A Study of Social Interaction and Teamwork in Reformed Physics Laboratories

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It is widely accepted that, for many students, learning can be accomplished most effectively through social interaction with peers, and there have been many successes in using the group environment to improve learning in a variety of classroom settings. What is not well understood, however, are the dynamics of student groups, specifically how the students collectively apprehend the subject matter and share the mental workload.

This research examines recent developments of theoretical tools for describing the cognitive states of individual students: associational patterns such as epistemic games and cultural structures such as epistemological framing. Observing small group interaction in authentic classroom situations (labs, tutorials, problem solving) suggests that these tools could be effective in describing these interactions.

Though conventional wisdom tells us that groups may succeed where individuals fail, there are many reasons why group work may also run into difficulties, such as a lack or imbalance of knowledge, an inappropriate mix of learning styles, or a destructive power arrangement. This research explores whether or not inconsistent epistemological framing among group members can also be a cause of group failure. Case studies of group interaction in the laboratory reveal evidence of successful groups employing common framing, and unsuccessful groups failing from lack of a shared frame.

This study was conducted in a large introductory algebra-based physics course at the University of Maryland, College Park, in a laboratory designed specifically to foster increased student interaction and cooperation. Videotape studies of this environment reveal that productive lab groups coordinate their efforts through a number of locally coherent knowledge-building activities, which are described through the framework of epistemic games. The existence of these epistemic games makes it possible for many students to participate in cognitive activities without a complete shared understanding of the specific activity's goal. Also examined is the role that social interaction plays in initiating, negotiating, and carrying out these epistemic games. This behavior is illustrated through the model of distributed cognition.

An attempt is made to analyze this group activity using Tuckman's stage model, which is a prominent description of group development within educational psychology. However, the shortcomings of this model in dealing with specific cognitive tasks lead us to seek another explanation. The model used in this research seeks to expand existing cognitive tools into the realm of social interaction. In doing so, we can see that successful groups approach tasks in the lab by negotiating a shared frame of understanding. Using the findings from these case studies, recommendations are made concerning the teaching of introductory physics laboratory courses.