Research Matters - to the Science
Encouraging Student/Student Interaction
by Roger T. Johnson and David W. Johnson
How should students interact with one another in science class?
This question has been neglected by those studying teaching. While
science teachers are encouraged to plan carefully the interactions
between students and material (specific curriculum, specific content)
and there is growing concern about the teacher/student interaction,
the peer culture of the classroom remains relatively unexplored.
Perhaps because we tend to overestimate our own influence on learning
as teachers, we have grossly underestimated the power of appropriate
student/student interaction on a range of learning outcomes.
There are three basic ways that students can interact with each
other. Students can compete with each other to see who are the best
students in the class; students can work individually on their own
toward an established criterion; or students can work together,
cooperatively, taking responsibility for each other's learning as
well as their own. Many students in the United States tend to see
school as a competitive place where it is important that you do
better than the other students. Over the last fifteen years, teachers
have been encouraged to structure individualized learning in which
students work alone at their own pace.
Reports on over 600 research studies, dating back to the late 1800's
which compare learning in cooperative, competitive and
individualistic goal structures have been collected at the
Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota. From
these studies it has been concluded that having students work
together cooperatively is much more powerful than having students
work alone, competitively or individually (Johnson & Johnson,
1982; Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson & Skon, 1981). Some of
the findings include:
- More students learn more material when they work together,
cooperatively, talking through the material with each other and
making sure that all group members understand, than when students
compete with one another or work alone, individualistically.
- More students are motivated to learn the material when they
work together, cooperatively, than when students compete or work
alone, individualistically (and the motivation tends to be more
- Students have more positive attitudes when they work together
cooperatively than when they compete or work alone,
individualistically. Students are more positive about the subject
being studied, the teacher, themselves as learners in that class,
and are more accepting of each other (male or female, handicapped
or not, bright or struggling, or from different ethnic
backgrounds) when they work together cooperatively.
The positive effects of cooperative learning in science go beyond
the immediate gains in achievement, motivation, self-esteem and
acceptance of difference. Students learning in cooperative goal
structure also develop skills in communication, leadership and
conflict resolution that are basic to productive, working teams.
There is more to cooperative learning than a seating arrangement or
sharing lab equipment (Johnson & Johnson, 1985). Cooperation
requires a sense of positive interdependence and a "sink or swim
together" perception, where one person's contributions are celebrated
by all group members. A shared group goal and often a shared group
reward (bonus points for group success) is essential to encourage
cooperation. Individual accountability is also important in
cooperative learning groups. All group members need to understand the
material and be able to explain the group's answers.
It is clear that many students do not have basic skills in
interacting with other people in a work group. These collaborative
skills need to be taught (i.e., active listening, checking other
group members for understanding, etc.). Current research on
student/student interaction is focused more on internal dynamics of
cooperative groups and less on comparisons with competitive groups
and less on comparison with competitive and individualistic goal
structures. A few findings from these studies are summarized
- It appears that constructive argument is important to a
cooperative group and enhances learning. The use of controversy,
disagreement and discussion in groups is encouraged.
- There is increasing evidence that students who "talk through"
material with peers learn it in a more effective way than students
who just read or listen to material.
- A number of studies focus on the effects of positive
interdependence on learning of groups. It appears that the
stronger the "we sink or swim together" feeling in a group, the
more likely the group will be successful and that all members will
master the material.
- A number of current studies indicate that sending students to
the computer in small groups that "cannot touch the key until they
all agree" is a more powerful way to learn at the computer than
having each student working alone at his or her own computer.
- It appears that retention of information is enhanced in the
cooperative setting and that students who work in cooperative
relationships are more likely to have a conscious strategy for how
they got to the answer. It would appear that initial strategies
for problem solving are often intuitive when seeking an answer and
are invented when students try to explain to each other the
rationale for their answers.
The implications for science teachers from this research area
would be to structure much of the science class cooperatively with
the teacher only teaching enough to get the groups operating and then
monitoring and interacting with small (2 to 4 students) cooperative
groups. It may be useful to encourage all the students to verbalize
significant content in the groups and to encourage constructive
argument. Teachers should "mix" the class members in heterogeneous
groups (male/female, handicapped and nonhandicapped, different ethnic
backgrounds, etc.), so that students get beyond their initial
stereotypes and are able to treat each other as "other science
students" and fellow group members. Such grouping should improve the
attitudes toward science of student populations not presently
positive about science.
We need to acknowledge the academic influence students have with each
other, and enlist the help of students to set norms in schools so
students will encourage each other to learn in science. In this way,
the classroom will become a place where students care about each
other's learning and are successful.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1983) The socialization and
achievement crisis: Are cooperative learning experiences the
solution? In L. Bickman (Ed.) Applied Social Psychology Annual,
4. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R.T. (1987). Learning together and
alone: Cooperative, competitive and individualistic learning.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Johnson, D .W., Johnson, R. T., Holubee, E., & Roy, P. (1984).
Circles of learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Johnson, D. W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R. T., Nelson, D., & Skon,
L. (1981) Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic
goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological
Bulletin, 89, 47-62.
Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1982) What research says
about student-student interaction in science classrooms. In M.
Rowe (Ed.). Education in the 80's Science. Washington, DC: National
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching