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  • LEARNINGGregory J. Kelly and Richard E. Mayer, Section Editors

    Effects of Partners Ability on theAchievement and ConceptualOrganization of High-AchievingFifth-Grade Students

    GLENDA CARTERDepartment of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, North CarolinaState University, Raleigh, NC, USA

    M. GAIL JONES, MELISSA RUACollege of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, USA

    Received 5 October 1999; revised 27 July 2001; accepted 27 November 2001

    ABSTRACT: This study investigated high-achieving fifth-grade students achievementgains and conceptual reorganization during a unit on convection. Specifically, the achieve-ment and cognitive gains that occurred as a result of interactions of high-achieving studentswith a high-achieving or low-achieving laboratory partner were compared. The study de-sign included an instructional sequence of three dyadic inquiry investigations related toconvection currents as well as pre- and postassessments consisting of a multiple-choicetest, card sorting task, construction of a concept map, and an interview. Results showed nosignificant differences for achievement of high-achieving students regardless of the partnersachievement level and only slight differences in conceptual reorganization. The implica-tions of this study for heterogeneous grouping and construction of knowledge by dyads isdiscussed. C 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed 87:94111, 2003; Published online in WileyInterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI 10.1002/sce.10031

    INTRODUCTIONNearly all of the current reform documents in education call for students to work in

    small cooperative or collaborative groups. Within science, The National Science EducationStandards advocate for the use of small student learning groups:

    Correspondence to: Glenda Carter; e-mail: glenda carter@ncsu.edu

    C 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


    An important stage of inquiry and of student science learning is the oral and written discoursethat focuses the attention of students on how they know what they know and how theirknowledge connects to larger ideas, other domains, and the word beyond the classroom. . . Using a collaborative group structure, teachers encourage interdependency among groupmembers, assisting students to work together in small groups so that all participate in sharingdata and in developing group reports. (National Research Council, 1996, p. 36)

    Specific instructional strategies such as peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and Padaeiaseminars are founded on the belief that studentstudent discourse promotes cognitivegrowth. Research on learning in small group settings is beginning to provide evidencethat peer interactions influence students learning (Carter & Jones, 1994; Jones and Carter,1994; Swing & Peterson, 1982). This verbalization among students can be an important partof learning as noted by Slavin (1991), as any teacher knows, we learn best by describingour current state of knowledge to others (p. 70). There is preliminary evidence that it isnot just the verbal interactions that impact learning but who a student interacts with duringsmall group interactions can impact concept attainment (Carter, 1990).

    Initial research has supported the general benefits of peer interactions and small grouplearning (Slavin, 1986, 1990). However, more recent studies are starting to uncover thecomplexities of small group learning and evaluate the impact of the composition of smallgroups on students of different abilities. There is evidence that middle-achieving studentsbenefit from working in homogeneous groups (Lou et al., 1996; Webb, 1982) and forlow-achieving students, heterogeneous grouping seems to provide the greatest opportunityfor learning (Carter & Jones, 1994; Jones & Carter, 1994; Webb et al., 1998). However,there are conflicting results from studies that have examined grouping effects for high-achieving students. Some studies report no advantage for homogeneous placements ofhigh-achieving students (Lou et al., 1996; Webb, 1995). Results from other studies suggestthat homogeneous grouping provides high-achieving students with enhanced opportunitiesfor intellectual growth (Allan, 1991; Fuchs et al., 1998; Webb et al., 1998). Feldhusenand Moon (1992) maintain that grouping them (high-achieving students) with low oraverage level achievers cannot help but retard progress in learning (p. 63). Futhermore,Feldhusen and Moon argue that (g)rouping heterogeneously and providing cooperativelearning in heterogeneous groups leads to lowered achievement and motivation as well aspoorer attitudes toward school (p. 63). Robinson (1990) and Ellett (1993) suggest thatusing bright students to teach others can be exploitative of those who are more able. Theconcern is that high-achieving students are robbed . . . of consistent opportunities to learnthrough real struggle (Fiedler-Brand, Lange, & Winebrenner, 1992, p. 6).

