The Science of Talking in Class

Writing for The Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay recently reviewed research on how to guide students in productive discussions and group work. Excerpts from the piece appear below: 

A team of U.K. researchers collected all the studies they could find on peer interaction, in which children are either discussing or collaborating on an assignment together in small groups of two, three or four students. They found 71 studies, covering more than 7,000 children and teens. Most of the studies took place in the United States and the United Kingdom.  The results: Students tend to learn better by interacting with each other rather than wrestling with an assignment or a new topic on their own. But interacting with an adult one-to-one is even better than peer-to-peer interaction.

Tenenbaum and her co-authors found that peer interaction helped children at all ages, from the youngest four-year-olds to the oldest 18-year-olds in the studies. Groups of three or four students were as productive as pairs of two, though most of the studies had children working in pairs. For studies that noted gender, boys and girls equally benefited from working in pairs or groups regardless if they worked together or apart. The study, “How effective is peer interaction in facilitating learning? A meta-analysis,” was published online December 2019 in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Students didn’t always learn more from interacting with each other than working alone in the 71 underlying studies. The ones that produced the strongest learning gains for peer interaction were those where adults gave children clear instructions for what do during their conversations. Explicit instructions to “arrive at a consensus” or “make sure you understand your partner’s perspective” helped children learn more. Simply telling students to “work together” or “discuss”  often didn’t generate learning improvements for students in the studies. That’s because students often repeat what they already believe in an unstructured conversation. The instructions force children to debate and negotiate, during which they can clear up misunderstandings and deepen their knowledge.

“Instructions are really important,” said Tenenbaum. In other words, the trendy direction to “turn and talk to your neighbor” isn’t sufficient.

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