Ideas & Findings

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A new study concludes what most people have known for years: When it comes to solving problems, two (or more) heads are better than one.

So say the University of Minnesota researchers who reviewed some 50 years' worth of studies on cooperative learning.An abundance of research does point to the general effectiveness of cooperative-learning techniques in the classroom, but researchers argue over its usefulness for high-level problem-solving. To resolve that question, Zhining Qin, David W. Johnson, and Roger T. Johnson re-analyzed 43 studies conducted between 1929 and 1993. For the purpose of their analysis, the researchers classified the kinds of problems used in the studies in four ways: well-defined problems or those for which the problem-solving strategy is clear; ill-defined problems; linguistic problems or those solved through writing or talking; and nonlinguistic problems, which were mostly math problems.

For all four problem types, their meta-analysis found, members of cooperative-learning teams outperformed the students who were solving problems on their own. But cooperative-learning strategies were more effective for solving nonlinguistic problems than they were for linguistic problems.

Qin, who is now an education specialist with the Minnesota education department, says the difference in effectiveness may stem from the fact that most of the studies were done with younger students with less developed communication skills. "When you talk about cooperative-learning activities, you do need a much better way to express yourself," she says, "and older kids do better."

The study appeared in the summer issue of the Review of Educational Research.

Students can figure out who the "teacher's pets" are--even if teachers don't treat their favorite students any differently from their classmates.

That is among the findings to come from an Israeli study of teachers' pets in elementary school. Researcher Elisha Babad of Hebrew University of Jerusalem gave separate questionnaires to students and teachers in 46 5th- and 6th-grade classrooms in his country.

The results, published in the September Journal of Educational Psychology, show that students were able to clearly identify one or more teacher's pets in about half the classrooms studied. And where there were teacher's pets, classroom morale was often low.

Students were particularly resentful of two kinds of classroom favoritism: When the student pets were unpopular with their classmates and when students thought their teachers in subtle ways gave less emotional support to low-achieving students. The latter happened even in classrooms where teachers and students agreed that teachers spent more time with their C and D students than they did with their favorite A pupils. Babad says students may pick up on teachers' feelings when they behave in an overly nice way toward low achievers--behavior that students often interpret in a negative way.

"Teachers' differential affect," the researcher writes, "is strongly related to the way students experience their schooling."

Giving students a choice of questions to answer on open-ended exams may not be such a bad idea.

At least that was the conclusion of researchers who reviewed results from the Maryland School Performance Assessment program. As part of an effort to make the test more "authentic" for students, the reading portion of that test in 1992 included items in which students could choose from among several reading passages.

Writing in the fall Journal of Educational Measurement, researchers Anne M. Fitzpatrick and Wendy M. Yen of CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill say the choice items on the test were no more or less difficult for students than the nonchoice items. And students' scores on both kinds of items were comparable.

But they also found students differed by gender and ethnic groups in the items they chose. Girls, for example, preferred stories that involved making friends, a young girl facing life problems, and buying a mysterious house, in that order. Boys chose passages relating to science fiction. Black students chose passages that depicted people with African-American features.

Not surprisingly, they also found that the older students got and the more test-savvy they became, the more they tended to choose shorter reading passages.

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 15, Issue 10

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