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Interest in group learning and group processes has a very long history and remains a key focus of current eﬀorts to improve education. Group processes in the classroom occur when peers engage in a common task and can include a variety of both social and cognitive processes. The focus of this research paper is on cooperative or collaborative groups of peers and the various theoretical approaches that attempt to explain group processes in these kinds of group. These approaches propose varying mechanisms for the eﬀectiveness of group learning. Comparisons of empirical ﬁndings across studies conducted from diﬀerent theoretical perspectives are very diﬃcult because of the wide variances in tasks used, duration of studies, roles of teachers and students, outcome measures, and other variables such as group composition. One consequence of the variance in theoretical approaches is the fact that these approaches require diﬀerent decisions with regard to key variables such as group size or group composition. Group processes can best be understood within particular theoretical approaches. This research paper will not address the inﬂuences of speciﬁc variables but will instead focus on the delineation of various theoretical perspectives and the linkage of research and practice.
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1. Theoretical Approaches To Group Processes
Diﬀerent theoretical approaches to peer learning propose diﬀerent underlying mechanisms or processes that come into play when a group works together (O’Donnell and O’Kelly 1994). Slavin (1996) described two main classes of orientation toward peer learning: a social-behavioral orientation that includes motivational and social cohesion approaches, and a cognitive orientation that includes elaboration and developmental perspectives. There are two distinct developmental theories. Table 1 delineates key differences among these perspectives as they relate to instructional decisions and problems that may arise from such decisions.
1.1 Social-Behavioral Perspectives
The concept of interdependence among group members is fundamental to the motivational and social cohesion perspectives on cooperative learning, although they diﬀer in how interdependence is created and sustained. When group members are interdependent, the success of one member can occur only if other members are also successful. In competitive situations, one person’s success requires that another person fail. In the social motivational approach, interdependence is created by the use of group rewards. In Student Teams Achievement Divisions (Slavin 1995), students work in small groups to master material that the teacher has presented. Each student takes an individual quiz on the material, and points are assigned to the group based on each individual’s improvement score. Thus, students are accountable for improving over past performance and learners of varying abilities can contribute equally to the total group score. Group rewards are assigned based on the team’s number of points. A key component of this approach is the reliance on individual accountability. Evidence of the eﬀectiveness of this approach comes from a large number of studies (Slavin 1996). The kinds of learning task used in this approach, however, tend to focus on basic skills or factual knowledge, and it is unclear whether this approach is eﬀective in promoting higher-order skills.
1.2 Social Cohesion Perspectives
In the social cohesion approach, interdependence derives from a motive of care and concern. Group members help one another because they are concerned about their peers. Teaching social skills that will support this type of interdependence is an important emphasis in social cohesion approaches. The Johnsons’s Learning Together technique (Johnson and Johnson 1994) illustrates the social cohesion approach. The empirical evidence supporting this orientation toward group learning as a means of enhancing academic achievement is much weaker than that supporting the motivational perspective. Slavin (1996) notes that cooperative learning methods that emphasize team building and group process, but do not provide group rewards, are not very eﬀective but that when they are combined with the use of rewards or accountability, student achievement from group learning exceeds individualistic learning. Slavin concludes that individual accountability and group rewards are critical to the success of cooperative learning methods.
Not everyone subscribes to the idea that rewards are necessary to create cohesion or interdependence. Cohen (1994) believes that cooperative learning that uses group rewards may be useful for lower-level skills but may not be either necessary or helpful for promoting higher-order skills. Thus, decisions about whether to adopt a motivational or social cohesion approach to peer learning may depend on the desired outcomes from group interaction.
Cohen (1994) emphasizes a diﬀerent source of social cohesion, suggesting that the interest value of the task in which students engage will create the kind of interdependence necessary for students to succeed. In such situations, diﬃculties associated with status diﬀerences among students are ameliorated. When students have low status in the group, they participate less and in ways that do not promote achievement. Explicit rewards in this context may only exacerbate the problems created by diﬀerential status in a group. Cohen and her colleagues have successfully promoted social cohesion in groups by reducing status differences among group members so that they are oriented to accept that all students can contribute to task accomplishment. Complex and interesting tasks are necessary for this level of inclusion to occur. Cohen and her colleagues have been very successful in promoting student achievement. Results from Cohen and her colleagues suggest that the nature of the task may have important implications for the kind of accountability that is needed to promote eﬀective group learning.
1.3 Cognitive/Elaborative Perspectives
The third perspective identiﬁed by Slavin is a cognitive elaborative approach and is based on information processing theory. The role of the group interaction from this perspective is to increase active processing by providing opportunities for restructuring and elaborating knowledge. Group learning techniques inﬂuenced by this perspective tend to provide some structure to the interaction of students by emphasizing the cognitive processes in which students must engage. Examples of work inﬂuenced by this perspective include the use of scripted cooperation by O’Donnell, Dansereau, and colleagues (O’Donnell and Dansereau 1992), reciprocal peer questioning (King 1999), reciprocal teaching (Palinscar and Brown 1984), and the work of Noreen Webb (Webb 1992). The empirical evidence supporting the use of these techniques is strong.
The quality of discourse is critical from this perspective and will have an inﬂuence on the outcomes from group interaction. Webb (1992, Webb and Palinscar 1996) has shown that the quality of explanations that are provided in a group are linked to achievement. Giving explanations is more strongly associated with achievement than receiving explanations. King (1999) has also shown that instructional eﬀorts to improve the quality of discourse by teaching students to ask questions that facilitate knowledge construction is very eﬀective.
