Analyzing conversations helps cooperative groups improve interaction

The quality of group interaction is an important factor in the learning individual students can achieve in cooperative groups. Research reveals that the dominance of high-ability students, coupled with the passivity of lower-ability students, can lead to uneven learning.

Findings of a pilot study reported by John A. Ross, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, suggest that giving students feedback on their group behavior has the potential to improve their interaction.

In this study of a single seventh-grade math class, the conversations of five cooperative learning groups were taped four times during a 16-week period. Students were given edited transcripts of these tapes and trained to interpret them. After this, they were given a form to use in appraising their group’s discussion. Tapings of group sessions at the end of the experimental period showed an increase in the frequency and quality of help seeking and help giving and improved attitudes about asking for help.

Peer explanations typically poor

Studies reveal that the quality of peer explanations in group work is typically poor. Students giving help often appear insensitive to the needs of those requesting help, and they rarely ask whether the child with the question understood the answer. Several studies have tested ways to improve student help giving. Student-led skits illustrating ineffective help giving have had mixed results. In a Canadian Catholic school, one seventh-grade math teacher experimented with giving students feedback about their group behavior to improve the quality of interaction and ultimately the learning of her students. She had participated in a year-long in-service program on cooperative learning and was an enthusiastic proponent of it.

The cooperative groups in this study were made up of three to five students of mixed ability. The teacher made sure that each group had at least one student capable of understanding the tasks assigned. Initially, each of the groups was taped during a cooperative activity to get a baseline example of their interaction.

She then asked students to give examples of good group work and define its characteristics. She introduced a self-assessment form to measure the quality of group work. She focused her students’ attention on the different types of help requested, the quality of help given and the importance of being on-task. Groups then met to discuss typed excerpts of their group’s interaction. They judged their conversations using the self-assessment form. During the experiment, students received two transcripts — one of a session before they received feedback and one recorded after. Students were given questions to help them compare the transcripts, such as “Has the number of requests for help increased, decreased or stayed the same?”

Students assess conversations

After feedback, the number of requests for help and the amount and quality of help given increased. Lower-ability students became more willing to seek help, while the proportion of unnecessary requests declined. Requests became more precise and appropriately directed. Students also became more willing to give explanations. They recognized that detailed explanations and demonstrations were preferable to just telling the answers. By the end of the 16 weeks, students indicated they felt an obligation toward others who were having difficulty, and they were more likely to adjust their explanations to the understanding of the student needing help.

In conclusion, cooperative behavior did improve after feedback procedures. However, researchers caution that these changes may not be due solely to the feedback students received from the transcripts. Improvement in group dynamics was probably due, in part, to their continuing experience with cooperative learning as well as the modeling of desired behavior by the teacher. They also state that since each session focused on a different math topic, these different tasks may have produced somewhat different student behavior.

Ross warns that these results are based on a pilot study of a single classroom and need to be replicated. He cautions that the feedback procedure might be too challenging for younger students.

“Effects of Feedback on Student Behavior in Cooperative Learning Groups in a Grade 7 Math Class” The Elementary School Journal Volume 96, Number 2, November 1995 pp.125-143.

Published in ERN January/February 1996 Volume 9 Number 1

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