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

    International Journal of ScienceEducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tsed20

    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-practical problem-solving situations each of which concerned theplanning of an experimental investigation. The actual situations used are outlinedbelow.

    The pupil sample

    Altogether 93 pupils (45 boys and 48 girls), aged about 16 years and studyingbiology, chemistry and physics as separate (compulsory) subjects, were involved inthe study. They were drawn from six schools in the Penang State of Malaysia. Thescience programme followed by the pupils was similar to that in the former Englishsystem leading to GCE 'O' level. (This is a consequence of the extensive adaptationof British curriculum schemes in Malaysia.) Each school provided one whole classfor participation in the study, by kind agreement of the school principals and thePenang Education Ministry.

    Choice of problem-solving tasks

    It was realized from the outset that the problem-solving tasks chosen for the studyhad to confront the pupils with genuinely 'novel' situations. Only in this way, it wasargued, could actual learning take place and its extent be determined. Also, it wasthought desirable for the situations to be as 'open-ended' as possible, i.e., not todemand or suggest any 'unique' or 'correct' solution.

    After consideration of a range of possible problem-solving tasks, it was decided toadapt four of the exercises developed by the Assessment of Performance Unit inEngland for its study of pupils' scientific skills (DES 1984). A brief description of thefour tasks-labelled 'Ice-Drink', 'Bouncing Ball', 'Paper Towel' and 'Fertilizer',respectively-is given in the appendix.

    Administration and data collection

    Pupils' exposure to the various problem-solving tasks took place on a school-by-school basis. For each class thus available, the pupils were allowed to form their ownworking groups without intervention by the teacher, with the proviso that the groupsize should not exceed four pupils.

    The various groups were introduced to the tasks to which they had to attend andasked to work out, by discussion, solutions that they regarded as appropriate. Notime limit was imposed on the discussions (which were audio-recorded forsubsequent analysis), and pupils were encouraged to treat the activity as part of theirnormal science learning.

    Following the completion of the group discussions, the pupils were asked toseparate and write their own answers or solutions to the problem. The written

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  • 3 4 4 RESEARCH REPORTS

    answers, it was assumed, would reflect what had been said during the discussion;thus, by comparing the information points contained in individual solutions withthose in the group solution, it was hoped to quantify the amount of learning that hadresulted from the group discussions. Details about this aspect will be presented inour subsequent paper.

    Information about pupils' previous educational attainment and about theirpersonality traits was obtained from their school records and the administration ofthe Junior Eysenck Personality Inventory, respectively. A full description of thisinformation will be provided in the subsequent paper.

    Criteria for the analysis of discourse

    For the purpose of analysing the verbal interactions among pupils, a categorizationsystem was used in which, first, a broad distribution was made between 'task-related'(TR) and 'task-unrelated' (TUR) discourse. Thereafter, the category relating totask-related discourse was further divided into sub- and sub-subcategories, accord-ing to the function served by the verbal interactions and utterances.

    As is seen from table 1, which summarizes the categorization system, twosubcategories of task-related talk were identified. The first of these, labelled'interpersonal-interactive talk', embraces all those types of exchange between pupilsthat, in one way or another, are indicative of the dynamics of the group work. Itshould be mentioned that the various types of 'interpersonal-interactive talk' werederived from an initial qualitative analysis of a number of transcripts of groupdiscussion. The second subcategory of task-related talk, labelled 'cognitive infor-mation talk', deals with the quality of the information that was exchanged amongpupils, in relation to the problem(s) to be tackled or solved. The three levels of'cognitive information', viz., 'describer level', 'explainer level' and 'insight level',had previously been used by Kempa and Stancliffe in a preliminary study (Kempa1979) and were based on ideas originally proposed by Peel (1971).

    Table 1. Category system for the analysis of discourse.

    Types of verbal interaction

    1. Task-related talk (TR)A. Interpersonal-interactive talk (IP) consists of talk in relation to:

    A.I Seeking approval (SA)A.2 Expressing approval (EA)A.3 Seeking guidance (SkG)A.4 Supplying advice (SAd)A.5 Issuing instructions (II)A.6 Expressing disapproval (ED)

    B. Cognitive information talk (CI)-consists of talk at the following 'operational' levels:B.I Describer level (DL)B.2 Explainer level (EL)B.3 Insight level (IL)

    2. Task-unrelated talk (TUR)

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  • LEARNING INTERACTIONS IN GROUP WORK 345

    Inevitably, the assignment of pupils' utterances to particular types of talk, asidentified in table 1, involves subjective judgements. In consequence, some latitudeof error has to be allowed for in the results. However, this was confined to narrowmargins, through repeated cross-checking of the assignments mad...

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