Analysis of factors influencing the contribution of talk to learning during collaborative group work in science

Analysis of factors influencing the contribution of talk to learning during collaborative group work in science

What the resource is:
This is a paper presented at the 2009 BERA Conference. The report considers the factors that affect pupil contributions during collaborative work in science. It reviews approaches to analysing the cognitive demand of talk in groups, the rules and roles in group talk and the nature of group tasks. The paper presents evidence from primary school classrooms to show their possible impact on cognitive level of group talk as a way for practitioners to improve the quality of talk in their classroom.


The aims of the resource:
On page 2, the paper identifies two research questions:

How do the behaviours and interactions observed during collaborative group work in science impact on the level of cognitive demand of talk episodes?

What kinds of intervention support the development of peer interactions to facilitate more effective learning of science through talk?

Key findings or focus:
The benefits of collaborative or cooperative group work are reviewed in a thorough, detailed manner to show the possible benefits that they can bring for pupils, though some older work such as Johnson and Johnson (1989) is not included. Brown and Palinscar (1986), Mercer (1996) and Topping (2005) provide the basis for the review of benefits, such as cognitive conflict and co-construction of knowledge. The paper cites Brown and Palinscar (1986):

"Confrontation provides a vantage point from which the children come to challenge both points of view. Together they elaborate, modify, and restructure, thereby producing a new theory that takes into account their individual differences" (p3).

It goes on to review work in a UK context, which shows that there is little collaborative work in schools, that there are concerns that it will lead to disruptive or off-task behaviour, and that pupils work better when they are prepared for group work. There is a presentation of types of talk that lead to learning (pp3-4) and how they can be categorised, and the value of using the framework developed by Toulmin (1958) for analysing argumentation. There follow reviews of the social and emotional aspects of group work, roles in group work and task design to ensure that collaborative activity is productive for the pupils.


The paper draws on transcripts and participant observations to see to what extent the hopes contained within the literature might be seen in the complexity of the classroom, "to identify factors that contribute to or inhibit development of concept understanding" (p9). It notes the difficulty of finding suitable observation opportunities because of the infrequent use of collaborative work in schools. Mercer's (1996) categories of cognitive demand are used as a way to analyse the recorded talk, to identify the extent to which co-construction is happening, as well as the associated behaviours and interactions. The data are presented as extracts from transcripts to illustrate the different categories of talk and the extent to which there might be scaffolding and co-construction of knowledge. The literature review within the paper identifies some factors that might contribute to exploratory talk and this is used to analyse the data. A particular focus is talk where "co-construction of understanding through critical but constructive engagement of learners in each other's ideas and reasoning is apparent in the talk" (p2). The factors considered are: reaching consensus, shared goals, ground rules for talk, self-efficacy, roles, task design and a range of social and emotional factors. These lead to a ‘Summary of teacher behaviours that enhance the quality of learning' (p24).


The quality, authority and credibility of the resource from your subject perspective in relation to ITE:
The paper presents detailed transcripts from the complexity of ordinary classrooms. The database is not wide, 10 observations in three different schools for a total of 15 hours. However, such observations produce large amounts of data, though we are not told its extent. The author says that tape recordings were made ‘where possible' (p9). It would have been good to have a chart of what Year groups were observed in which schools, and which were tape-recorded. Details are given in the transcripts of pupils' age, but there is no overview. Similarly, it does not say how transcripts were recorded, nor how they are produced by observation rather than tape recorder. Again, that might have been included in the table. As well as recordings and observation, there also seem to have been pupil interviews (p13), to explore pupils' perceptions of the processes in their group. The review identifies the important role of the teacher and their interventions, but in this paper we are not told of the nature of the participant observation and its possible impacts, other than where it appears in the transcripts. However, as the study is more exploratory to see to what extent the hopes in the literature work out in practice, the outcomes would seem to be a good list of hypotheses for teachers to explore in their classrooms.  


The implications for ITE tutors/mentors - when and how it could have best impact:
The possible benefits of collaborative work should be part of initial teacher education. Certainly, group work is an area that is included in discussing planning, and the roles of different sorts of groups for different sorts of purposes (Galton and Williamson 1992). The review of the literature here offers a sound base to open up discussion. The difficult issue of task design and task openness and teacher intervention is a topic that might best be explored through the experience of group work and reflection on its possibilities. 


The relevance to ITE students - how and why it has importance:
The paper gives a well-written, detailed review of the research on developing collaborative work in the classroom. As Speaking and Listening is becoming seen as an area for development, then this paper provides a good way in to the literature. With the expected focus on literacy across the curriculum in the 2011 version of the National Curriculum, then the review here should be of value to all intending teachers at all key stages. Students could consider what they need to do to develop collaborative work in their classrooms and how they design tasks. There is the tricky balance to be found between structuring the tasks and allowing space for pupils "to interact at a deeper cognitive level" (p25). As the author found, there are typically few examples to be seen currently in schools, upon which beginning teachers can build. The importance of pupils developing their talk rules also relates to the wider curriculum, such as citizenship and the respect for the views and rights of others.


Related Resources

The following might be useful to read in conjunction with this resource:


The work of the TLRP Research programme gives access to a range of first hand data at e.g.

Blatchford, P., Galton, M., Kutnick, P. and Baines, E. (2005) Improving the effectiveness of pupil groups in classrooms, Final Report to ESRC (Ref: L139 25 1046).

The publication that draws together their work for use in schools is

Baines, E., Blatchford, P. and Kutnick, P. with Chowne, A., Ota, C. and Berdondini, L. (2008) Promoting Effective Group Work in the Primary Classroom: a handbook for teachers and practitioners. London, Routledge.


For an accessible review of the work of Johnson and Johnson see The Scottish ‘Research summary - collaborative learning' at


Classic studies from the 60s and 70s provide a useful reference e.g.


Barnes, D. and Todd, F. (1978) Communication and Learning in Small Groups. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.





Brown, A.L. and Palinscar, A.S. (1986) Guided, Cooperative Learning and Individual Knowledge Acquisition. Technical Report No. 372. Cambridge Mass: Illinois University.

Galton M and Williamson J (1992) Group Work in the Primary Classroom. London Routledge.

Johnson, D.W. and Johnson R.T. (1989) Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MN, Interaction Book Company, 1989.

Mercer, N. (1999) The quality of talk in children's collaborative activity in the classroom, Learning and Instruction, 6 (4), 359-377.

Topping, K.J. (2005) Trends in peer learning, Educational Psychology, 26(6), 631-645.

Toulmin S. E. (1958/2003) The uses of Argument, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 


Reviewed by:

Charly Ryan