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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Powerful Learning: Studies Show Deep Understanding Derives from Collaborative Methods

Cooperative learning and inquiry-based teaching yield big dividends in the classroom. And now we have the research to prove it.
By Brigid Barron, Linda Darling-Hammond
Credit: Thomas Reis

Today's students will enter a job market that values skills and abilities far different from the traditional workplace talents that so ably served their parents and grandparents. They must be able to crisply collect, synthesize, and analyze information, then conduct targeted research and work with others to employ that newfound knowledge. In essence, students must learn how to learn, while responding to endlessly changing technologies and social, economic, and global conditions.

But what types of teaching and learning will develop these skills? And, just as important, do studies exist that support their use?

A growing body of research demonstrates that students learn more deeply if they have engaged in activities that require applying classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems. Like the old adage states, "Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand."

Research shows that such inquiry-based teaching is not so much about seeking the right answer but about developing inquiring minds, and it can yield significant benefits. For example, in the 1995 School Restructuring Study, conducted at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools by Fred Newmann and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, 2,128 students in twenty-three schools were found to have significantly higher achievement on challenging tasks when they were taught with inquiry-based teaching, showing that involvement leads to understanding. These practices were found to have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement.

Similarly, studies also show the widespread benefits of cooperative learning, in which small teams of students use a variety of activities to more deeply understand a subject. Each member is responsible not only for learning what is taught but also for helping his or her teammates learn, so the group become a supportive learning environment.

What follows is a summary of the key research findings for both inquiry-based and cooperative learning. First, let's look at three inquiry-based approaches: project learning (also called project-based learning), problem-based learning, and design-based instruction.

Project-Based Pathways

Project learning involves completing complex tasks that result in a realistic product or presentation to an audience. "A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning," prepared by researcher John Thomas for the Autodesk Foundation, identified five key components of effective project learning:

  • Centrality to the curriculum
  • Driving questions that lead students to encounter central concepts
  • Investigations that involve inquiry and knowledge building
  • Processes that are student driven, rather than teacher driven
  • Authentic problems that people care about in the real world

Research on project learning found that student gains in factual learning are equivalent or superior to those of students in more traditional forms of classroom instruction. The goals of project learning, however, aim to take learning one step further by enabling students to transfer their learning to new kinds of situations, illustrated in three studies:

  1. In a 1998 study by H.G. Shepherd, fourth and fifth graders completed a nine-week project to define and find solutions related to housing shortages in several countries. In comparison to the control group, the project-learning students scored significantly higher on a critical-thinking test and demonstrated increased confidence in their learning.

  2. A more ambitious, longitudinal comparative study by Jo Boaler and colleagues in England in 1997 and 1998 followed students over three years in two schools similar in student achievement and income levels. The traditional school featured teacher-directed whole-class instruction organized around texts, workbooks, and frequent tests in tracked classrooms. Instruction in the other school used open-ended projects in heterogeneous classrooms.

    The study found that although students had comparable learning gains on basic mathematics procedures, significantly more project-learning students passed the National Exam in year three than those in the traditional school. Although students in the traditional school "thought that mathematical success rested on being able to remember and use rules," according to the study, the project-learning students developed more flexible and useful mathematical knowledge.

  3. A third study, in 2000, on the impact of multimedia projects on student learning, showed similar gains. Students in the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project, in California's Silicon Valley, developed a brochure informing school officials about problems homeless students face. The students in the multimedia program earned higher scores than a comparison group on content mastery, sensitivity to audience, and coherent design. They performed equally well on standardized test scores of basic skills.

Other short-term, comparative studies demonstrated benefits from project learning, such as increases in the ability to define problems, reason with clear arguments, and plan projects. Additional research has documented improvements in motivation, attitude toward learning, and work habits. Students who struggle in traditional instructional settings have often excelled when working on a project, which better matches their learning style or preference for collaboration.

Students as Problem Solvers

Problem-based-learning approaches are a close cousin of project learning, in which students use complex problems and cases to actively build their knowledge. Much of the research for this approach comes from medical education. Medical students are given a patient profile, history, and symptoms; groups of students generate a diagnosis, conduct research, and perform diagnostic tests to identify causes of the pain or illness. Meta-analyses of multiple studies have found that medical students in problem-based curricula score higher on clinical problem solving and performance.

Use of problem-based cases in teacher education has helped student teachers apply theory and practical knowledge to school contexts and classroom dilemmas; these cases, for example, have enabled teachers to take alternative perspectives to better appreciate cultural diversity.

