Collaboration Enhances Learning

I’ve just read two scholarly articles, both by Professor Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo and colleagues, that review the many studies that compare solo individual learning with collaborative group learning.* The first article, published in Science magazine 11 March 2011, reviewed all studies of non-lecture innovations in college classes in biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics. The most common innovative design was the use of collaborative learning groups, combined with a focus on conceptually oriented tasks. A meta-analysis showed that this innovation enhanced student learning; the mean average of the effect sizes of the enhanced learning, across 41 studies, was .54. For those classes whose only innovation was collaborative learning, the mean average of effect sizes was .68. These results demonstrate pretty convincingly that student learning outcomes are improved when college professors implement innovations that move beyond the traditional lecture-memorize-test.

A second article, presented at the AERA meeting in New Orleans in April, 2011, surveyed studies of the impact of collaboration on student learning in K-12 classrooms. Again, the consensus result of all of these studies is that collaboration enhances student learning outcomes. However, collaboration only enhances learning if it’s done in the right way:

  • The nature of the task presented to the students should be ill structured. Tasks for which a “right answer” is expected do not benefit as much from collaboration. Tasks should ask students to make choices or predictions on the basis of evidence; apply a principle to a new case; explore issues for which there is no single response; and interpret texts.
  • Teachers should emphasize the process of discussion rather than just arriving at the correct answer.  Students should be given specific training and guidance on how to work in small groups. Teachers should emphasize that meaningful conversations are the goal, and should guide students in how to engage in the kind of conversation that is demonstrated to enhance learning:
    • Describing observations clearly
    • Formulating hypotheses
    • Proving explanations
    • Constructing explanations based on information collected. Students must provide explanations, not only simple answers. If explanations are not provided, then there are no enhanced learning outcomes to groups.

When they videotaped a random sample of eight 6th grade science classrooms, the researchers found that in pretty much all of the classes, teachers did not provide enough guidance, and the student group interactions were relatively ineffective. Most groups focused on procedure rather than conceptual understandings; groups rarely engaged in effective argumentation; and groups rarely monitored their discussion process. The researchers conclude:

Our results indicate that the quality of students’ interactions in small groups do not reflect necessarily the type of dialog we all would like to happen….For small group work to potentially provide the opportunity for appropriate interaction among students, certain conditions are necessary. For example, students need to be guided in how to communicate in small groups….The characteristics of the tasks in which students need to be involved in while working in small groups are also important…. ill defined tasks rather than well structured tasks for more opportunities to interact. Yet, most of the tasks in the curricula are highly structured.

 The research is clear: collaboration among students enhances learning. However, the potential of collaboration will only be realized if students assign the right kind of tasks to the group, and if teachers teach and guide students in how to engage in effective collaboration.

*M. A. Ruiz-Primo et al., Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science, 331, 11 March 2011, pp. 1269-1270.

Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Maria Figueroa, and Maxie Gluckman. Testing a Premise of Inquiry Based Science Instruction: Exploring Small Group Processes and Its Link to Student Learning. Paper presented at the AERA meeting, April 2011

Collaboration and Learning

I’m now in Amsterdam where I just gave a talk about collaborative creativity at the big European educational research association, known as EARLI.  The organizers of the panel were Neil Mercer (University of Cambridge) and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland).  Four people spoke about this topic:

Eva Vass (University of Bath) described her research on children’s creative dialogues, conducted with Dorothy Miell (Open University).  She studied 7 to 9 year olds in a New Zealand school; she showed how these children almost instinctively coordinate their conversations by managing the “floor” (a technical term for who is speaking and when) through “jointly constructed utterances, simultaneous, and overlapping speech” in a way that resulted in “mutual inspiration.”

I then presented a research study I did with Stacy DeZutter (now at Millsaps College) of a youth theater group.  We studied the collaborative improvisation of an improvised performance, over 12 rehearsals and five live performances.  The most interesting findings were: (1) the performance never did become completely scripted; the group kept improvising and embellishing; (2) no single performer played a central role, all of the dramatic elements emerged from the dialogue on stage.

Anneli Etelapelto, of the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, then described her study over two years of a group of teacher education students.  She closely analyzed five meetings of this group, and compared the least creative and the most creative sessions.  Uncreative sessions had “disputational talk” where each person attempted to invalid the others’ opinions.  The creative sessions displayed “complementarity in participants’ talk and by inclusive utilisation of each other’s views”.

The final presentation was by Neil Mercer of the University of Cambridge.  He and Karen Littleton (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland) videotaped rehearsals of a rock band, and showed how often they disagree, often arguing heatedly and with swear words, and yet their dialogue still contributes to a successful performance–because they are all committed to a shared vision (of how their band should sound) and a shared goal of a successful live performance.

I am excited that the study of collaborative creativity is beginning to have an impact on how we think about learning.  So many of our most important learning experiences happen when we are in groups with others, and this is why understanding collaboration is central to the study of learning.