    Some of the most vocal criticism of heterogeneous small learning groups has emergedfrom advocates of gifted education who argue that high-achieving students should havethe stimulation of working along side of other high-achieving students. In addition, somegifted education researchers have suggested that long-term placement of high-achievingstudents with low-achieving students in small group instructional settings can limit thehigh-achieving students opportunities to learn. A study of gifted students perspectives ofgroup learning found that gifted students indicate that they do not understand the materialbetter as a result of explaining it to others and resent having to explain material to otherstudents (Mathews, 1992).

    Educators from different arenas hold contrasting views of heterogeneous grouping prac-tices. Gallagher, Coleman, and Nelson (1995) surveyed middle-school educators and educa-tors of the gifted about their views on the use of heterogeneous grouping of students. Theyfound that middle-school educators were not supportive of grouping students by ability,whereas educators from the gifted education felt that gifted students benefited from being

  • 96 CARTER ET AL.

    grouped together. One educator of gifted students explained, I am concerned that movementaway from ability grouping will hurt the development of gifted students (p. 73). In contrast,a middle-school educator said, I feel strongly that middle level students should not be abil-ity grouped (p. 73). Educators of gifted students strongly agreed with the survey item thatstated, gifted students resent being the junior teacher (p. 70), whereas middle-schooleducators tended not to agree with the statement. The researchers asked the two groups toagree or disagree with the premise that (g)ifted students develop critical social and leader-ship skills in cooperative learning (p. 70). Again, middle-school educators agreed with thestatement in support of the value of cooperative learning, and the gifted educators disagreed.

    In a previous study on the effects of dyad pairing, we found the achievement of high-achieving students in a science classroom was not negatively affected by working with a low-achieving partner (Carter & Jones, 1994; Jones & Carter, 1994). Although achievement wasnot significantly different, these studies revealed that there were significant differences in theverbal and laboratory behaviors of high-achieving students dependent on the achievementlevel of their partner. High-achieving students working with low-achieving students spokemore words, took more turns speaking, and exhibited more helping behaviors than whenworking with a high-achieving partner. The differences in verbal and laboratory behaviorslend credence to the hypothesis that a high-achieving student may be able to construct a moreflexible, applied conceptual framework by mediating learning for a less capable student.However, the type of data collected in the previous study was not sufficient to elucidatedifferences in the conceptual constructions of the high-achieving students.

    Work by Bargh and Schul (1980) suggests that high-achieving students working with low-achieving partners could build richer constructions as a result of the cognitive restructuringthat takes place as a result of giving explanations. Or high-achieving students may encodeinformation by means of multiple representations as a result of the increase in the amountof time they spend processing information when working with low-achieving students (Chiet al., 1989). Alternatively, high-achieving students could regress as a result of interactingwith a partner whose thinking is at a lower level. This is particularly true if the high-achievingstudent is not confident about her own knowledge level (Tudge, 1990).

    As widespread use of heterogeneous groups increases, it is imperative that we examinehigh-achieving students achievement in a variety of contexts to ensure that grouping strate-gies maximize learning for all students. Our goal in the present study is to look carefullyat the science achievement and conceptual organization of high-achieving students in rela-tionship to the ability of their partner. Examining conceptual outcomes of student pairingsis an important first step to understanding the impact of grouping in science classes.

    The traditional instruments that are selected to measure achievement of students in smallgroups may not measure the complex changes that take place as students work together whilelearning higher order concepts. Findings from longitudinal studies (Maher, 1996) suggestthat evidence of the effects of instructional interactions may not emerge until several yearsafter instruction because some effects are not generally elucidated through traditional as-sessments. In this study, unlike other studies, we expand the assessment net to includemultidimensional scaling, concept mapping, in


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