has been found on detailed observation of group learning processes relating to the development of individual skills in experimentation techniques. In particular, information had been sought which would provide a connection between the task requirements of experiments and intellectual skill development in collaborative work situations. From the work in our previous studies there had developed an awareness that the different requirements of individual experiments appeared to have quite a large effect on the nature and extent of collaborative activity in the laboratory--some experiments appeared to engage student groups in ways similar to that outlined in Schwab, others appeared to encourage an early division of labour with minimal group interaction of an intellectual nature.

    Collaborative Peer Learning: defining characteristics

    Given the importance that this form of learning appeared to assume with respect to the development of experimentation skills, we were struck by the lack of a clear and unambiguous definition for this form of learning. For the purposes of the work which commenced in 1979 a working definition was specified in the following form:

    Collaborative peer learning: learning which occurs through social interaction between peers, directed towards the accomplishment of a common task.

    Having advanced this working definition, and reflecting upon what had been ob- served in laboratory settings, a number of distinctive characteristics of collaborative peer learning were posited---characteristics which immediately set this form of group learning apart from other forms of small group learning, as instanced, for example, in tutorial or seminar settings.

    Some Defining Characteristics

    (i) A teacher or authority figure is not contained within the group. (ii) It is usually much smaller in size than 'led' groups. (Cockburn & Ross, 1977, in

    commenting on an optimal size for small groups, refer to 'about eight' as an ideal for most small group situations. This would be seen as too large for most collaborative peer learning situations ~-LespeciaUy in the laboratory.)

    (iii) Decision-making is a necessary group task. (iv) Consensus is required for activities to be carded out. (v) A specific problem requiring resolution provides the focus for all group activi-

    ties. (vi) Although not necessarily confined to laboratory settings, the laboratory setting

    can provide an archtype for this mode of learning.

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  • Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory 109

    This definition provided a basis for investigating aspects of student collaboration in laboratory experimentation settings. Since 1979 however, two papers have been pub- fished which provide definition and elaboration of similar approaches. Todd (1981) refers to collaborative learning techniques as including a number of independent learning techniques, " . . . all of which aim to combine understanding of course content with the active involvement of students in the processes of their own learning" (p. 91), and further states that the instances given " . . . exemplify the essential features of collaborative learning techniques which I take to be that small groups of students will work on a learning assignment independently of the tutor" (p. 91). In a similar vein, Collier (1980) has reviewed the activities of small task-centred learning groups in a college setting, but chooses to refer to this form of learning as "peer group learning" (p. 55).

    Although neither study gives emphasis to studies of collaborative learning in the laboratory, Collier does mention one study (by White, 1945) in which students working in teams of four were claimed to gain more factual knowledge from their laboratory work than did students working individually in the control group (Collier, 1980, p. 56).

    In taking account of these recent studies, it was considered that the working definition advanced was consistent with contemporary approaches, and that the laboratory setting to which this definition related provided an ideal context for the exploration of peer group learning processes in the individual's development of intellectual or cognitive skills. This view was reached because the programme of experiments utilised in the enquiry inevitably required students to agree upon decisions before any further actions can be undertaken. Of course, this may well occur in other situations, such as syndicate or group problem solving sessions, but it is often not an essential element. For example, a group working together in a problem-solving session may adopt a strategy of discussing various procedural steps and reaching agreement on what line of analysis to follow. Yet the situation need not always be contingent on reaching consensus at every problematic aspect of the task at hand. By contrast, in many laboratory situations in which there is interaction with apparatus at hand, decisions must necessarily be made at the time of, or before, most manipulations of equipment.

    Observing Students in the Laboratory

    During the academic years 1979 and 1980 an investigation was mounted to provide information on how students worked in group learning situations within experimental engineering in a third year course in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of New South Wales. In 1979 our investigations focused on observing students at work in the laboratory, with an observer 'sitting in' on laboratory sessions. These observations were carried out by two of the staff of the Tertiary Education Research Centre. Several laboratory sessions were videotaped for further analysis, although this technique was kept to a minimum to prevent too much intrusion on the group's activities. Most observational data were therefore analysed from notes taken by the two observers, rather than from videotape analysis.

    These observations were supplemented by questionnaire information obtained by requesting each student to complete a brief questionnaire at the conclusion of each experiment. In 1980, students were required to complete eight experiments, working in the same groups of three to four students for all experiments. The class consisted of 19 groups from which 413 separate questionnaires were obtained. Since the average attendance for each laboratory session was approximately 65, it was estimated that close to 80% of all laboratory attendances were reported on through these questionnaires.

