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When I first became an education journalist back in 2011, there was a lot of talk about individualized instruction, particularly by using educational software to tailor subjects for each student. I visited many elementary and middle schools where students, with bulging headphones wrapped over their heads, stared at separate computers, each learning something different at the same moment. Some were reviewing topics they should have mastered years ago. Others were jumping ahead to concepts that were grade levels ahead of what they would traditionally be learning.
Along with this rise in high-tech individualized — or personalized learning as it often called — there has also been a backlash. Critics argued that it isn’t good for students to be learning in isolation and that learning is a social activity not only between student and teacher but among students. At the same time, education experts have been injecting new energy into so-called collaborative learning, where students learn together in small groups, often producing projects together. Its advocates argue that group work like this helps kids learn the social skills that are necessary to solve problems in the modern workplace.
Now, a new study out by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit research firm, makes the argument that collaborative, group learning might actually serve each student’s individual academic needs quite well. In a study of almost 900 high school students at four different schools, the researchers found that the more high-quality collaborative learning experiences students had at school, the more that the students said they felt their personal learning needs were met and that they were adequately challenged and supported when they needed help.
“It’s a mind shift,” said Kristina Zeiser, a senior researcher at AIR. “You can actually feel that your learning is personalized when you’re working in a group. There is this thought with personalized learning that students go on their own path, even if it doesn’t use technology. It might seem that personalized or student-centered learning should be more individualized. But what we found, when we measured collaboration and personalization, is that students who experienced more collaboration experienced a greater degree of personalization in their learning.”
The study, titled “Learning with Others: A study exploring the relationship between collaboration, personalization and equity,” is slated to be released in October by the Student-Centered Research Collaborative, which funded the research. A preliminary report, summarizing the findings, was released in August. The collaborative is primarily funded by the Nellie Mae Foundation, which is among the supporters of the Hechinger Report, and, since its formation in 2016, regularly brings together researchers and education experts to share findings and disseminate them to schools.
This study looked at whether student-centered learning could happen within the context of group work. It focused on four unidentified high schools, two in the Southeast, one in New England and one in the Midwest. They included traditional public schools, a magnet school and a charter school. More than 890 students, from ninth through 12th grades, responded to survey questions.
Almost 90 percent of the students responded that they had learned through collaboration in their math and English classes. But some students had experienced more group work than others and the quality of the group work varied a lot. In some groups, students listened to each other more and had a constructive exchange of ideas where they expressed opposing views. Some groups were racially diverse and purposefully brought together students with lower and higher amounts of knowledge together rather than grouping teenagers of the same ability level. Sometimes, the students had clear roles and rotated the leadership role.
Zeiser and her colleagues found that the more that students reported experiencing high-quality group work, the more they also reported that their individual learning needs were met. Zeiser speculates that’s because students often choose their projects or topics and how they will conduct the projects and divide up tasks. Higher amounts of high-quality group work were also strongly associated with students feeling engaged with their schoolwork and feeling more motivated.
I wondered if students are deluding themselves and not giving objectively accurate answers on surveys. Perhaps struggling students aren’t getting the extra support they need within group work? But the researchers also found a positive, albeit weaker, correlation between high-quality group work and student grades. This was especially true for black students. The more high-quality group work that a black student experienced, the higher his or her grades. The researchers controlled for prior academic achievement.
“By focusing on technology and individualized learning, we might actually be widening [achievement] gaps because it’s disadvantaged students who benefit the most from collaborative experiences,” said Zeiser.
These results echo earlier research on the benefits of group learning. A 2015 survey of studies on group learning found that low-income students, students of color and urban students tended to see greater benefits from group work than other students.
The takeaway for teachers, according to Zeiser, is that they can’t just assign students to groups and leave them to figure it out themselves. Students need to be explicitly taught how to work in a group. However, the researchers don’t have much specific advice on how to handle common pitfalls. How can teachers intervene to support struggling students without interrupting the group dynamic? How should teachers address free riders who aren’t working at all and letting others carry the load? Or how to handle domineering students who don’t let others talk or participate? Many experts have ideas. But more research is needed on how teachers can steer group work toward a more productive path that serves each student.
This story about collaborative learning was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.