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close this bookImproving Student Achievement in Mathematics (IAE - IBE - UNESCO, 2000, 48 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe International Academy of Education
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the document1. Opportunity to learn
View the document2. Focus on meaning
View the document3. Learning new concepts and skills while solving problems
View the document4. Opportunities for both invention and practice
View the document5. Openness to student solution methods and student interaction
View the document6. Small-group learning
View the document7. Whole-class discussion
View the document8. Number sense
View the document9. Concrete materials
View the document10. Students’ use of calculators
View the documentConclusions
View the documentAdditional resources
View the documentReferences
View the documentThe International Bureau of Education-IBE

6. Small-group learning

Using small groups of students to work on activities, problems and assignments can increase student mathematics achievement.

Research findings

Considerable research evidence within mathematics education indicates that using small groups of various types for different classroom tasks has positive effects on student learning. Davidson, for example, reviewed almost eighty studies in mathematics that compared student achievement in small-group settings with traditional whole-class instruction. In more than 40% of these studies, students in the classes using small-group approaches significantly outscored control students on measures of student performance. In only two of the seventy-nine studies did control-group students perform better than the small-group students, and in these studies there were some design irregularities.

From a review of ninety-nine studies of co-operative group-learning methods at the elementary and secondary school levels, Slavin concluded that co-operative methods were effective in improving student achievement. The most effective methods emphasized both group goals and individual accountability.

From a review by Webb of studies examining peer interaction and achievement in small groups (seventeen studies, grades 2-11), several consistent findings emerged. First, giving an explanation of an idea, method or solution to a team mate in a group situation was positively related to achievement. Second, receiving ‘non-responsive’ feedback (no feedback or feedback that is not pertinent to what one has said or done) from team mates was negatively related to achievement. Webb’s review also showed that group work was most effective when students were taught how to work in groups and how to give and receive help. Received help was most effective when it was in the form of elaborated explanations (not just the answer) and then applied by the student either to the current problem or to a new problem.

Qualitative investigations have shown that other important and often unmeasured outcomes beyond improved general achievement can result from small-group work. In one such investigation, Yackel, Cobb and Wood studied a second-grade classroom in which small-group problem solving followed by whole-class discussion was the primary instructional strategy for the entire school year. They found that this approach created many learning opportunities that do not typically occur in traditional classrooms, including opportunities for collaborative dialogue and resolution of conflicting points of view.

Slavin’s research showed positive effects of small-group work on cross-ethnic relations and student attitudes towards school.

In the classroom

Research findings clearly support the use of small groups as part of mathematics instruction. This approach can result in increased student learning as measured by traditional achievement measures, as well as in other important outcomes.

When using small groups for mathematics instruction, teachers should:

· choose tasks that deal with important mathematical concepts and ideas;

· select tasks that are appropriate for group work;

· consider having students initially work individually on a task and then follow this with group work where students share and build on their individual ideas and work;

· give clear instructions to the groups and set clear expectations for each;

· emphasize both group goals and individual accountability;

· choose tasks that students find interesting;

· ensure that there is closure to the group work, where key ideas and methods are brought to the surface either by the teacher or the students, or both.

Finally, as several research studies have shown, teachers should not think of small groups as something that must always be used or never be used. Rather, small-group instruction should be thought of as an instructional practice that is appropriate for certain learning objectives, and as a practice that can work well with other organizational arrangements, including whole-class instruction.


Cohen, 1994; Davidson, 1985; Laborde, 1994; Slavin, 1990, 1995; Webb, 1991; Webb, Troper & Fall, 1995; Yackel, Cobb & Wood, 1991.