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Designers Should Encourage Participation in Team Research
Steven McGee
Copyright © 2001

What is team research?
Team research is an activity that fits the definition of a specific type of cooperative learning strategy ideally suited for students working together on authentic, ill-structured investigations. Cohen (1994) describes three main features of this cooperative learning strategy. (a) The student research teams are small enough so that everyone can participate (p. 3). (b) Students are expected to accomplish the investigation without direct immediate supervision of the teacher (p. 3). (c) The student assignment is a group task requiring "resources (information, knowledge, heuristic problem-solving strategies, materials, and skills) that no single individual possesses so that no single individual is likely to solve the problem or accomplish the task objectives without at least some input from others." (p. 8) Designers who are successful in developing authentic, ill-structured investigations create group tasks in which students succeed by working productively with their peers.

Why is team research important?

  • Team research increases academic achievement.
    In general, students working in cooperative groups reach higher levels of academic achievement than students working individually or in competitive groups (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). In the case of team research, academic achievement is dependent upon the frequency of investigation-related, peer interactions (Cohen, 1994, p. 8). During team research, students both provide and receive explanations, help, feedback, etc. Providing elaborate explanations (Webb, 1991) as well as receiving the right kind of help from peers (Webb, 1992) are both positively correlated with academic achievement.

  • Team research promotes classroom equity.
    Students who participate on research teams that are heterogeneous in terms of level of academic achievement, race, and gender develop an appreciation for a diversity of viewpoints (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Equal, two-way communications, a willingness of all team members to listen and speak, and an expectation of future positive interactions create a team environment in which all students gain the benefits of team research. These skills must be taught in class and reinforced during authentic, ill-structured investigations (Cohen, 1991).

  • Team research helps students manage choices during an investigation.
    When students are working cooperatively, they are more likely to make productive use of the choices offered by designers than students working independently (Carrier & Sales, 1987). (See offering students choices to read about what choices can be offered during authentic, ill-structured investigations.)

How does a designer encourage team research?
For authentic, ill-structured investigations it is important that the instructions for the tasks provide a level of support that is neither too constraining nor too open-ended. Assigning students to specific team roles or providing detailed discussion-scripts can limit the amount of investigation-related discussion (Salomon & Globerson, 1989). On the other hand, providing no guidance to team members may lead to inequities in interaction within the group, which in turn leads to differentiated learning outcomes. The research literature on cooperative learning has been intense over the last two decades. The following suggestions emerge from this literature.

  • Create task instructions that maximize student interaction.
    Smith, Johnson, and Johnson (1981) and Cohen, Lotan, and Leechor (1989) offer two approaches to team tasks that maximize investigation-related, peer interactions. (1) The first approach used controversy to stimulate team research. In a study by Smith, Johnson, & Johnson, students worked in four-person teams. Within the team, two-person pairs prepared opposing sides of a debate concerning the proposed reintroduction of wolves into Minnesota. After the preparation period, the opposing sides presented their cases to each other. After the presentations were completed, the pairs switched their positions. Using the information provided during the debate, each pair argued the opposing position. Finally, the four-person team reached a consensus and wrote a report. Although the controversy approach is highly orchestrated, it is effective at generating investigation-related, peer interactions that lead to conceptual understanding. (2) The second approach is less orchestrated but also leads to investigation-related, peer interactions. In a study by Cohen, Lotan, and Leechor, students working on ill-structured problems took turns as the facilitator Ñencouraging the group to think and talk together. The addition of this role led to increases in investigation-related, peer interactions and higher learning outcomes.

  • Ensure equity in student interaction.
    Research has documented that under normal circumstances, without constructive intervention, there are systematic inequalities in participation among members of cooperative groups. These differences are primarily related to differences in academic status. It is important for designers to create activities that lessen these status differences. One successful approach is to ensure that the activities require multiple abilities (Cohen, 1994, pp. 24-25; see also multiple abilities). In that way, it is very likely that no one member of the group will be an expert at all of the required abilities. These types of activities meet the definition of a group task, where no one student can complete the activity without input from others (Cohen, Lotan, & Catabzarite, 1988). In addition, during the investigation, it is important for teachers to highlight the task-specific competencies of low-status students. When other students in the class learn that low-status students have relevant competencies, it raises the low-status students' level of participation (Cohen, 1994, p. 25).

  • Provide students with opportunities to practice team skills.
    Because team interaction is highly correlated with academic achievement, it is important that students develop team skills. Designers can offer team skill building activities for students to engage in prior to their team research. Cohen and Cohen (1991) offer suggestions: (1) Prior to engaging in team research, students select rules of conduct. (2) At scheduled intervals during the team research process, the teams discuss and evaluate how well they are working together, and the teacher offers valuable feedback on their efforts (Johnson & F. Johnson, 1994).

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Carrier, C., & Sales, G. (1987). Pair versus individual work on the acquisition concepts in a computer-based instructional lesson. Journal of Computer-Based Instruction, 14(1), 11-17.

Cohen, B. P., & Cohen, E. G. (1991). From groupwork among children to R&D teams: Interdependence, interaction and productivity. In E. J. Lawler, B. Markovsky, C. Ridgeway, & H. A. Walker (Eds.), Advances in group processes (Vol. 8, pp. 205-226). Greenwich, CN: JAI.

Cohen, E. G. (1991). Teaching in multiculturally heterogeneous classrooms: Findings from a model program. McGill Journal of Education, 26, 7-23.

Cohen, E. G. (1994). Restructuring the classroom: Conditions for productive small groups. Review of Educational Research, 64(1), 1-15.

Cohen, E. G., Lotan, R., & Catabzarite, L. (1988). Can expectations for competence be treated in the classroom? In M. Webster, Jr., & M. Foschi (Eds.), Status generalization: New theory and research (pp. 27-54). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cohen, E. G., Lotan, R., & Leechor, C. (1989). Can classrooms learn? Sociology of Education, 62, 75-94.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. (1994). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1996). Cooperation and the use of technology. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 1017-1044). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Salomon, G., & Globerson, T. (1989). When teams do not function the way they ought to. International Journal of Educational Research, 13, 89-99.

Smith, K., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1981). Can conflict be constructive? Controversy versus concurrent seeking in learning groups. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 651-663.

Webb, N. (1991). Task-related verbal interaction and mathematics learning in small groups. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 22, 366-389.

Webb, N. (1992). Testing a theoretical model of student interaction and learning in small groups. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz & N. Miller (Eds.), Interaction in cooperative groups: The theoretical anatomy of group learning (pp. 102-119). New York: Cambridge University Press.


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