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Use of small groups in science education
This page contains the findings of systematic reviews undertaken by review groups linked to the EPPI Centre

There is good evidence for the following findings:

  • Small-group discussion focused on understanding the use of evidence, regardless of the prompt stimulus, is enhanced and focused by giving students some form of guidance on how to use that stimulus effectively. This guidance can be prior training in argumentation that provides instruction on how to use evidence or can be built into the structure or sequence of a stimulus-based task.[2],[3]Teachers also need training in the development of arguments and the characteristics associated with effective group discussions.[2]
  • A successful stimulus for students working in small groups to enhance their understanding of evidence has two elements. One requires students to generate their individual prediction, model or hypothesis, which they then debate in their small group (internally driven conflict or debate). The second element requires them to test, compare, revise or develop that jointly with further data provided (externally driven conflict or debate).[2],[3]
  • Prior knowledge can sometimes limit the understanding of evidence and its function. This can, for example, be the use of incorrect or inadequate factual knowledge or an idiosyncratic or inconsistent use of evidence to develop a hypothesis or test a model.[3]
  • Rich stimuli, such as those that provide complex and open-ended engagement, enhance opportunities for developing understanding of evidence.[3]
  • Groups should be specifically constituted to represent differing views ([2] - review [1] also found reasonable evidence of this). 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 generated a lot of off-task talk and low levels of engagement.[2]

There is reasonable evidence for the following findings:

  • The use of small-group discussions based on a combination of internal conflict (i.e. where a diversity of views and/or understanding are represented within a group) and external conflict (where an external stimulus presents a group with conflicting views) resulted in a significant improvement of students' understanding of evidence.[1],[2]
  • Improvement of students' understanding of evidence was not significantly different for members of all-female, all-male or mixed gender pairs.  The benefit was greatest for female students when they were given several opportunities to engage with aspects of tasks related to understanding of evidence.[1] Another review found some evidence which suggests that single-sex groups may function better than mixed-sex groups, although overall development of understanding is not affected by group composition.[2]
  • The use of small-group discussions did not affect students' ability to differentiate between observational or experimental data from opinions in a science-based text.[1]
  • The use of small-group discussions supported by a specific programme fostering collaborative reasoning (including evaluating and strengthening of knowledge claims) improved students' metacognitive knowledge of collaborative reasoning (including their knowledge of reasoning about evidence) significantly more than for students not following the special programme.  However, such gain within the treatment group depended on learners' perspective on learning: students with a learner-as-explorer perspective gained significantly more than peers with a learner-as-student perspective.[1]
  • The improved metacognitive knowledge of collaborative reasoning described above did not translate into better use of strategies while reasoning, including when dealing with scientific evidence.[1]


1. A systematic review of the use of small-group discussions in science teaching with students aged 11-18, and their effects on students' understanding in science or attitude to science (2004)

2. A systematic review of the nature of small-group discussions aimed at improving students' understanding of evidence in science(2005)

3. A systematic review of the use of small-group discussions in science teaching with students aged 11-18, and the effect of different stimuli (print materials, practical work, ICT, video/film) on students' understanding of evidence  (2005)

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