Perspectives of Hands-On
David L. Haury and Peter
7. What are some strategies for helping
students work in groups?
"The teacher, acting as the director of research, with students
working as science-research teams always has been a great way to
teach science" (Small & Petrek, 1992, p. 30). Some see group work
as particularly important in science classrooms. In addition to
developing social skills and facilitating classroom management,
working in teams reflects the way science is practiced. Science
itself is a collaborative, cooperative enterprise. As Johnson and
Johnson (1991) observe, just scan the list of articles in any issue
of Science or other scientific journal and count the number
of authors associated with each article. Scientists work in teams.
As Rutherford and Ahlgren (1990, p. 189) point out, "the
collaborative nature of scientific and technological work should be
strongly reinforced by frequent group activity in the classroom."
So, how do you facilitate group work in the science classroom?
- First of all, the room environment can be constructed so that
it fosters the cooperative learning approach. Instead of putting
desks in rows, put them together to make laboratory tables. Or
better yet, get rid of most of the desks and put in tables. Also,
there are many group-learning activities that can be done in a
"different" academic setting that will enable students to learn how
to work together.... Doing science experiments is more fun in a
group, even in a twosome, because you can share equipment and
knowledge, learn how to make charts and graphs together, discuss
the outcomes of the experiments, and come to conclusions together.
The teacher can also suggest roles each member of a group can play
such as one person reading the instrument, another recording the
data, another physically starting the experiment, etc. Dianne
K. Hyer and Roger C. Eckhardt, Students Watching Over Our Planet
Earth (SWOOPE ), Los Alamos National Laboratory
- Teachers should organize small groups to do the science
activities. Our research and feedback from teachers in over one
thousand classrooms have found very little problem getting students
in small groups to cooperate. The problem has been associated with
larger groups with limited equipment. The teacher may assign
specific tasks to the students such as data keeping and various
aspects of carrying out the experiment. Jerald A. Tunheim,
Project SMILE (Science Manipulatives in the Learning Environment),
Dakota State University, Madison, SD
- In a hands-on approach to teaching science, some basic factors
contribute to the success of students working in groups. Review the
checklist to assess whether you attend to these factors.
- Do you evaluate a task to determine if it actually lends itself
to a team approach? (If students can do the task just as well on
their own, why should they work in a group?)
- Do you provide enough structure and support for teams to
complete the task independently and successfully? (Is the structure
and support in the form of clearly stated, written, and
illustrated, or tape-recorded instructions, rather than in the form
of your constant intervention?)
- Do you structure the task so that all members of a team must be
involved to successfully complete the task? (You can provide such
structure by limiting supplies so that teammates must share them,
requiring one product from each team, providing different
information to each member of the team, and requiring that all
members share the information to complete the task.)
- Do you require teammates to assume some level of responsibility
for the understanding and performance of others on their team?
- Do you allow for teams to assess their effectiveness at working
together as a team?
- Do you select jobs that are appropriate for the age of the
- Do you select jobs that will promote team interdependence? (If
you assign a team reporter rather than randomly calling on members
of a team, why should the other members of the team be attentive
- Do you clearly describe the responsibilities of each job and
review the descriptions as necessary?
- Do you monitor whether students are effectively performing
their assigned jobs?
- Is the size of the team appropriate to the age of the students?
(Students are able to work effectively in teams of two in
kindergarten and first grade, and in teams of three in grades two
through six. The larger the team, the less each student can
interact with the other students and the more it takes for each
student to contribute to the work of the team.)
- Do you thoughtfully assign teams rather than allow students to
select their teammates?
- Do you vary the composition of each team?
- Do students remain in the same team long enough to develop
interdependence and the ability to resolve conflicts, but not long
enough to become bored with one another? Gail Foster, BSCS
(Producers of Science for Life and Living: Integrating Science,
Technology, and Health), Colorado Springs, CO
Notes from the literature
- "If we expect students to work together, we must teach them
social skills just as purposefully and precisely as we teach them
academic skills" (Ostlund, 1992, p. 32).
