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Want pupils to talk? Give them better test scores

Californian professor says awarding children flattering results gives them confidence to take leading role in class discussions

Giving pupils falsely high test scores can improve the way they perform during group-work sessions, research has found.

Noreen Webb, of the University of California at Los Angeles, said that pupils with high academic results are more likely to be active participants in group discussions than their low-achieving classmates. Popular pupils are also particularly likely to speak out.

But she found that giving pupils false test scores, which prove non- existent academic ability, influences their perceived status in class. They therefore feel more confident about taking an active part in group discussions. "Even artificially created status differences . can alter group members' participation and influence," she said.

Professor Webb has conducted an extensive review of research into teachers promoting group work in class. Her findings appear in this month's edition of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

She reveals that the more teachers talk about the skills needed for group work, emphasising that no one person possesses all the necessary skills, the more likely less academic and less popular pupils are to participate in discussions.

Teachers should deliberately choose complex or open-ended problems for group discussion. This minimises the chances that a particularly competent pupil will complete the task single-handedly.

For example, teachers could divide each group into two teams and ask them to master opposing sides of a controversial debate. The teams then switch roles and repeat the exercise.

"Groups required to discuss opposing ideas often carried out more high- level discussion of the material and less description of the facts and information," she said. "They also showed higher achievement."

And teachers are able to influence the depth and quality of pupils' discussions through the interventions they make. Researchers advise them to listen to the discussions to determine each group's difficulties, before intervening.

In fact, some believe that teachers should only intervene in three situations: when no pupil can answer a question, when pupils are struggling to communicate with each other, and when one pupil is dominating the discussion.

The more explicit assistance teachers give, the less likely it is that pupils will return to productive group discussion afterwards.

By contrast, when teachers ask groups in their classes to explain the reasoning behind their conclusions, pupils are required to consider their answers thoroughly rather than resorting to superficialities.

"How teachers engage with students . communicates expectations about desired student behaviour," she said. "Whether teachers ask questions about student thinking also sends signals about the desirability of challenging others to explain and justify their thinking, versus passively accepting others' transmitted knowledge."

DISCUSSION POINTS

- High-achieving pupils participate more in group-work sessions than their lower-achieving classmates.

- Attractive and popular pupils are more likely to take an active role.

- Creating false status for pupils - for example, by inventing fictitiously high test scores - can influence how much they talk.

- Complex and open-ended debates allow groups greater scope for discussion.

- Teachers should emphasise that no single pupil has all the skills to complete a given task.

- Teacher intervention should be kept to a minimum.

- Groups should explain why they reached their conclusions.

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