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


This review focuses on small-group discussions in science teaching. Small-group discussions have been strongly advocated as an important teaching approach in school science for a number of years, partly arising from a more general movement towards student-centred learning, and partly as a means of drawing on recommendations from constructivist research, where it is seen as very important to provide students with an opportunity to articulate and reflect on their own ideas about scientific phenomena.

Several factors have come together to contribute to the current high levels of interest. These include the following:

  • moves towards making changes in the school science curricula of a number of countries such that courses have an increased emphasis on the development of scientific literacy
  • the most recent version of the National Curriculum for Science in England and Wales requiring that school students be explicitly taught about ideas and evidence
  • current interest in formative assessment as a key aspect of teaching
  • a more general drive to improve students' literacy skills (formalised into the National Literacy Strategy in England and Wales), where small-group discussions are seen to play an important role.


The principal aim of the review is to explore the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence in science.

The review is the third of three reviews focusing on aspects of small-group discussion work in science lessons.

Review questions

The review question is as follows:

What is the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence in science?

The question has emerged from the initial question identified by the Review Group on small-group discussion work:

How are small-group discussions used in science teaching with students aged 11-18, and what are their effects on students' understanding in science or attitude to science?

This resulted in an in-depth review which looked at the question:

What is the evidence from evaluative studies of the effect of small-group discussions on students' understanding of evidence in science?

Using an updated version of the systematic map developed for the first review, a second in-depth review addressed the question:

What is the evidence from evaluative studies of the effect of using different stimuli (print materials, practical work, ICT, video/film) in small-group discussions on students' understanding of evidence in science?

This third in-depth review also explores an area of the updated systematic map.

The mapping of the area revealed a wide range of relevant studies. A more limited focus was therefore adopted for the in-depth review, with the review question being limited to studies which explored the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence, and focused on the nature of small-group discussion work as a key discrete variable in their data analysis.


The review methods are those developed by the EPPI-Centre for systematic reviews of educational research literature. Such a review has four main phases:

  • Searching and screening: developing criteria by which studies are to be included or excluded in the review, searching (through electronic databases and by hand) for studies which appear to meet these criteria, and then screening the studies to see if they meet the inclusion criteria
  • Keywording and generating the systematic map: coding each of the included studies against a pre-agreed list of characteristics which is then used to generate a systematic map of the area, whereby studies are grouped according to their chief characteristics
  • In-depth review and data extraction: summarising and evaluating the contents of studies according to pre-agreed categories
  • Synthesis: providing an overview of the quality and relevance across the studies in the in-depth review and compiling the weighted findings of the collective studies

In addition, and very importantly, this review has attempted to draw on the recently published guidance and framework for assessing research evidence in qualitative research studies (Spencer et al., 2003). Drawing on this guidance was seen as crucial for this review, as all the papers included in the in-depth review reported on qualitative studies. In order to draw on the guidance, a range of additional questions was developed and integrated into the data extraction questions in the EPPI-Centre tool. Full details are given in the main report, and a copy of the additional questions is included as Appendix 2.5.

Systematic map

The number of studies identified through the searching and screening established that small-group discussions were being used in a variety of ways in science lessons. However, in many of the studies small-group discussions in themselves were rarely seen as discrete independent variables for investigation. Rather, the notion of small-group discussions tended to be wrapped up within other activities, often characterised as 'collaborative learning', a term which was used in a variety of ways and often very loosely, such that it appeared to include most activities which did not involve teacher exposition. This resulted in a considerable amount of effort being required to refine searching, screening and keywording strategies to ensure that studies fell within the review focus.

There were 94 studies identified for inclusion in the systematic map. The map revealed a number of characteristics of research on small-group discussions, as summarised below:

  • The majority of the studies reported work that has taken place in the USA, the UK and Canada.
  • Small-group discussions were used with all ages of student in the secondary age range.
  • The majority of work focused on small-group discussions in relation to students' understanding; less relates to students' attitudes.
  • A diversity of measures was used to assess effects on understanding and attitude.
  • Very little research has been done on small-group discussions in relation to the teaching of chemistry.
  • Typical small-group discussions involved groups of three to four students emerging from friendship ties, and have a duration of at least 30 minutes.
  • Typical small-group discussions have individual sense making as their main aim (as opposed to, for example, leading to a group presentation) and use prepared printed materials as the stimulus for discussion.
  • The most common research strategy was the case study.
  • There were 28 studies with experimental designs, of which 12 were randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

The most popular techniques for gathering data are observation, video- and audiotapes of discussions, interviews, questionnaires and test results.

In-depth review

Nineteen studies were included in the in-depth review, which focused on the nature of small-group discussion work aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence.

The consolidated evidence from the review draws primarily on the findings from studies weighted as medium-high and, to a lesser extent, as medium in terms of their overall quality.

The review has revealed a number of features of particular interest in relation to the use of small-group discussion work in science to help develop students' use of evidence. It is clear from the study reports that a complex and interacting set of factors are involved in enabling students to engage in dialogues in a way that could help them draw on evidence to articulate arguments and develop their understanding. Thus a particular characteristic of such studies is detailed description of student interactions.