1.4 Developmental Perspectives
A fourth approach to understanding cooperative groups relies on two diﬀerent theories of development. From a Piagetian perspective (De Lisi and Golbeck 1999), peers can learn from one another because they can provide opportunities for cognitive conﬂict and resolution. Groups that experience mutuality of inﬂuence and power are most likely to provide a context within which cognitive development can occur because they are more likely to include diﬀerences of viewpoint. Children who have not attained the principle of conservation often develop and maintain conservation concepts when they have worked with a child who has already developed this concept (De Lisi and Golbeck 1999). Much of the work on conceptual change in science education has been inﬂuenced by this perspective.
From a Vygotskian perspective (Hogan and Tudge 1999), children acquire knowledge and skills that are ﬁrst modeled in the community and are subsequently internalized by an individual. When cooperative learning is anchored in Vygotskian theory, it is concerned with the larger community of practice in which individual learning is accomplished. Key processes include the scaﬀolding of the learner’s performance by a more expert individual. The diﬀerence between what an individual can accomplish alone and with the assistance of an adult guide or more capable peer is deﬁned as the zone of proximal development.
1.5 Sociocultural And Combined Theoretical Perspectives
A ﬁfth perspective that undergirds such group learning techniques such as Communities of Learners (Brown and Campione 1990) may be identiﬁed. It includes the developmental perspective of Vygotsky, with its emphasis on the sociocultural basis of learning, and a social cohesion approach in which such learning is motivated by care and concern. Other forms of cooperative learning borrow from multiple perspectives in making choices about the selection of tasks and the organization of learning (Van Meter and Stevens 2000).
2. Research And Practice
Despite the burgeoning research ﬁndings that might assist teachers in making choices about grouping for instructional purposes, teachers do not seem to rely on the empirical research for guidance when making such choices (Antil et al. 1998). However, few studies have examined teachers’ beliefs about group processes in the classroom.
2.1 Teachers’ Use Of Cooperative Learning
The research ﬁndings from any of the perspectives previously described seem to have little systematic inﬂuence on teachers’ choices about groups. Although Slavin (1996) is convinced that empirical evidence supports the use of group rewards, he notes that there is quite a reluctance on the part of classroom teachers to use them.
Antil and his colleagues (1998) conducted a study of elementary school teachers’ conceptualization and utilization of cooperative learning. Eighty-ﬁve teachers responded to an initial survey, and 93 percent of them reported that they used cooperative learning for both academic and social reasons. In interviews with 21 of these teachers, Antil found that the majority structured tasks to create positive interdependence, and taught students skills for working in groups. Few, however, employed recognized forms of cooperative learning and, in particular, did not link individual accountability to group goals. No data were presented, however, that linked classroom practices in relation to cooperative learning and student achievement. It is clear from this study that teachers do not implement the particular practices of cooperative learning that research has shown to be eﬀective. However, when teachers receive extensive professional development, the eﬀects on student achievement can be powerful (Schultz 2000).
2.2 Usable Models Of Group Processes
The availability of multiple perspectives on peer learning and the proliferation of speciﬁc techniques may contribute to the disconnection between the available research ﬁndings and their use by classroom teachers. The kind of classiﬁcation system represented in Table 1 is rarely presented to either pre-service or inservice teachers. Usable models of peer learning that can guide practical decisions are needed. Such models need clearly to link expected outcomes to classroom processes and teachers’ actions or decisions.
Slavin (1996) proposed a model of eﬀective peer learning with motivation at its core. Motivation is necessary in order for students to engage in the active processing (e.g., explanations) that is linked to achievement. The keys to motivating students are group rewards and individual accountability. Teachers can act to create and sustain children’s motivation that will allow them to link will and skill in pursuit of achievement.
Van Meter and Stevens (2000) emphasize the quality of discourse in a group as the key variable in eﬀective group learning. Other instructional choices should be such that the quality of discourse is enhanced. Thus, task instructions and group composition are only interesting insofar as they inﬂuence the quality of the discourse among peers.
These two models provide a simple set of goals for teachers using group learning. Coherence among classroom decisions about fundamental aspects of arranging instruction (e.g., group size, group composition, type of task) is more likely to occur if there is a clear goal in place (e.g., motivate students to engage in active learning). Teachers in the Antil et al. (1998) study reported that they did not subscribe to particular cooperative techniques because they wanted to maintain their decision-making autonomy. The two models that are brieﬂy described here with their emphases on motivation and discourse provide a set of superordinate goals that can accommodate teachers’ needs for autonomy, while preserving a principled approached to decision making about group processes.
3. Future Directions
Given that teachers seem reluctant to use group rewards (Slavin 1996), it is important to specify the conditions under which alternative methods of creating interdependence among group members can be eﬀective. What are the kinds of tasks for which extrinsic reward are not necessary? Answers to this question lie in the analysis of the kinds of process in which students engage when they are engaged in interesting and challenging tasks. A clearer understanding of eﬀective processing of complex tasks may make it possible to ﬁnd alternatives to rewards.
The tension between theories of group processes and classroom practices of group learning presents the richest source of future research questions. Teachers’ beliefs about learning lie at the fulcrum of their abilities to implement eﬀective group learning in the classroom. The relationships between teacher beliefs, implementation practices, and student achievement remain untouched as research questions. Research on this set of relationships would provide valuable insights that could inform teacher preparation and in-service professional development, and also improve classroom practice of group learning.
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