Using small group discussions in science teaching

By Heather King - March 2011


Bennett, J., Hogarth, S., Lubben, F., Campbell, B. & Robinson, A. (2010). Talking science: The research evidence on the use of small group discussions in science teaching. International Journal of Science Education32(1), 69–95.

This paper presents the findings of a systematic review of studies that sought to examine how small group discussions are used in science teaching and how such discussions affect students' understanding of science ideas. Ninety-four papers were initially selected for review based on the following criteria: a) small groups are used in science lessons; b) involved groups of two to six students; and c) focused on a substantive, structured discussion. Notable characteristics of the discussions groups included the constitution of groups, the duration of discussion tasks, the stimuli provided, and the organization of the tasks. An in-depth review of 24 papers was then conducted, which provided detailed reports or described the results of intervention studies.

The findings which emerged from this review are as follows:

  1. Group leadership is crucial in promoting discussion. In addition, the leader must be inclusive, share tasks, and promote reflection.
  2. Allocating roles leads to effective discussion when clear tasks are set.
  3. Groups function more purposefully when differing views are represented.
  4. All male groups confront differences and all female groups tend to search for common features to avoid conflict. Friendship groups (generally single-sex) function more effectively than teacher constituted groups.
  5. Reasoning within groups tends to be limited and agreements are reached for social reasons rather than as a result of evidence-based discussion.
  6. Discussion is more productive if students are given cues including fixed concepts and unquestionable data.

In collating the findings from the studies this review notes that small group discussion can be beneficial but that productive learning is unlikely unless students acquire the skills of inclusive leadership, thus promoting engagement and participation within the group. Moreover, there is a need for both students and teachers to undergo training in the construction of arguments and the use of evidence.

Such conclusions will be particularly relevant for educators involved in teacher professional development programs. However, it should be noted that the full complexity of small group discussions is still not clear. Indeed, the review notes that the justifications for analytical frameworks chosen in the individual papers was generally limited, raising questions about the authors' knowledge of the frameworks and the depth of the subsequent analyses.