    The data collected through observation and questionnaire methods were designed to provide information on the following questions:

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  • 110 Studies in Higher Education Vol. 7 No. 2 1982

    (i) What were the predominant group learning activities in the laboratory? In particular, were decisions made by all members of the group, or by one or two individuals?

    (ii) In what areas of experimentation processes were students engaged in discussion and decision-making? Did this vary with the different demands made by different experiments?

    ('tii) Where differences were observed in the stages of experimentation at which students engaged in extended group discussion and decision-making, did these stages conform to that planned by the course organlser?

    (iv) What were the students' perceptions of the usefulness of collaborative learning activities in the context of developing individual skills of experimentation? In particular, do they form the view that collaboration in small groups is more rewarding than individual work in the laboratory?

    Before turning to presentation of results, it should be emphasised that although the programme of experiments was designed to provide engagement with problematic aspects over a wide range of experimentation skills, each individual experiment had been devised to provide challenge and decision in one or two major areas. For example, one experiment contained as its most problematic element the determination of appropriate theory and the identification and application of relevant sets of equations. It was therefore expected that the major part of discussion and decision-making would focus on this aspect. Another experiment had as its most problematic element the reconciliation and explanation of discrepancies between the empirically derived results and predicted values produced by theoretical analysis; yet another required reaching agreement on what measurements were relevant to the problem posed. (These different facets are discussed in detail in Magin & Reizes, 1979).

    Results

    (i) Predominant Learning Activities

    Within conventional small group laboratory situations it is commonly observed that much of the students' collaborative activity is concerned with dividing up duties----deter- mining who will interpret the manual, who will set up the apparatus, conduct measure- ments, record and analyse results, etc. In most of the situations observed in the present study the majority of group interactions were not of this kind. Students were observed to spend a great deal of time explaining and arguing amongst themselves, and ultimately reaching agreement before proceeding jointly to the next stage. In some experiments almost half of the three hour session was spent in discussion and consensus seeking processes. However, in one experiment most student groups did show a conventional division of labour, with little time spent on group decision-making at the different stages of experimentation.

    It was also observed that although different groups varied in the amount of time spent and level of group involvement in decision-making procedures for comparable experiments, the major source of variability arose from the differing demands of the different experiments. Quantification of the differing impact of the various experiments in the programme is presented in the discussion of results from the questionnaire.

    In a minority of instances a student was observed to take no part in any major decisions. A more common observation was that a dominant student in a group would take most of the initiatives in suggesting methodologies or procedural steps. Although this was observed in almost one-third of instances, it was rare for the dominant student not to be challenged or called upon to explain by at least one other student.

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  • Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory 111

    These observations were suppor ted by quest ionnaire data collected during 1980 f rom students ' fortnightly reports on their own laboratory activities in their group.

    TABLE I. Student responses to the question: 'To what extent did you personally contribute to the following activities in your group?' (IV= 413)

    Activity Response category*

    'Not applicable--

    'I contributed 'I contributed 'No no discussion a great deal' a little' contribution' on this"

    N 1 Deciding a basic approach

    for the laboratory exercise 125 2 Discussion of what theory or

    sets of equations to apply 92 3 Deciding what procedures or

    measurements to take 134 4 Deciding when to terminate

    measurements/procedures 116 5 Working together on calculations

    and interpretations of experimental data 123

    6 Discussion of the meaning and validity of results 129

    7 Working together on actually writing the report 89

    % N % N % N %

    (30) 216 (52) 16 (4) 51 (12)

    (22) 159 (39) 28 (7) 128 (31)

    (32) 212 (51) 11 (3) 51 (12)

    (28) 181 (44) 27 (7) 83 (20)

    (30) 159 (39) 30 (7) 93 (23)

    (31) 185 (45) 18 (4) 74 (t8)

    (22) 118 (29) 33 (8) 166 (40)

    * Non-responses are not included in the table. Between 1 and 2% of returned questionnaires did not have responses to the separate items in this question.