Findings on the nature of small-group discussions

Although there is considerable variety in the detailed research questions and discussion topics used, there is a high degree of consistency in the findings and conclusions. 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. The review presents very strong evidence of the need for teachers and students to be given explicit teaching in the skills associated with the development of arguments and the characteristics associated with effective group discussions. Five of the seven highest quality studies in the review make this recommendation. There is also good evidence to confirm the findings of other reviews on small-group discussions (Bennett et al., 2004; Hogarth et al., 2004) on the desirability of the stimulus used to promote discussion involving 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. Not all studies addressed this aspect, but, where advice is offered, it tends to indicate that groups should be specifically constituted such that differing views are represented. There is also evidence to suggest that assigning managerial roles to students (e.g. reflector, regulator, questioner, explainer) as suggested in collaborative learning theory is likely to be counterproductive for poorly-structured tasks. Some evidence is also presented which suggests single-sex groups may function better than mixed-sex groups, although overall development of understanding is not affected by group composition. Group leaders also emerge as having a crucial role: those that were able to adopt an inclusive style, and one which promoted reflection, were the most successful in achieving substantial engagement with the task. An alienating leadership style generates a lot of off-task talk and low levels of engagement.

The review presents some evidence that small-group discussion work does improve students' understanding and use of evidence. While this was not the main focus of the review, all the included studies present some evidence in this area, as improvement in use of evidence was one of the reasons for using small-group discussions. The effects of small-group discussions on students' understanding of evidence has been explored in more detail in other reviews (Bennett et al., 2004; Hogarth et al., 2004).

Findings on research strategies adopted to explore aspects of small-group discussion work

A number of similarities emerged in the approaches adopted in the studies. They tend to make use of opportunistic samples, drawing on the researchers' personal contacts. Experimental designs are not often used, although studies often make comparisons between discussion groups in the same class or within a discussion group. Data collection methods typically involve audio- and/or video- recordings, with analysis and reporting drawing heavily on extracts from recorded dialogue. While approaches to gathering data are seldom justified in any detail by the authors, sound procedures appear to be introduced to check the reliability of the data analysis and to present the findings in a way which makes them trustworthy.

A key difference which has emerged concerns the two contrasting approaches to data analysis, with some studies developing grounded theory from the data, and others drawing on existing models to structure their analysis.

Strengths of the review

The review has a number of strengths:

  • The review focus is highly topical. The Review Group has already been contacted by potential users interested in the findings. Further evidence of the topicality comes from the range of countries in which studies have been undertaken and from the dramatic rise in relevant published papers since 1992 as demonstrated in the map for this review (see Table 3.1 of the technical report).
  • The review has served to establish that there is consistency in the research approaches that those working in the area feel are appropriate to researching practice related to the use of small-group discussions. Such approaches draw extensively on qualitative data in the form of audiotapes and/or videotapes of dialogue during discussions, interview data and students' written responses.
  • The review has deliberately focused on synthesising the evidence from the studies rated as medium-high in quality. (No studies were rated as high in quality.)
  • End users of the review findings have been closely involved at all stages of the review.
  • Quality assurance results are high for all stages of the review.

Limitations of the review

The review has one principal limitation. Although the studies in the in-depth review share a number of similar characteristics at the broad level, there are substantial differences at the detailed level. For example, there is considerable variety in the specific research questions, the topics used for the discussion tasks, and in the use and interpretation of key terms relating to evidence and understanding of evidence. However, the effect of this limitation was minimised by focusing the in-depth review on studies of medium-high quality. (No studies were rated as high quality.)

Implications for policy

Current policy strongly advocates the use of small-group discussion work. While the main focus of this review was to establish how small-group discussions were being used in science lessons, it also yielded evidence of some potential benefits in terms of helping students develop their skills in formulating arguments; hence the review does indicate that there could be benefits in pursuing such a policy. However, it is clear from the review that 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. Thus, some form of professional development training for teachers would appear to be highly desirable to provide them with guidance on how to maximise the effectiveness of small-group discussions.

Implications for practice

The review suggests that small-group discussion work can provide an appropriate vehicle for assisting students in the development of ideas about using evidence and constructing well-supported arguments. Thus teachers should be encouraged to incorporate such discussions into their teaching, provided that appropriate support is offered to help them develop the necessary skills (see section 5.3.1 of the technical report). Gathered additional research data on their use and effects would also be very important.

Implications for secondary research

The review indicates that the most useful form of secondary research which could be pursued would be to look at methods used to analyse student discourse to establish similarities and differences in existing frameworks and frameworks emerging from grounded theory.

Implications for primary research

One particularly strong feature which has emerged from the work undertaken for this review and the others on small-group discussion (Bennett et al., 2004; Hogarth et al., 2004) is that there is a dearth of systematic research on small-group discussion work and considerable uncertainty on the part of teachers as to what they are required to do to implement good practice. Both these factors point to a pressing need for a medium- to large-scale research study which focuses on the use and effects of a limited number of carefully-structured, small-group discussion tasks aimed at developing various aspects of students' understanding of evidence, linked to a coherent analysis framework drawing on the findings of the secondary research proposed above.

Other aspects

This review made use of an enhanced data-extraction tool developed by the Review Team to address the fact that the reports of the studies presented a significant amount of qualitative data. The enhanced data-extraction tool asks for specific details of relevance to qualitative studies to be entered into the database EPIC, using EPPI-Reviewer, the EPPI-Centre software. These details relate to the design of the study, important features of the data collection, important features of the analysis, and ethical considerations.

Overall, the tool was found to be very helpful in systematically identifying and recording details of studies which might not have been captured in the standard data-extraction tool. In addition, the enhanced data-extraction tool served to identify areas where qualitative studies provided good and appropriate detail, and areas where more detail would have been helpful. A particularly positive feature to emerge concerned the steps taken to increase the reliability and trustworthiness of data analysis in qualitative studies.


Spencer L, Ritchie J, Lewis J, and Dillon L (2003) Quality in Qualitative Evaluation: A Framework for Assessing Research Evidence. London: The Strategy Unit (also available at

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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