Talking through the problems: a study of discourse in peer-led small groups†
Increasingly, studies are investigating the factors that influence student discourse in science courses, and specifically the mechanisms and discourse processes within small groups, to better understand the learning that takes place as students work together. This paper contributes to a growing body of research by analyzing how students engage in conversation and work together to solve problems in a peer-led small-group setting. This qualitative study evaluates video of Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) sessions in general chemistry, with attention to both the activity structures and the function of discourse as students undertook different types of problems across one semester. Our findings suggest that students talk their way through the problems; practicing a combination of regulative and instructional language to manage the group dynamics of their community of peer learners while developing and using specific disciplinary vocabulary. Additionally, student discourse patterns revealed a focus on the process of complex problem-solving, where students engage in joint decision-making by taking turns, questioning and explaining, and building on one another's ideas. While students in our study engaged in less of the deeper, meaning-making discourse than expected, these observations about the function of language in small-group learning deepens an understanding of how PLTL and other types of small-group learning based on the tenets of social constructivism may lead to improvements in science education, with implications for the structure of small-group learning environments, problem design, and training of peer group leaders to encourage students to engage in more of the most effective discourse in these learning contexts.
- This article is part of the themed collection: The language and the teaching and learning of chemistry