    Table I sets out students ' quest ionnaire responses concerning the extent to which they personal ly contr ibuted to various group activities. These 'self-reports ' were anonymous , and were filled out at the conclusion o f each experiment. F r o m inspection o f Table I it can be seen that for all the activities listed the overwhelming major i ty o f students claimed that they had part icipated to some extent in the specified activities. Since this table combines the reports obta ined f rom all eight experiments and since not all experiments required decis ion-making in every area, a substantial p ropor t ion o f respon- dents have indicated that the g roup was not required to make a decision in some areas. Where discussion and other activities were conducted by the group, between 3 and 8% o f students indicated that they had made no contribution. These anonymous 'self-reports ' were broadly consistent with our own observations o f groups at work, and suggest that in areas o f discussion and subsequent decis ion-making almost all g roup members took some part.

    (ii) Areas of Discussion and Decision-making

    Observations o f student groups indicated enormous differences in the level o f engage- ment required to make decisions. In some instances there was s imply a 'nodding agreement ' to take, for example, a part icular measurement ; in other instances protracted a rgument and detailed explanat ion wotdd ensue on such matters as deciding between compet ing methodologies or interpretations. In the light o f these observations, simple compar isons o f the relative f requency o f g roup decis ion-making in different areas m a y

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  • 112 Studies in Higher Education Vol. 7 No. 2 1982

    not reveal the extent to which different aspects o f the exper imentat ion process were often problematic, requit ing extended discussion and thought.

    TABLE II. Components of experimentation for which students report making group decisions: aggregated for all eight experiments (N=413)

    'Did your group have to 'In your opinion, was the Questions make a decision on this?' group's decision correct?'*

    Yes No Yes No Unsure

    N % N % N % N % N % 1 Selection and application

    of appropriate theories/ sets of equations 256 (62) 150 (36) 206 (82) 15 (6) 28 (11)

    2 Deciding what procedures and measurements to make 330 (80) 78 (19) 270 (85) 19 (6) 30 (9)

    3 Actually determining how to use equipment/instrumentation to take readings 210 (51) 192 (47) 191 (91) 6 (3) 12 (6)

    4 Determining that data obtained were adequate and reliable 348 (84) 59 (14) 233 (69) 27 (8) 77 (23)

    5 Interpretation of the results obtained 373 (90) 33 (8) 272 (77) 14 (4) 66 (19)

    6 Validation of the procedures used and the results obtained 327 (79) 75 (18) 238 (77) 19 (6) 52 (17)

    7 Determining what to report 314 (76) 91 (22) 247 (82) 3 (1) 50 (17)

    * Percentages are calculated for 'applicable' responses only. 'Not applicable' responses have been excluded from analysis.

    At the simplest level, Table I I shows that students perceived their group had made decisions, in most instances at each stage o f the exper imentat ion process. Over 80% reported that their g roup had made decisions in the areas o f interpretat ion o f results, and in determinat ions o f the adequacy and reliability o f results obtained. In only 51% o f instances reported did students perceive that any group decisions were made on actually determining how to use the equipment or take readings.

    One disquieting feature revealed by Table I I is the extent to which students believed their various g roup decisions to have been correct. Later assessment o f s tudents ' labora tory reports had revealed that in a number o f instances group-based decisions at critical stages had been in error. This aspect is being fur ther analysed in a section o f a m o n o g r a p h in preparat ion, in which the dynamics o f group consensus and val idat ion o f decisions are explored.

    As caut ioned earlier, it does not necessarily follow that the most frequently instanced areas o f g roup decis ion-making are those which are considered the most impor tan t or critical areas in students" group work. W h e n students were asked to nominate fur ther f rom the list in Table II which were the major areas o f enquiry and discussion, 53% endorsed i tem 2 'deciding what procedures and measurements to take ' as a first or second choice. Only two other areas received substantial endorsement as major areas o f discussion and enquiry, namely i tem 5, ' interpretat ion o f results obta ined ' (38%), and i tem 1, 'selection and applicat ion o f appropria te theory/sets o f equat ions ' (29%).

    D a t a relevant to the quest ion o f whether the different demands o f individual

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  • Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory 113

    experiments in the programme resulted in concentration of students" collaborative activities in different areas of the experimentation process are provided by Table III.

    These data provide evidence that students exhibited different patterns of extended group engagement with reaching decisions and agreement across different experiments. However, some aspects of experimentation were rarely seen as generating important group decisions and discussion in any of the experiments reported. One feature educed from Table III was seen as disturbing by the course organiser. Although the 'validation of procedures and results obtained' was perceived as an essential aspect of experimenta- tion, this area was rarely endorsed for any of the experiments as one of the most important collaborative activities. In particular, one experiment ('strain gauge') had been especially designed so that its most problematic element would be in this area.

