Learning interactions in group work in science

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  • This article was downloaded by: [New York University]On: 29 October 2014, At: 11:11Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Learning interactions in groupwork in scienceR. F. Kempa a & Aminah Ayob* aa University of Keele , Staffordshire, UKPublished online: 25 Feb 2007.

    To cite this article: R. F. Kempa & Aminah Ayob* (1991) Learning interactions in groupwork in science, International Journal of Science Education, 13:3, 341-354, DOI:10.1080/0950069910130311

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  • INT. j . sci. EDUC., 1991, VOL. 13, NO. 3, 341-354

    Learning interactions in group work inscience

    R. F. Kempa and Aminah Ayob*, University of Keele, Staffordshire, UK

    In an attempt to explore the effectiveness of small-group learning in science, the verbal interactionsamong pupils engaged in problem-solving tasks were studied. Analysis of the transcripts of the discourserevealed substantial variations in the 'interactiveness' of groups (consisting of either three or four pupils).Interactions were predominantly task-related, but their content rarely rose about the level of 'factualinformation' interchange. Information exchange at higher cognitive levels ('explainer level' and 'insightlevel') was largely absent, suggesting that problem solving does not readily take place as a 'group activity'.The study of interaction patterns within groups led to the conclusion that most verbal information isexchanged in 'dialogue' form, involving only two pupils at a time.

    Introduction

    The practice of grouping pupils for instruction in science is widespread in situationswhere pupils' involvement in science activities is regarded as important. Typically,such groups contain from two to four pupils who, given a particular task or set oftasks, are expected to work together in order to arrive at a solution to the task(s).

    The arguments in favour of group learning in science education vary from the'pragmatic' to those that are mainly 'educational' in character. Among the argumentsbased on pragmatism, that given in the Plowden Report (1976) is typical:

    Sharing out the teacher's time is a major problem. Only seven or eight minutes a daywould be available for each child if all teaching were individual. Teachers, therefore,have to economize by teaching together a small group of pupils...

    The 'educational' arguments in support of group learning are exemplified byWashton's (1967) suggestion that

    Science activities should encourage students to participate as individuals, as well as ingroups; but in learning scientific information, attitudes and skills, the students shouldlearn how to work with fellow students in seeking solutions to common problems.

    Various attempts have been made to estimate the proportion of lesson time spent bypupils on group work in the course of their normal school science work. Suchestimates vary in magnitude, depending on the nature of the work done; but figuresof 50% and 60% are not uncommon. Typically, during such phases, the pupils-having been given some task or set of tasks to attend to -a re required to assumeresponsibility for their own learning in that the teacher's involvement in groupactivities is usually very limited, if not absent altogether.

    * Current address: School of Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.

    0950-0693/91 $3-00 1991 Taylor & Francis Ltd.

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  • 342 RESEARCH REPORTS

    Given the obvious importance attributed in science education to group work, onemay legitimately raise the question of how effective it is in terms of pupils' learningand, following on from this, what factors promote or hinder this effectiveness.

    Recent researches on peer-group work in classrooms provide little support forthe assumption that group work is an effective teaching-learning strategy. Forexample, Boydell (1975) and Galton et al. (1980) reported that most of the talk ingroups was not related to the task in hand and that conversations were not sustained.Boydell thus argued that pupils in groups will not talk freely about anything, letalone their work. Tisher and Power (1978), looking at pupils' involvement in task-related activities, found that, in the absence of supervision by the teacher, the level ofinvolvement declined to an average of 50% of 'normal'.

    When pupil achievement (as opposed to involvement) is used as a criterion of theeffectiveness of the group work, a somewhat more positive picture emerges from theliterature. Several studies by Johnson and co-workers suggest that involvement inco-operative group work increases pupils' achievement (Johnson et al. 1980, 1981,Johnson and Johnson 1985); a study by Slavin et al. (1985) confirms this finding.However, it has to be said that, whilst these studies indicate the existence of a markedimpact of the social context on task performance and learning, they give noinformation about the nature of the interactions (e.g., in terms of their content andquality) that go on within the groups. Also, the focus in these studies, especially thoseof Johnson and co-workers, was largely on a comparison of co-operative versusindividualistic learning; thus, they may not be entirely relevant to the issue of groupwork in 'naturalistic' settings used in science education.

    The issue of how effective group learning in science actually is and what factorsinfluence its effectiveness is not merely one of academic interest. Rather, it is of directpractical relevance to science teachers: if the effectiveness of group work is to bemaximized or optimized, such work has to be properly 'managed' by the teacher.This requires the teacher to be knowledgeable about the factors that promote, orhinder, learning in groups and about ways in which these factors can be manipulatedin order to promote pupils' learning and achievement.

    Against the background of the foregoing considerations, a study was conductedto explore the interactions among pupils engaged in problem-solving activities ingroup settings and to determine the extent to which actual learning results from suchgroup work.* The specific questions considered were:

    1. What are the (verbal) interactions among pupils engaged in group work inscience and which pupils do they involve?

    2. To what extent, if at all, are the interactions between pupils involved in groupwork affected by selected pupil characteristics (e.g., their previous attainmentand personality traits)?

    3. How does pupils' achievement from group work relate to their involvementin, and contributions to, the transactions within a group?

    In view of the scope of the foregoing questions, this research report is presented intwo parts. In this, the first part, the findings relating to question 1 are reported. Thefindings concerning questions 2 and 3 will be communicated in a subsequent paper.

    * For the purpose of the study, group work was defined as 'any collaborative activity involving two or morepupils that may take place in the course of a lesson and is not directly supervised or controlled by theteacher'.

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  • LEARNING INTERACTIONS IN GROUP WORK 343

    Experimental

    Group work in science can occur in two contexts, viz., in laboratory activities orsimilar practical work (e.g., during field studies) and in (non-practical) problemsolving. Of the two, practical work is potentially the more difficult to study, becauseit involves not only verbal interactions, but also manipulative operations that mayhave to be carried out by pupils in collaboration or separately. For this reason, thestudy described here focused on verbal interactions that occurred in the context of anumber of non-practic