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How Should We Group Students for Collaborative Work?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

Collaborative work has become a routine feature of classrooms and while there is evidence that the talk encouraged by collaboration can further the learning of all involved, setting up a group task in a way that fosters successful collaboration is far from easy. One important consideration is how to group the students. For example, should the groups be homogeneous or heterogeneous in terms of ability? A recent study by researchers from the University of Western Sydney helps shed light on this dilemma.
Fifty-four grade six students were given a mathematical problem-solving task in pairs. Each pair was of the same gender. Pairs were put together based on each individual student’s ability in relation to the particular task as evidenced on a pre-test. Thirteen pairs consisting of a student with low task-specific ability and another with high task-specific ability and 14 pairs of students consisting of a student with low task-specific ability and a student of middle task –specific ability were formed. Around half of the pairings were given roles such that the partner with higher task-specific ability was instructed to help the other partner solve the problem. The other pairs were simply instructed to work together to solve the problem.
In previous research the quality of talk has emerged one of the key variables contributing to the success or failure of collaborative learning. The researchers therefore chose to evaluate the quality of the talk in each group as a measure of the potential contribution to the learning of participating students. Transcripts of the interactions were coded and categorized into three levels based on a system developed by Mercer (1994) which considers how different types of talk affect the learning process. The three categories were:
1. Disputational – each individual attempts to make their point without considering the ideas of others. Individuals pursue their own goals in a competitive way.
2. Cumulative – individuals affirm each other’s ideas, but without constructive criticism or critical analysis. Students may elaborate on another student’s contribution, but the orientation is still primarily solitary.
3. Exploratory – disagreement is present and alternative solutions are proposed and discussed. The tone is one of suggestion and students in the group are oriented towards finding the best solution through collaborative reasoning.
What were the results of the study?
• Low-middle pairs demonstrated significantly more exploratory talk than low-high pairs.
• There was no significant difference between pairs that were assigned roles and those that were not overall. However low-high pairs where the more able partner was assigned to help their partner exhibited more exploratory talk.
• Middle ability students made significantly more exploratory utterances than either low or high ability students.
What might this mean for our classrooms?
The researchers believe that one of the main reasons for the higher instances of exploratory talk between low-middle pairs was the level of difficulty of the task. A study by Fernandez, Wegerif, Mercer, and Rojas-Drummond found that the highest level of exploratory talk is generated when the task is neither too easy nor too difficult for the student. The students in the present study were paired according to their ability in relation to the particular task with the result that the task was probably too easy for the students classified as having high task ability. They may therefore only have been motivated to engage in exploratory talk when specifically instructed to assist their less able peer. The more appropriate level of task difficulty for the other students, and in particular for the students of middle ability, generated high levels of exploratory talk without the need for assigning roles.
In explaining the high levels of exploratory talk for the low-middle pairs, the researchers draw on Mercer’s theory of the Intermental Development Zone (IDZ). This theory builds on Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in which learning is believed to take place in the zone where a learner is interacting with a more able peer who is able to scaffold them beyond their current ability level. Mercer’s theory expands this idea by suggesting that during joint problem-solving, a task that is just beyond the ability of both learners can allow them both to bring their respective knowledge and abilities to the interaction, supporting them both to operate just beyond their current ability levels. The researchers believe this is what was happening with the low-middle pairs in the study.
While this does not give a definitive answer as to how we should construct groups for collaborative work, it does suggest that ensuring that the task is at an appropriate level of challenge for all members of the group is one of the keys. Further, other studies also suggest that it is beneficial to explicitly teach students how to engage in the kind of exploratory talk that supports both joint problem-solving and learning.
Schmitz, M., & Winskel, K. (2008). “Towards effective partnerships in a collaborative problem-solving task.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 78, 581–596.

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