    (iii) Conformity with the Course Organiser's Ident~cation of Major Decision Areas

    Data relevant to the question of whether the areas anticipated by the lecturer as being of major importance in group collaboration for the resolution of a particular experiment were in fact in agreement with students' experiences, are also contained in Table III. In four of the seven experiments reported there is agreement between the lecturer and the students' most frequent responses on what specific aspect was the most problematic, engaging the most important decisions and discussion activity. Surprising results were obtained for two experiments---'factor experiment' and 'toolwear'--in which the areas seen by students as most important were not anticipated by the course organiser.

    In this context, the use of students' 'self-reports' of laboratory group decision-making is seen as a useful tool for not only providing feedback relating to improvement of course design, but also for explorations of what actually constitutes 'problematic' areas for students in tasks relating to empirical problem-solving.

    (iv) Students" Perceptions of the Usefulness of Collaborative Learning in the Laboratory

    Students' responses to the question of the usefulness of working in groups in the laboratory are shown in Table IV.

    Almost all students claimed that they had valued some of the things learnt through the collaborative aspects of their work, but only 24% claimed that they had learnt a 'great deal' from the experience of collaborating with others. However, the overwhelming majority reject the notion that they would have learnt more had they worked alone on the individual experiments. In follow-up studies it is intended to explore further the views of the the small, but significant numbers of students (12%) who claim that individual work would be more rewarding. Although students were asked to provide written comments on their responses to this question, few volunteered sufficiently detailed explanations to allow a meaningful content analysis. Some of the more interest- ing critical comments volunteered included:

    I learnt nothing of value. We all had a similar preconceived idea of how to do the experiment. I think we were all wrong. How do you argue convincingly that what the rest of the group were inclined to assume was not based on conclusive evidence? As always, what I learnt about was human nature; my own and other's. Deciding and agreeing upon a course of action is the hardest part of experimen- tation, and a little more on this in lectures would be helpful. Most of the time was spent arguing, most of it a waste of time. I think the lack of instructions is to blame.

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  • Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory 115

    TABLE IV. Students' perceptions of the usefulness of collaborative learning activities in the laboratory (N=413)

    Question Response categories

    (i) How much did you learn from the other members of your group in the discussions and conduct of this laboratory exercise?*

    (ii) In your opinion, would you have learnt more if you had worked alone on this exercise?

    'I learnt a few 'I learnt a great deal things of value from collaborating through 'I learnt nothing

    with others' collaboration' at all of value'

    N % N % N %

    100 (24)

    'Yes'

    254 (62) 38 (9)

    'No' 'Not applicable' No response*

    N % N % N % N %

    51 (12) 323 (78) 18 (4) 21 (5)

    * Almost all of the 'no responses' related to the 'home experiment' returns, for which the question was generally inapplicable.

    Learning to work together as a group was the most valuable thing learnt in this experiment. One member keeps making the suggestions and the other two just go along. They didn't take my advice and our experiment went wrong. Useless!

    Discussion

    In evaluating a reorganised series experiments that required students working in groups of three or four to make all the decisions themselves at each stage of the experimentation process, the investigators had become aware of the central place of collaborative activities in the students' learning behaviours in the laboratory. The results obtained from this study suggest that the nature and extent of students' collaborative learning activities are very sensitive to differences in the specific requirements of different experiments. It is contended that the laboratory situation, involving the use of the 'hardware' of experiments, is an ideal situation for studying collaborative peer learning processes because there is a constant group pressure to make 'correct' decisions at each stage of the exercise, resulting from the time-consuming nature of retracing erroneous steps or changing the system state of the apparatus.

    Webb (1977), in analysing the effect of student group activities in mathematical problem-solving, identified as critical factors in skill development " . . . the effort of explanation by those who understood the material, and the demand for explanation by those who did not" (reported in Collier, i980). Much of the observed group activity of students in our laboratory study took this form of seeking and providing explanation. Although there is the presumptive link, the design of this study does not enable measurement of the extent to which collaborative learning activities per se actually contributed to the development of experimentation skills. Three conclusions, however, can be advanced unequivocally: first, almost all students view their experiences of collaborative work in the laboratory as being more valuable than individual work;

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  • 116 Studies in Higher Education Vol. 7 No. 2 1982

    secondly, the organisational form of the laboratory course and the task requirements resulted in sustained and extensive collaborative peer learning activity for the over- whelming majority of students at various stages of experimentation; and thirdly, the tasks necessitating decision-making within the laboratory resulted in frequent and often extended communications between students directed towards questions of problem definition and resolution. These experiences of peer communication of a discipline- specific, intellectual character can be regarded in themselves as valuable skill develop- ment for the conduct of future roles as professional engineers.

