Researchers from Strathclyde and Dundee universities, working under the umbrella of a UK-wide research programme funded by the Economic and Social and Research Council, measured significant gains in attainment when children worked in groups, usually of three to four, in composite and straight age classes and in rural and urban schools.
Twenty-four schools and some 600 upper primary pupils were involved in the year-long project which deliberately targeted schools with different characteristics.
The teachers involved had three days of in-service training: one at the very beginning to focus on how to develop group working skills; the second to train them in the implementation of the science activities; and the third for feedback and reflection.
The first 12 weeks were spent by the teachers on communication skills, interaction and building trust before they embarked on the actual science topics.
Angela Mackay, who taught a straight-age P6 class in rural Coalburn primary near Lanark last year, is now adapting the strategy for a composite P5-P6 class which includes children working from level A right through to level D. Mrs Mackay was initially sceptical but has become convinced of the effectiveness of group work.
She found that the children were very noisy at first and did not stick well to time constraints. However, group rules and strategies, such as taking turns in speaking, were effective in reducing noise and increasing turn-taking skills.
Mrs Mackay said: "I use the 'three Cs' - consideration, communication and compromise - as part of the strategy. Any time the children start an argument in a group, someone in the group says 'three Cs' and they have to work the problem out.
"They have a whiteboard and they have to write down the points of the argument and have to take them one at a time. They have also got a mascot and a pupil has to be holding it in order to speak. We work on positive communication and positive language, the appropriate voice and voice level.
"The children are not allowed to say, for instance, 'That's crap', but should say, 'I understand your opinion but it might be better if we did this'."
Mrs Mackay has seen children's social relationships improve, with some of the brighter children learning not automatically to act as group leader but to listen to other opinions. She has also found that pupils in general understand the science concepts well and have picked up scientific vocabulary well through repeated use in groups.
"Their science attainment has not gone up by a great extent but the whole class atmosphere has changed," she said. "Before it could be very difficult keeping the class under control in a science lesson, but we are now able to do more.
"I like children sitting in rows. I am not too keen on having them in groups and I like the noise levels kept down. But this group work project has totally changed that - not just in science. I am using it in maths problem-solving and in some aspects of language grammar.
"The first two or three months were a living hell - I hated it and I thought it would not work. But I had to persevere and found a way of making it work.
"I would not change it now. I am more able to control who I help and how I help them rather than having to go to the children of lower ability all the time. The other children explain it to them and I am able to get round everyone."
Donald Christie, vice dean (research) at Strathclyde University, said:
"Where the teacher felt able to step back, because groups were already doing well and did not need assistance, that worked best. But the pattern was clear: where it was observed that the teachers were 'the guide on the side', we found the greatest success."
The researchers make clear that group work should not replace other strategies, but that it should be used appropriately for appropriate activities and that it has been under-used in recent years.
Dr Christie is hoping that the Scottish Executive and the ESRC will jointly fund a follow-up study to look at the transition into secondary and whether group work can be followed into the next stage.