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A systematic review of the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence in science

What do we want to know?

Small-group discussions have been strongly advocated as an important teaching approach in school science for a number of years.  The principal aim of the review is to explore the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence in science.

Who wants to know?

Policy-makers; practitioners; students

What did we find?  

  • In general, students often struggle to formulate and express coherent arguments during small-group discussions, and demonstrate a relatively low level of engagement with tasks. There is very strong evidence that teachers and students need to be given explicit teaching in the skills associated with the development of arguments and the characteristics associated with effective group discussions.
  • There is good evidence that the stimulus used to promote discussion should involve both internal and external conflict, i.e. where a diversity of views and/or understanding are represented within a group (internal conflict) and where an external stimulus presents a group with conflicting views (external conflict).
  • There is good evidence on group structure; it tends to indicate that groups should be specifically constituted so that differing views are represented.  Assigning managerial roles to students is likely to be counterproductive.  Group leadership which promotes inclusion and reflection can be effective.
  • There is some evidence that small-group discussion work does improve students' understanding and use of evidence.

What are the implications?

  • Small-group discussion work needs to be supported by the provision of guidance to teachers and students on the development of the skills necessary to make such work effective.

  • Small-group discussion work can assist students in the development of ideas about using evidence and constructing well-supported arguments. Teachers should be encouraged to incorporate such discussions into their teaching, provided that appropriate support is offered to help them develop the necessary skills.

How did we get these results?

Nineteen studies were included in the in-depth review.

This summary was prepared by the EPPI-Centre

This report should be cited as: Bennett J, Lubben F, Hogarth S, Campbell B and Robinson A (2005) A systematic review of the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students’ understanding of evidence in science. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

  
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