Research Article: Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter

Date Published: July 20, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Elli J. Theobald, Sarah L. Eddy, Daniel Z. Grunspan, Benjamin L. Wiggins, Alison J. Crowe, Kimon Divaris.


Active learning in college classes and participation in the workforce frequently hinge on small group work. However, group dynamics vary, ranging from equitable collaboration to dysfunctional groups dominated by one individual. To explore how group dynamics impact student learning, we asked students in a large-enrollment university biology class to self-report their experience during in-class group work. Specifically, we asked students whether there was a friend in their group, whether they were comfortable in their group, and whether someone dominated their group. Surveys were administered after students participated in two different types of intentionally constructed group activities: 1) a loosely-structured activity wherein students worked together for an entire class period (termed the ‘single-group’ activity), or 2) a highly-structured ‘jigsaw’ activity wherein students first independently mastered different subtopics, then formed new groups to peer-teach their respective subtopics. We measured content mastery by the change in score on identical pre-/post-tests. We then investigated whether activity type or student demographics predicted the likelihood of reporting working with a dominator, being comfortable in their group, or working with a friend. We found that students who more strongly agreed that they worked with a dominator were 17.8% less likely to answer an additional question correct on the 8-question post-test. Similarly, when students were comfortable in their group, content mastery increased by 27.5%. Working with a friend was the single biggest predictor of student comfort, although working with a friend did not impact performance. Finally, we found that students were 67% less likely to agree that someone dominated their group during the jigsaw activities than during the single group activities. We conclude that group activities that rely on positive interdependence, and include turn-taking and have explicit prompts for students to explain their reasoning, such as our jigsaw, can help reduce the negative impact of inequitable groups.

Partial Text

There are broad, national calls for increased active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) classes [1–3]. This call for higher structure and more student engagement in university STEM classrooms has placed a large emphasis on group work–particularly small, informal groups [4–6]. This emphasis on group work is driven largely by the observation that collaborative groups (as opposed to competitive groups or individual learning) increase learning, cultivate positive attitudes toward science, and enhance social identity as a scientist in STEM classrooms from primary school through university [7–11]. However, to reap these benefits, groups must be high functioning, i.e. those in which teammates collaborate, participate equitably, and disagree productively. Specifically, from pre-school [12] to university courses [6], students in high-functioning groups, learn more, report more positive attitudes toward science, and are more likely to identify as a scientist than their peers in lower functioning groups.

The characteristics of students participating in the study were as follows: sex (male 33.5% and female 66.5%), ethnicity (combined into non-international-white (46.5%), Asian (35.5%), URM (11.3%; under-represented minority, including African American, black, Latinx, and Pacific Islander), and International (6.7%; the majority of the international students at the University of Washington come from the China, Korea, and India), first generation status (46.8%; reported to the registrar as whether or not a student’s parents have obtained a baccalaureate degree).

We sought to understand how the composition of small groups and the student interactions in these groups impact student performance in a university introductory biology classroom. We found that students demonstrate lower content mastery (measured by a post-test) when agreeing more that someone dominated their group than when agreeing less that someone dominated their group (Fig 1), and that students demonstrate higher mastery when agreeing more to being comfortable in their groups than when agreeing less to being comfortable. Finally, we show that during a carefully constructed jigsaw activity, students were less likely to agree that someone dominated their group (Fig 2). This suggests that jigsaw activities, with intentional structure more effectively promote equity than group activities with less intentional structure.




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