Researchers demonstrate the benefits of their collaborative learning method

An image showing pupils collaborating

Source: © Malin Rosenqvist/Ikon Images

Appropriate scaffolding can mitigate the risks of student collaboration

One of the greatest resources for students is their peer group. Collaborative learning allows students in large classes to externalise their ideas and reflect on others’. This process is key for building on existing conceptions. However, ensuring learning is effective when students collaborate is challenging.

Julian Heeg’s team at Leibniz University Hannover, Germany, previously developed a collaborative learning method – the Peer-interaction method (PIM) – to tackle this challenge. In a recent study, they tested the effectiveness of their method.

Their PIM provides structure and scaffolding for collaboration. It draws on commonly used approaches like Think-pair-share and Team-based learning. During the first phase of the PIM students complete a worksheet alone. The worksheet comprises a preliminary paragraph, written tasks and drawing tasks. The activities require students to explain their answers and to complete a drawing to illustrate their thinking at the particulate level. In the next phase, students work in small groups to complete a new worksheet that includes the same task. It prompts students to present and explain their solution to peers with questioning or constructive argument. Students finally settle on a joint solution for the worksheet. This solution might come from one group-member or many, or it could be an entirely new answer.

The proportion of adequate answers was significantly higher from the collaborative activity than the individual

To evaluate the PIM, its developers tested it with 136 students aged 13–15 in Germany. In the study, the PIM-task focused on combustion of carbon inside a flask with a balloon attached. The worksheets asked students to predict what will happen to the mass of the flask and balloon. It also prompted them to write an equation and draw particle diagrams to represent the contents of the flask before and after combustion. The researchers compared the worksheets completed by individuals to those completed in groups. They coded responses against 55 known student conceptions and divided them into adequate, potentially adequate or inadequate responses. Additionally, they coded drawings by the level of representation: macroscopic or sub-microscopic.

The analysis showed that the proportion of adequate answers was significantly higher from the collaborative activity than the individual. Students also drew more sub-microscopic representations and symbol equations when collaborating, suggesting group-working had a positive impact on learning.

Collaborative learning might seem risky; there is scope for students to mislead each other and cement misconceptions. However, the positive outcomes demonstrated in this study provide some reassurance that collaborative approaches can lead to enhanced outcomes with appropriate scaffolding.

Teaching tips

The example worksheet is published alongside the study and provides a framework that could be adapted to other topics. Here are some tips for creating your own PIM-activity:

  • The preliminary paragraph should use unambiguous words to outline a context that relates to something students have encountered previously. It should activate prior conceptions and provide a common frame of reference for judging individual ideas.
  • Base distractors in multiple-choice questions on typical misunderstandings. The tasks should address learner conceptions.
  • Always ask students to create and explain a drawing to support them in externalising the concept. This is because the terms different students use may not refer to the same mental model.
  • Try extending the PIM-task to include a peer-reflection phase after the group-working step. You could support this with a reference worksheet that provides different solutions based on scientifically accepted conceptions.
  • Note that the PIM provides valuable insights into students’ initial conceptions and how these evolve as they collaborate with peers. These activities can act as formative assessment tools that shed light on the origins of misconceptions. They can help inform subsequent instruction to bring more students up to the required level of understanding.