Studies of problem-based learning suggest that it is comparable, though not always superior, to more traditional instruction in teaching facts and information. However, this approach has been found to be better in supporting flexible problem solving, reasoning skills, and generating accurate hypotheses and coherent explanations.

Learning Through Design

Design-based instruction is based on the premise that children learn deeply when they create products that require understanding and application of knowledge. Design activity involves stages of revisions as students create, assess, and redesign their products. The work often requires collaboration and specific roles for individual students, enabling them to become experts in a particular area.

Credit: Thomas Reis

Design-based approaches can be found across many disciplines, including science, technology, art, engineering, and architecture. Design competitions for students include the FIRST robotics competitions and Thinkquest, for which student teams design and build Web sites on topics including art, astronomy, computer programming, foster care, and mental health.

Thinkquest teams are mentored by a teacher who gives general guidance throughout the design process, leaving the specific creative and technical work to the students. Teams offer and receive feedback during a peer review of the initial submissions and use this information to revise their work. To date, more than 30,000 students have created more than 7,000 Web sites through this competition.

Few studies have used a control group to evaluate the impact of the learning-by-design model, but in a 2000 study by researchers C.E. Hmelo, D.L Holton, and J.L. Kolodner, sixth-grade students designed a set of artificial lungs and built a partially working model of the respiratory system. The learning-by-design students viewed the respiratory system more systemically and understood more about the structures and functions of the system than the control group.

Hmelo and colleagues argued that design challenges need to be carefully planned, and they emphasized the importance of dynamic feedback. They also determined that teachers working on design projects must pay particular attention to finding a balance between students' work on design activities and reflection on what they are learning; that balance allows teachers to guide students' progress, especially in recognizing irrelevant aspects of their research that may take them on unproductive tangents, and in remaining focused on the whole project rather than simply on its completion.

Shifting Ideas, Shifting Roles

A significant challenge to implementing inquiry approaches is the capacity and skill of teachers to undertake this more complex form of teaching. Teachers may think of project learning or problem-based teaching as unstructured and may fail to provide students with proper support and assessment as projects unfold.

When students have no prior experience with inquiry learning, they can have difficulty generating meaningful driving questions and logical arguments and may lack background knowledge to make sense of the inquiry. Students can neglect to use informational resources unless explicitly prompted. They can find it hard to work together, manage their time, and sustain motivation in the face of setbacks or confusion.

One of the principal challenges for teachers, then, is to learn how to juggle a host of new responsibilities -- from carving out the time needed for extended inquiry to developing new classroom-management techniques. They must also be able to illuminate key concepts, balance direct instruction with inquiry teaching, facilitate learning among groups, and develop assessments to guide the learning process. That's a tall order for even the most experienced teacher.

To address these problems, Alice D. Gertzman and Janet L. Kolodner, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, introduced the concept of a design diary in 1996 to support eighth-grade science students in creating a solution for coastal erosion on a specific island off the coast of Georgia. Students had access to stream tables, as well as resources on videotape and the Internet.

In a first study conducted by Gertzman and Kolodner, learning outcomes were disappointing but instructive: The researchers noted that the teacher missed many opportunities to advance learning because she could not listen to all small-group discussions and decided not to have whole-group discussions. They also noted that the students needed more specific prompts for justifying design decisions.

In a second study, the same researchers designed a broader system of tools that greatly improved the learning outcomes. These tools included more structured diary prompts asking for design explanations and the use of whole-class discussions at strategic moments. They also required students to publicly defend their designs earlier in the process. Requiring students to track and defend their thinking focused them on learning and connecting concepts in their design work.

Talented Teams

Inquiry-based learning often involves students working in pairs or groups. Cooperative small-group learning -- that is, students working together in a group small enough that everyone can participate on a collective task -- has been the subject of hundreds of studies. All the research arrives at the same conclusion: There are significant benefits for students who work together on learning activities.

In one comparison by Zhining Qin, David Johnson, and Roger Johnson, of four types of categories for problems presented to individuals and cooperative teams, researchers found that teams outperformed individuals on all types and across all ages. Results varied by how well defined the problems were (a single right answer versus open-ended solutions, such as writing a story) and how much they relied on language. Several experimental studies have shown that groups outperform individuals on learning tasks and that individuals who work in groups do better on later individual assessments.

Cooperative group work benefits students in social and behavioral areas as well, including improvement in student self-concept, social interaction, time on task, and positive feelings toward peers. Researchers say these social and self-concept measures were related to academic outcomes and that low-income students, urban students, and minority students benefited even more from cooperative group work, a finding repeated over several decades.

