An Evolving Research Question
At the beginning of this school year, I came up with the following research question to guide my use of technology in the math classroom: How does incorporating more small-group, technology-based assignments and projects into the curriculum impact the development of students’ collaboration skills?
While collaboration skills are incredibly important and something that I do certainly strive to help my students further develop, I also realized over the course of the year that my main goal has really been to help my students develop a deeper understanding and a greater mastery of grade-level math concepts by having them take responsibility for teaching others. Thus, during the process of this project, my research question changed a bit to become: What is the impact on math understanding (as measured by assessment performance) of having students use technology to create audio/visual tutorials in which they become the teachers of grade-level math skills and concepts?
My Initial Hunch
In a class that currently consists of just four students, there were only so many options when assigning partners for group work. It also seemed to me that, when creating tutorials in pairs, the more confident students consistently took the lead. The less confident students seemed to regularly assume a more passive role in the whole process. Thus, after the first term, I sort of scrapped the focus on collaboration and had students work individually on creating subsequent tutorials, thinking that this would require those less confident students to really step up. Over time, though, I noticed that my small class of four students was separating into two distinct groups, with one half seeming to grasp the grade-level skills and concepts much more quickly and with much less repetition and practice than the other half.
When I sat down to analyze the data I had gathered on tutorial and assessment scores for various math unit topics, I predicted I’d find that all students generally performed well on their tutorials but that this might not translate into equivalent assessment scores. My reason for thinking this was that, in order to support those struggling students to more clearly articulate their explanations of concepts, I had provided scaffolding (in the form of sentence starters) for them to use when formulating their tutorial scripts. Tutorials were, in fact, turning out better for the most part. However, I wondered if this form of “filling in the blanks” had perhaps taken too much of the teaching onus off of the students. While they could fill in those blanks with some support, they still could not always apply the skills and concepts consistently on their own.
A Surprising Trend
Focusing on the numerical data I was able to gather, I actually noticed something I hadn’t quite expected. The less confident students generally performed better on those assessments given earlier in the year when the focus of my research had still been on group work. When they had been paired up with more confident students, their assessment grades were mostly above 75% (100% and 70% on a September assessment on the topic of performing operations with integers and 90% and 77% on an October assessment on the topic of exponents). When paired up with each other, though, the less confident students received scores of 60% and 30% on a November assessment on the topic of scientific notation. At this point, I began having students complete tutorials more independently. The two students who tended to grasp concepts more quickly continued to mostly achieve assessment scores above 75%. However, the two students who needed greater support consistently achieved scores below 75% (72% and 74% on a November assessment on transformations, 71% and 63% on a February assessment on solving algebraic equations, and 63% and 53% on an April assessment on determining the slope of a line).
So, what does this mean? Perhaps I was onto something with my original research question after all. Whether or not the group work students engaged in at the beginning of the year had a major impact on the development of collaboration skills, it did seem to have a benefit on the understanding of skills and concepts. While I hadn’t anticipated it, the students in need of greater support performed better on assessments when they had prepared tutorials with a more confident partner, something I’ll definitely keep in mind moving forward!