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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Should Group Work Precede or Follow Individual Work?



Should Group Work Precede or Follow Individual Work?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


Collaborative group work has been shown to improve both learning and motivational outcomes, at least under certain conditions. Some of the necessary conditions include:
• that work be structured so that the outcome depends on interdependence within the group
• that groups be small
• that students be explicitly taught the skills of collaboration.

Making decisions about when to use collaborative learning structures is not always easy, however. A study conducted at the J.W. Goethe University of Frankfurt/Main may give some guidance.

The researchers were interested in middle school students’ learning of inquiry skills through collaborative learning approaches. They wanted to know how the sequence of group and individual activities would affect the quality of regulative processes in the framework of collaboration.

The regulative processes investigated were:
(1) grounding: negotiating meaning to achieve and maintain shared understanding, and
(2) testing: summarizing and checking to ensure that sufficient information has been gathered to perform the task.

They further wanted to know how the quality of these group regulative processes would in turn affect the quality of the collaborative inquiry processes of generating and evaluating evidence and drawing conclusions. The quality of both regulative processes and collaborative inquiry processes was rated as being either high- or low-level as follows:

Regulative processes example:
• High-level grounding, where students pose effective verification questions to achieve shared understanding and move towards constructing valid explanations vs. low-level grounding, where agreement is reached immediately with little or no questioning or disagreement around scientific reasoning.

Inquiry processes example:
• High-level evidence generation demonstrates careful observation, comparison, and description leading to valid inferences vs. low-level evidence generation, where little scientific reasoning or explanation is present.

The teacher first modeled the inquiry skills, then students worked either in groups before working individually (Plenary–Small Group–Individual, or PSGI condition) or worked as individuals before working collaboratively (Plenary–Individual–Small Group, or PISG condition).

Sixty-one students from Grades 6–9 participated in the study, with 10 groups of three to four students in each of the two conditions. The concept of plant adaptation was taught in three phases:

Phase 1: the pre-field trip phase was used to teach the inquiry skills of orienting, asking questions, generating hypotheses, and developing an inquiry plan.

Phase 2: the field trip phase was used to teach the inquiry skills of data collection and interpretation to generate evidence.

Phase 3: the post-field trip phase was used to teach the inquiry skills of evaluating evidence and drawing conclusions.

Three separate pieces of illustrative content were used. At each phase, modeling of the desired inquiry skills by the teacher was done using the content “plants in the dark.” Students in the PSGI condition then applied this content to “plants in the rainforest” as a small group before working individually on “plants in the desert.” Students in the PISG worked on “plants in the rainforest” individually before working in small groups on “plants in the desert.”

What were the results of the study?

• There were more instances of both high-level regulative processes and high-level inquiry processes and fewer instances of both low-level regulative processes and low-level inquiry processes in the PISG condition, but the results were not statistically significant.

• An in-depth analysis of the discourse of two of the groups was conducted to provide further insight into the connections between regulative and inquiry processes in the two experimental conditions. Some of the findings were as follows:

PISG group

• During collaborative work in PISG Group, eight occurrences of high-level regulative processes led to three occurrences of high-level inquiry processes.

• The PISG group applied scientific concepts such as structure, function, and adaptation to create a scientific explanation of the adaptations of a cactus plant to desert conditions during the collaborative work.

• During the individual work on the field trip phase, the students in the PISG group noted observations but tended not to make inferences to the scientific concepts. There was improvement in this in the post-field trip phase.

PSGI group

• During collaborative work in the PSGI group, 12 instances of low-level regulatory processes led to 12 instances of low-level inquiry processes.

• During collaborative work, the students tended to verbalize their own ideas with little or no questioning, challenging, or integrating of the ideas by other group members. This led to weak scientific reasoning and a weak conclusion.

• During the individual work on the field trip phase and post-field trip phase, the students in the PSGI group were able to make inferences connecting concepts such as structure and adaptation. As individuals, they were better able to reason and draw conclusions than as a group.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

It seems that allowing students to practice the skills individually before making use of them in group work prepared students better for collaboration.

Even though the content of the individual and group stages was not identical, and though the students during the individual stage had not made many connections with the scientific concepts, the self-questioning and self-explanation that took place in the individual phase seems to have primed the students to question and build on one another’s ideas during the group work stage. In turn, these higher-level regulatory processes led to higher-level generation and evaluation of evidence and drawing of conclusions.

In contrast, the PSGI group used the group work time to mostly state their own thoughts. They were not ready to engage in higher-level collaborative processes, and so at the group stage their reasoning and conclusions were weak. However, the group stage seemed to prepare them for improved reasoning at the individual stage.

The researchers do not comment on the overall learning from the two alternate learning sequences, so it is not possible to make claims about which ultimately leads to better learning. However, it seems to certainly be the case that individual work prior to collaborative group work can improve the quality and outcomes of group interactions.

Tan, E. (2018) Effects of two differently sequenced classroom scripts on common ground in collaborative inquiry learning. Instructional Science Vol. 46, pp. 893–919.

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