The College Preparatory School (College Prep) in Oakland, California, is among the top 20 best prep schools in the country according to a 2010 Forbes magazine report. Over the past ten years, 100 percent of students have graduated and matriculated into college, and their average SAT scores have consistently ranked in the top tenth percentile for Math, Critical Reading, and Writing. In addition, more than one-third of students have taken Advanced Placement exams, with at least 95 percent receiving a score of three or higher. While resources at this elite independent school clearly offer advantages, the innovative and effective collaborative learning techniques used in all English and math classes also support students in reaching top national levels. This article discusses the following practices at College Prep:
In nearly every math class at College Prep, students spend almost the entire time working collaboratively in groups of four to answer problem sets from a worksheet. Four times a year, the groups work on worksheets with problem sets that require the same algorithmic thinking to solve, but each student's problem set has different numbers, so students cannot simply copy the answers from each other. For example, when solving for y, one student may have the problem 4y+3x=6, whereas another student may have 2y+5x=7.
College Prep math teacher Betsy Thomas gives her students a group test prior to the individual test for each unit during the year. The group test's questions are intentionally much more challenging than the individual test's questions to promote collaboration. The teacher randomly selects one student's work from each group and grades it as representative of the whole group, so that the entire group receives the same grade. Thus, in order for the group to succeed, all members must understand the material.
For students who know the material, formulating explanations to help their peers helps to strengthen their understanding (Webb, Farivar, and Mastergeorge, 2002). However, even when none of the group members knows the correct answer, activating one's peers as instructional resources in solving a problem has been shown to increase learning and correct responses (Smith et al., 2009).
When compared to more traditional methods where students passively receive information from a teacher, cooperative, problem-based learning has been shown to improve student engagement and retention of classroom material (Prince, 2004). More than 1200 studies comparing cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts have found that cooperative learning methods improve students' time on tasks and intrinsic motivation to learn, as well as students' interpersonal relationships and expectations for success (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). A meta-analysis comparing small-group work to individual work in K-12 and college classrooms also found that students working in small groups achieved significantly more than students working individually, and optimal groups for learning tended to be three- to four-member teams with lower-ability students working best in mixed groups and medium-ability students doing best in homogeneous groups. For higher-ability students, group ability levels made no difference (Lou et al., 1996).
According to more than 40 studies of elementary, middle, and high school English classrooms, discussion-based practices improve comprehension of the text and critical-thinking skills for students across ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic contexts (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, & Alexander, 2009; Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, Gamoran, 2003). Even discussions lasting as briefly as ten minutes with three participants have been shown to improve understanding of key story events and characters (Fall, Webb, & Chudowsky, 1997).
In English classes at College Prep, as many as 16 students and a teacher sit around a large, oval-shaped table. According to Julie Anderson, an English teacher at College Prep, the oval seating arrangement allows students to see each other. "For a conversation and discussion to work, all the students need to be able to see each other and make good eye contact," she explains. Studies also find that circular or semicircular arrangements produce more on-task comments, more questions, and fewer indications of withdrawal from the class activity, as compared to seating students in rows and columns (Marx, Fuhrer, & Hartig, 1999; Rosenfield, Lambert, and Black, 1985). Researchers speculate that eye contact and social interaction can promote attention and facilitate discussion by reducing the need for hand-raising to speak (Marx et al., 1999; Rosenfield et al., 1985).
In line with research-based best practices for improving text comprehension and critical thinking, College Prep uses a student-directed discussion approach, which emphasizes using evidence from the text and questions that support multiple interpretations. The College Prep English department uses a variety of practices to promote discussion-based teaching, including the Harkness Method, in which the role of the teacher in facilitating discussion is to serve "mostly as an observer," and act as little as possible. The Harkness method at College Prep also supports text comprehension and critical thinking by emphasizing (1) using evidence from the text, (2) asking questions with multiple answers, (3) building off of others' comments, and (4) creating a nonthreatening environment.
According to a meta-analysis of the research, the discussion practices that have the greatest effects on improving students' text comprehension are (Murphy et al., 2009; Goldenberg, 1993)
Including a thematic focus (e.g., friendship);
Connecting the theme to background knowledge (e.g., using the text or personal experience);
Direct teaching of skills or concepts if necessary;
Using elicitation techniques to promote complex expression and understanding (e.g., "Tell me more. What do you mean by ___?");
Asking students to provide support for interpretations (e.g., "How do you know? Show me where it says that. What makes you think that?");
Asking questions with multiple answers and fewer questions with known answers;
Communicating with connected discourse, in which teachers and students make comments that build off of what others have said;
Fostering a nonthreatening environment and encouraging all to participate;
Allowing student-directed discourse, in which the teacher does not hold exclusive control over who talks; instead, students volunteer or select others to speak.
To help prepare students for using the textual evidence to support their views in discussion, students at College Prep are taught how to annotate their readings during their freshman year. All discussions require that students arrive having read the text and with questions and annotations to share. Online discussions are also used to prepare for class, and Anderson's discussion guidelines require that juniors and seniors in her seminars refer to the text often to back up what they say. Students are also required to ask questions that invite debate and multiple interpretations of the text. Questions with multiple possible correct answers encourage students to participate and to negotiate and derive their own meanings from the text.
Providing students with opportunities to ask questions that examine multiple interpretations of a text has been shown to strengthen critical-thinking and reasoning skills (Murphy et al., 2009). For example, in a discussion approach called Collaborative Reasoning, the teacher poses a question likely to incite different points of view, and students provide reasons to support their positions. Collaborative reasoning aims to "encourage students to use reasoned discourse as a means for choosing among alternative perspectives on an issue" while drawing on personal experiences, background knowledge, and text for interpretive support (Murphy et al., 2009). This approach has been shown to improve argumentation and students' use of the text to defend arguments, while decreasing teacher talk and control of the topic (Murphy et al., 2009).
In accord with research-based best practices for improving text-comprehension and reasoning skills, College Prep's discussion practices emphasize acquiring and retrieving multiple meanings from the text, finding the appropriate evidence to support that point of view, and letting students steer the discussion. Most teachers at College Prep also consider student participation and collaboration when assigning the final course grade, and some research has suggested that providing students with participation credit can improve participation (Foster et al., 2009).
In both English and math classes at College Prep, students typically drive the discussion. By focusing on discussion and collaborative learning, College Prep encourages a culture where students learn the content material, as well as how to think critically and to work in teams.