But effective cooperative learning can be difficult to implement. Researchers identify at least three major challenges: developing group structures to help individuals work together, creating tasks that support useful cooperative work, and introducing discussion strategies that support rich learning.

Productive Collaboration

A great deal of work has been done to specify the kinds of tasks, accountability, and roles that help students collaborate well. In a summary of forty years of research on cooperative learning, Roger and David Johnson, at the University of Minnesota, identified five important elements of cooperation across multiple classroom models:

  • Positive interdependence
  • Individual accountability
  • Structures that promote face-to-face interaction
  • Social skills
  • Group processing

Cooperative-learning approaches range from simply asking students to help one another complete individually assigned problem sets to having students collectively define projects and generate a product that reflects the work of the entire group. Many approaches fall between these two extremes.

Credit: Thomas Reis

In successful group learning, teachers pay careful attention to the work process and interaction among students. As Johns Hopkins University's Robert Slavin argues, "It is not enough to simply tell students to work together. They must have a reason to take one another's achievement seriously." Slavin developed a model that focuses on external motivators, such as rewards and individual accountability established by the teacher. He found that group tasks with individual accountability produce stronger learning outcomes.

Stanford University's Elizabeth Cohen reviewed research on productive small groups, focusing on internal group interaction around tasks. She and her colleagues developed Complex Instruction, one of the best-known approaches, which uses carefully designed activities requiring diverse talents and interdependence among group members. Teachers pay attention to unequal participation, a frequent result of status differences among peers, and are given strategies to bolster the status of infrequent contributors. Roles are assigned to encourage equal participation, such as recorder, reporter, materials manager, resource manager, communication facilitator, and harmonizer.

Studies identified social processes that explain how group work supports individual learning, such as resolving differing perspectives through argument, explaining one's thinking, observing the strategies of others, and listening to explanations.

Good Signs

Evidence shows that inquiry-based, collaborative approaches benefit students in learning important twenty-first-century skills, such as the ability to work in teams, solve complex problems, and apply knowledge from one lesson to others. The research suggests that inquiry-based lessons and meaningful group work can be challenging to implement. They require changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices -- changes that are often new for teachers and students.

Teachers need time and a community to organize sustained project work. Inquiry-based instruction can help teachers deepen their repertoire for connecting with their peers and students in new and meaningful ways. That's powerful teaching and learning -- for students and teachers alike.

Adapted from Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding, a new book reviewing research on innovative classroom practices, by Linda Darling-Hammond, Brigid Barron, P. David Pearson, Alan H. Schoenfeld, Elizabeth K. Stage, Timothy D. Zimmerman, Gina N. Cervetti, and Jennifer L. Tilson, published in 2008 by Jossey-Bass. Published with support from The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Available at amazon.com.

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Steve Phelps's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is an excellent article that applies learning theory and the practical. This educational technology/philosophy has been around a long time, and the mystery for many veteran educators is why this is often the exception, rather than the rule in our educational system. As my wife often says, "Why do we need a study to tell us what we all know it when we see it?"

Our school system and accountability measures are unintentionally designed to discourage PBL learning. Few teachers and fewer school leaders have both the skills of the "traditional" teacher and the ability and time to use PBL where appropriate to motivate and teach. However, many teachers would be energized in their careers if they had the support of the system to learn and apply PBL effectively.

I have confidence we will eventually succeed, maybe by 2020. It will require a significant disruption of the industrial model which has served the world better than any other before it. Our relatively primitive educational system will have to continue the evolution of teaching methods and the application of digital technology and learning and motivational theory to transform our schools beyond the industrial model. The current worldwide financial crisis may accelerate this evolution because no nation can afford the current model much longer- costs are rising faster than the CPI and the results are static. However, this means that the new model must deliver superior results at a real cost no greater in today's dollars than our current system.

I head a Bay Area high school of 1200 school working hard to address these issues. We welcome partners with whom and from whom we can learn. sphelps@bishopodowd.org

Bart Bookman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article supports what some teachers have been doing for over 30 years. Many teachers (including many new teachers) are not sufficiently grounded in these techniques to use them effectively.

The Biology-Chemistry Professional Development Network in New York State has developed PBLs for Biology and Environmental Science. We have been using POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) in Chemistry and are now developing it in Biology. The real issue comes with state and local support for teacher training to get this strategies implemented on a regular basis.

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