- Toh and Woolnough (1993) investigated the effect of giving
explicit knowledge on student acquisition of the following process
skills: planning, performing, communicating, and interpreting. They
found that giving instruction in planning and communicating were
indispensable for helping students work on open-ended
- The following three categories of social skills can help
students work together: cluster skills which help students form
groups, task skills which help students accomplish their goals, and
camaraderie skills which help group members like each other. In
developing social skills stress one at a time. The teacher should
model, explain, and elicit examples of appropriate behavior for the
skill. For example, in promoting the skill of involving all group
members in an activity, students in a group can be given different
color chips. When they encourage another student to participate
they can place their chip in a pile. At the end of the activity,
the number of chips contributed by each person can be counted to
determine how effective they were in using this behavior (Ostlund,
- "Hands-on laboratory work is the classic cooperative learning
activity. A group of students working together on an experiment or
activity, following instructions with a variety of duties and tasks
requiring students to cooperate, is the prototype of cooperative
learning" (Ossont, 1993, p. 30).
- Cooperative learning is a model of teaching where students work
together to achieve a goal or complete a task. The goal or task can
be reviewing for a quiz, solving a problem, or doing a laboratory
activity. The importance of working together is stressed, and this
is the challenge for the students and the teacher (Hassard, 1992).
- Ossont (1993) found cooperative learning was very useful in a
middle school class - made up of students with severe social
problems - where any effective learning seemed impossible. He
explains that cooperative learning is beneficial to this age group
because "students at the height of adolescent fervor are required
to sit quietly in rows for many hours a day.... Cooperative
learning offers the chance to combine academics and socialization -
elements that are equally important in our student's eyes"
(Ossont, 1993, p. 28).
- "An effective way to manage a classroom of active students when
teaching indoor gardening tasks is to organize a cooperative
learning 'jigsaw' in which each cooperative group becomes 'expert'
at a particular technique or gardening skill. Each expert can later
teach his or her skill to another group of students or work with
other expert group members to present a short demonstration to
teach the skill to the whole class" (National Gardening
Association, 1993a, p. 5). Examples of tasks that could be
performed are planting seeds, planting bulbs, thinning seedlings,
transplanting seedlings, making cuttings, and planting different
fruit and vegetable parts (ex. potato eyes, carrot tops). The
teacher needs to make sure materials are present, give the experts
questions they should answer, and have a folder at each station
giving the task definition, instructions, and cooperative group
roles (captain, materials monitor, checker, recorder, and
- "Ideally, although it is not always possible, each cooperative
group should include students with a complete range of ability,
learning style, personality, and gender. Arranging students in
diverse groups is especially difficult at the beginning of the
year, when students' relative strengths and weaknesses are not yet
apparent. For the first ten weeks, I randomly set up groups of
three to five students. Then, once I have more insight about
individual students, I can use it to set up more balanced groups.
For convenience and to minimize time spent moving desks around, I
try to assign seats so that group members are near each other"
(Ossont, 1993, p. 28-29).
- When teachers intervene to assist working groups, even when
requested by students, the intervention usually ends with the
teacher giving directions. The intervention produces far more
teacher talk than student talk (Oakley & Crocker, 1977).
- It is important to not give too much guidance and to not over
help the students. In a case study of a teacher attempting to
implement a hands-on, problem solving approach, Martens (1992)
found that the teacher's desire for students "to get the right
answer" produced teacher behaviors which eliminated opportunities
for problem solving.
Helping students work in groups facilitates hands-on learning and
directly engages students in the processes of science. "Doing
science" requires learning skills associated with communication and
cooperation as well as procedures associated with inquiry. In some
cases it is beneficial to assign roles (with "job titles") to
members of groups and to consciously establish heterogeneous
groupings. It also seems important to communicate explicit
expectations for both individuals and groups and to structure
activities so interdependence is essential to successfully
completing the assigned tasks. It is also important, however, to
not provide too much direct guidance to groups; collaborative
problem solving is to be encouraged over "getting the right
Various cooperative learning strategies seem particularly useful in
science classrooms. Variants of the "Jigsaw" approach, for
instance, give all students the opportunity to be "experts" and
contribute to group learning. For more background on cooperative
learning and its many forms, refer to Using Cooperative Learning
in Science Education by Patricia Blosser (1992).
In general, once students learned how to work productively in
groups, one should resist the temptation to jump in too early and
put the students on the right path. An essential part of the
learning is finding out how to identify a path of inquiry and
negotiate the path in collaboration with others.
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