Increasing Student Engagement in Small Groups: The Role of Knowledge Diversity

Increasing Student Engagement in Small Groups: The Role of Knowledge Diversity

When it comes to small group work, teachers approach grouping students differently at different times. Sometimes students may choose their own groups. Sometimes students are randomly assigned to groups. And sometimes teachers carefully choose group members. For authors Jian Zhao et al., an important aspect for teachers to consider when designing groups is the distribution of prior knowledge among students. In their paper, “Students’ engagement in a science classroom: Does knowledge diversity matter?,” Zhao et al. investigate how mixed-prior-knowledge grouping affects student engagement and group performance. They find that when a group has even one knowledgeable student, group members are more behaviorally and emotionally engaged in the task (6).

For their study, Zhao et al. collected data from 45 7th-grade science students during a 90-minute class period. Before the research session, the students’ teacher identified 5 students who had the highest levels of prior knowledge. During the study, those five students were separated into different groups and the remaining 40 students were randomly assigned to one of the 11 groups. There were 6 low-prior-knowledge only groups and 5 mixed-prior-knowledge groups, which had only 1 student with high levels of prior knowledge. 10 of the groups had 4 members total and 1 group had 5 members (3).

During the session, each group was to complete 2 tasks. First, the groups had to build a circuit with an AC light bulb. The second task was to “make an electric circuit including three AC light bulbs with the requirement that each light bulb should flash every 2 seconds” (3). The students were to use the Arduino Model to complete these tasks. They were familiar with the Arduino Model from earlier class lessons, but they had not yet learned how to make electric circuits. After watching a 20-minute demonstration from the teacher, the students completed both tasks. After completing the second task, students completed a survey during the last 15 minutes of class. For the survey, students were asked to rate statements about their behavioral engagement (participation in the group), emotional engagement, and social engagement (collaboration) (4). Each group’s task performance were graded by both the teacher and one of the researchers.

The Findings

  • Students in the mixed-prior-knowledge groups were more behaviorally engaged in the tasks.
    • They demonstrated higher levels of persistence, participation in the group’s efforts, and positive conduct (5).
  • Students in the mixed-prior-knowledge groups were more emotionally and socially engaged than students in low-prior-knowledge only groups (5).
    • They had more positive reactions to other group members and displayed greater positivity in general.

“[T]he low-prior-knowledge individuals in the mixed knowledge groups had significantly higher scores on behavioral engagement than did their peers in the low-prior-knowledge groups” (5).

  • Low-prior-knowledge students in the mixed knowledge groups had higher emotional engagement than students in the low-prior-knowledge groups.
  • The mixed knowledge groups had “significantly better group performance than the low-prior-knowledge groups” (6).

“[T]he results of the study clearly indicate improved behavioral, emotional, and social engagement by mixing knowledgeable individuals with their peers who have limited prior knowledge in small-group learning” (6).

Zhao et al. remark that when teachers group students in class, it is important to consider that “even having one knowledgeable student could bring benefits to the group in terms of group performance and individual engagement” (6). Moreover, it is not only the low-prior-knowledge students that benefit from the high-prior-knowledge students. In mixed knowledge groups, knowledgeable students must tailor their own explanations of concepts, engage in teaching, and consider other group members’ perspectives and ideas, all of which help knowledgeable students grow as learners.


Paper Title:  Students’ engagement in a science classroom: Does knowledge diversity matter?

Authors: Jian Zhao, Lijia Lin, Jiangshan Sun, Xudong Zheng, and Jia Yin (East China Normal University, Shanghai, China)

Full Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00220671.2018.1427036

Published: The Journal of Educational Research, 2018, Pages 1-8


Photograph: Thanks to Stefan Stefancik on Unsplash

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