    Collier, in his review of peer group learning in higher education, commences with the statement: "Much has been written about peer-group influences in educational institu- tions but relatively little detailed study has been made of small task-centred peer-groups in a college setting (Collier, 1980, p. 55). The study reported here, and the continuing investigations of small task-centred peer groups in the laboratory are intended to contribute to a little-investigated field of enquiry. Within laboratory settings there has been for too long an easy acceptance of the presumptive value of small group collabora- tion. Yet simply putting students together in small groups in the laboratory does not guarantee that productive collaboration will ensue. The laboratory setting is seen as possessing a rich potential for developing relevant skills through collaborative activity. Within the limitations of the findings presented in this study, it is suggested that an essential element in designing laboratory courses which fully utilise this potential for learning is that each experiment should provide for engagement of the group's under- standing and intellect at various stages such that subsequent procedural actions are contingent on the considered decisions of the group.

    Correspondence: Mr D. J. Magin, Senior Education Officer, Tertiary Education Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Box 1, Kensington 2033, New South Wales, Australia.

    REFERENCES

    ABERCROMBIE, M.L.J. (1960) The Anatomy of Judgement (London, Hutchinson). ABERCROMBIE, M.L.J. & TERRY, P.M. (1978) Talking to Learn (Surrey, Society for Research into Higher

    Education). BEARD, R.M. & BLIGIt, D.A. (1972) Research into Teaching Methods in Higher Education, 3rd ed.n (London,

    Society for Research into Higher Education). BLIGH, D.A. (1971) Teaching Students in Groups (London, University Teaching Methods Unit). COCKBURN, B. & Ross, A. (1977) Working Together (Lancaster, Teaching in Higher Education Series,

    University of Lancaster). COLLIER, K.G. (1980) Peer-group learning in higher education: the development of higher order skills, Studies

    in Higher Education, 5, pp. 55-62. MAGIN, D.J. & RE1ZES, J'.A. (1979) Teaching experimental engineering in the laboratory: outline and

    evaluation of a course at the University of New South Wales, International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, 7, pp. 49-54.

    MAGIN, D.J., REIZES, J.A. & SIVYER, P.H. (1976) Fostering student initiative in the laboratory, Proceedings of the National Conference on Engineering Education, Publication 76/8, pp. 4347 (Sydney, Institution of Engineers, Australia).

    MARTIN, D.G. (1969) Ends and means in laboratory teaching, Bulletin of Mechanical Engineering Education, 8, pp. 185-189.

    NUFFIELD FOUNDATION GROUP (1974) In Newsletter no. 5, October, pp. 12-18 (Group for Research and Innovation in Higher Education).

    REIZES, J.A. & MAGrN, D.J. (1978a) An evaluation of a re-organized course in experimental engineering, Proceedings of the National Conference on Engineering Education, Publication 78/6, pp. 86-89 (Sydney, Institution Of Engineers, Australia).

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  • Collaborative Peer Learning in the Laboratory 117

    REIZES, J.A. & MAGIN, D.J. (1978b) Some principles for developing experimental skills in the laboratory, Forum Pendidikan (Jakarta), 6, pp. 17-26.

    RUDDOCK, J. (1978) Learning through Small Group Discussion (Surrey, Society for Research into Higher Education).

    RUSSELL, L.D. & CARNEY, T.M. (1978) A team approach to engineering design, Engineering Education, 68, pp. 751-753.

    SCHWAB, J.J. (1962) Science as enquiry, in: SCHWAB, J.J. & BRANWEIN, P.F., The Teaching of Science (Harvard University Press).

    TODD, F. (1981) Developing teaching skills for collaborative learning, Studies in Higher Education, 6, pp. 91-96. WEBB, N.M. (1977) Learning in Individual and Small-group Settings (California, Technical Report 7, Stanford

    University, mimeo). WHITE, J.R. (1945) Methods in engineering laboratory instruction, Journal of Engineering Education, 11, pp.

    50-54.

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