Study finds students become better decision makers through group learning


By Lilly Mashayek

While students are often encouraged to keep their eyes on their own paper, new research may prove that working with each other is a more effective way to learn.

According to a new study lead-authored by a University doctoral candidate, students who engage in group or collaborative learning are better equipped to make difficult or complex decisions.

Researchers divided more than 760 fifth-grade students into three groups, including a control groupss. Two groups were presented with a complex scenario about animal control policy, environmental concerns and public safety. One group was led through the problem by a teacher, while the other required the students to work together to reach an answer.

“The broad theoretical claim is that students who are given the opportunity to challenge one another’s thinking and those who are put in an instructional framework where they have to explain their own ideas are practicing discourse skills that mirror reasoning and decision-making strategies that people use individually (i.e. outside of a collaborative setting),” said Josh Morris, graduate student and co-author of the paper, in an email.

The study involved predominantly fifth grade minority students from central and northern Illinois. The study actively chose to present a more complex scenario than the scenario that was presented to students who participated in similar research previously.

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Xin Zhangss, lead author on the paper and a doctoral student at the University, said the group chose fifth graders for the study because they are at an age where they can comprehend complex issues.

Fifth graders are also on the brink of entering middle school, and some students lack the cognitive reasoning skills needed in middle school, Anderson said.

“These poor minority children are going to have demands placed on them when they get to sixth grade, and many are not doing very well in school subjects,” Anderson said. “So we wanted to make a big effort to get them ready to do well in middle school.”

“This is the first time that we got ourselves up for introducing children to a big policy question, which we concretized in this hypothetical community: should they be permitted to destroy a pack of wolves,” said Richard Anderson, director of the University’s Center for the Study of Readingss.

The curriculum unit lasted six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, all of the students were required to write an essay about what they would do if they found out a fellow student had cheated in a competition. The essay question required them to use skills similar to those they used in the wolf scenario, just in a different setting.

“The goal of this intervention program is to make children realize making a decision is pretty hard because you have to consider reasons for different sides,” Zhang said. “That’s why we used pretty complex questions.”

Zhang said there are three aspects of decision making: recognizing two sides to the decision, the number of reasons for the decision, and the weight of those reasons, in terms of their importance in relation to one another.

“We all know that even adults have this one-side bias,” she said. “When we consider an issue we often think from one side.”

The researchers said that students who were taught through the wolf pack scenario were able to apply these three aspects of the decision-making process more aptly than those who were taught by a teacher. They were able to recognize two sides to the problem, while also being able to list more reasons for each decision and understand the importance of each reason.

“It’s important for sound decision making that you consider the range of possible reasons that can be brought up on all sides,” Anderson said.

He said the distinction between the two groups was that students in the collaboration group were active arguers.

“The kids who were in collaborative groups were actually active arguers all throughout this unit, whereas the kids who got direct instruction went over the same material but they’re not really obliged to be active reasoners, they’re just following along with the reasoning of their teacher,” he said.

Anderson said the study could have very important implication for the way students, especially poor minority students, are taught. He said he believes that schools in poorer neighborhoods water down their curriculums.

“I wish teachers were in control, but policy tends to be established by administrators, school boards, state and national commissions, and teachers have a limited authority to change that,” Anderson said. “So we need to effect what members of Congress think, members of legislature think amounts to good education.”

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