At the nexus of learning and innovation

2 + 2 can equal 5 when we learn in groups

Some things in life work better when we do them with other people. Obvious examples that come to mind are playing board games, riding on a see-saw and taking part in a parade! Another example that might not be quite as obvious is learning. For many students the mental image associated with learning is sitting somewhere quiet with a stack of books staring and a "Do Not Disturb" sign. However, it turns out our best learning is done in groups.

Researchers agree that something “magical” (or at the very least surprising) happens when people come together in a group to learn or solve a problem. Chi and her colleagues put forward a framework called ICAP that illustrates how learning gains increase when students move from passive (P) to active (A) to constructive (C) and finally to interactive (I) learning activities. In fact, even when no one individual in a group knows the answer or the solution to a problem or where learners hold incorrect beliefs the group as a whole can come up with an answer or a solution. As Ames and Murray (1982) found in their work with elementary school children, two wrongs can make a right when learners come together in a group and construct knowledge.  This is true even in an online, asynchronous situation where students never meet face-to-face and possibly are not even aware of what their group members look or sound like.

As a teacher and course designer this fascinated me and so – like many enthusiastic teachers before me – I went and added A LOT of group work to my course. I am also fairly certain that I had quite a few groups where the students held incorrect beliefs and assumptions about the topic under discussion, so theoretically we were set for A LOT of learning to occur. Like a lot of teachers and course designers I then found out that it isn’t quite that simple. And so a Ph.D project was born…

My Ph.D project looks at HOW students learn (or sometimes not) in groups. Whether students love or hate it, group work in Higher Education is not going away. Both for pedagogical reasons already mentioned, as well as the increasingly louder call from industry for graduates who work well in teams and possess problem-solving skills. We have to make group work work and to do that we need to know how it works!

The data set I will use for analysis consists of six groups of Business students discussing an ethical dilemma presented through a Harvard Case Study. Their task is to combine their business knowledge and their knowledge of ethical concepts and theories to find the best possible outcome for the dilemma through argumentation and negotiation. My aim is to look at how learning opportunities is created, utilised or passed up through the use of conversation. We know that knowledge is constructed in groups and that the development of critical thinking skills is dependent on the feedback of others, but how does this actually happen in a real group work situation?

To be able to answer even a fraction of this very big question, I have drafted a few more specific questions to give direction to and shape the investigation:

-        What cognitive processes are evident when students attempt to solve and ethical dilemma through  face-to-face argumentation and negotiation?

-        How do the groups create and utilise learning opportunities through the use of conversation?

-        Which positions do the students assume in the discussion? 

                o   Do these positions favour certain cognitive processes?

The data is being scrutinised using Conversation Analysis (CA) and in keeping with the tradition and philosophy of CA we will see what happens from there! In future blog posts I’ll discuss my motivations for choosing this as a methodology.


Submitted byamanda-lacy on Thu, 06/08/2017, 13:51

Learning in groups is such an interesting topic - thanks for sharing your PhD focus.  I know I learn in groups yet to put my finger on how I learn in groups is difficult.  Looking forward to your updates.