Supporting students’ cognitive development.
As a first year teacher in a seventh grade classroom, I had several experiences that made me question my practice, try new strategies, and learn from my students. One particular problem seemed to reappear frequently throughout the year: students seemed to understand content during whole-class work, but then had difficulty transferring and communicating their knowledge in their individual work.
This wondering about students’ difficulties, and my confusion about the possible reasons, became the focus for my action research project. After conducting a literature review on similar topics, I created a four-tier scaffold to help students’ individual development.
The first tier of the scaffold consisted of some direct teaching with student volunteers and discussion, when appropriate. The second tier was teacher assigned small-group (four to five students per group) activities to work on the skill we practiced as a whole class. The third tier included working with a partner who was chosen by the teacher.
Both the second and third tiers involved some peer teaching and reviewing of each other’s work. The last tier of the scaffolding required the student to apply the knowledge and skills that were developed in the first three tiers to his or her individual work. After students participated in the tiered experiences, they were formally assessed by either taking a test or quiz or completing some form of an “exit slip.”
Implementing the Framework
At the beginning of my action research study, students brainstormed expectations for themselves and peers when working collaboratively with a partner or in a small group. They created a list of several relevant expectations, yet had difficulty upholding these expectations during partner and small-group experiences.
After noticing that several students became upset and frustrated with their peers, I started asking for students’ opinions and observations of how they were doing individually and how their peers were performing by having them complete feedback and rating slips.
Students anonymously rated group members and partners using a numeric rating scale of four, three, two, and one. A rating of four meant they were extremely satisfied with their experience and experienced meaningful collaboration and productivity. On the opposite end, a rating of one indicated that their experience was not meaningful and that not all group members participated. A rating of two or three indicated that either the experience was less meaningful or it was not a collaborative experience.
Students also wrote comments to more fully explain their ratings. Their feedback helped me better understand students’ perspectives regarding whether or not expectations were met. Based on their feedback, we set goals and determined a plan of action to develop skills needed to enact all expectations during future group and partner experiences. Students completed rating slips after each group or partner activity because this method provided students opportunities to reflect on and assess their learning experiences, as well as provide meaningful feedback to peers and the teacher. Student ratings increased as we continued using this framework and discussing our expectations.
At the end of the action research study, I asked students about their thoughts regarding the process we used to become better group members and partners. One student stated, “It benefited me and my classmates because I learned how to work slower and help my partner.” Another student commented, “I think I have greatly improved and our whole class has learned to work and get along with new people.”
The students’ responses indicated that the scaffolded approach helped students learn how to collaborate and learn from peers, as well as value working with others.
Insights from Implementation
An important point learned from this experience is needing to model our expectations for students. For me, this meant that I needed to help students learn what positive peer interactions look like in both partner and group work. In addition, we needed to set up group and partner expectations as a class for each other and ourselves. As their teacher, I needed to be responsible for reminding the students of these expectations and ensuring that they enact them, yet also help students develop autonomy and the ability to regulate themselves and others.
Next, I learned that students were more authentic when they were able to provide feedback anonymously. If a student was not working hard in his or her peer groups or hurting the rest of the group, he or she usually told me. I also learned from student feedback that there was almost always one person not fully participating, no matter how many times we addressed this issue as a class and through individual reminders. Moreover, this taught me that smaller group sizes (three or four students) are more effective because students are likely to have more opportunity to participate and interact with peers.
Last, I learned that I have the ability to help students develop different perspectives about peer work, as well as value collaborating with peers. Our class had several discussions about motivating oneself and encouraging peers to work positively, collaboratively, and effectively. We also had discussions about how their ability to collaborate with any type of person would translate to real-world experiences.