Maintaining social relationships is more important than scientific discourse during group work

By Suzanne Perin - May 2011


Anderson, D., Thomas, G. P., & Nashon, S. M. (2009). Social barriers to meaningful engagement in biology field trip group work. Science Education93(3), 511–534.


Consider teaching strategies to help students learn to work through disagreements and discussion within a group, which students perceive as having long-lasting negative social consequences.

What Is The Issue?

Students working in small groups during a field trip to a nature center prioritized the maintenance of social roles within groups of friends rather than exhibiting the behaviors that educators might desire a well-functioning group to engage in for science learning.

What Was The Study?

The researchers video- and audio-recorded high school students during a field trip to a nature center. After the trip, the students were asked to watch and reflect on the video of their group, and were interviewed in groups. Three single-gender groups are profiled as case studies in this paper: the groups were self-selected (and therefore included friends), consisted of 3 to 4 members, and the teacher considered them well-functioning groups who completed their worksheets. In the interviews, researchers and students discussed how the students worked together, including what they considered to be the learning strategies the students used, the leadership roles of each member of the group, orientation to the task and learning biology, their collaboration, and the closeness of friendship of the group members.

What Were The Findings?

In the interviews, the students were able to talk about their “metacognition,” (the term for an awareness and understanding of ones’ own thought processes) which the researchers could put into three categories: task, learning, and social. The students showed this awareness of their social roles and status within the group while doing the worksheets together, so that the science learning became secondary to the task and learning.

In each of the three groups, the roles the students played were similar to when they were socializing. For example, the group “leader,” even if not explicitly identified during the group work, pushed the group to complete their task. The other group members tended to act as moderators, contributors, refiners of ideas, or assistants who answered only when directly questioned by others in the group.

This poses a problem for educators who want students to engage in collaborative discussion—including disagreement, critique, consideration of multiple perspectives, and offering of alternative ideas—that are important to scientific practice. In this study, the researchers found that individual students who disagreed with other group members, particularly with the leader, tended to keep quiet rather than share a dissenting opinion. For example: a follower would not write down the same answer as the other group members, would defer to the teacher at a later time, or ask a different group member to share their own thoughts to avoid having to answer.

For ISE educators, the obvious solution may be to break up friendship groups to disrupt the social patterns that are not conducive to the types of discussion it is hoped students will engage in during science. However, it may be more useful to aid students in techniques for offering dissenting opinions and for how to gracefully accept them (in the case of strong leaders). Communication and collaboration skills are useful in science and in other aspects of life, and the informal setting may have greater freedom to address those skills.