Given a choice between working independently during classes or working in a small group, Von Steuben high school senior Maria Proano would choose the group work.

“If you get something wrong, someone else in the group can help you,” Proano says, “and you can get different opinions on a problem.”

Given the same choice, Von Steuben sophomore Anna Tran would work alone. In groups, she explains, sometimes one person ends up doing everything while others copy the answers. “I’d just rather do it by myself,” Tran says.

Proano is Hispanic. Tran is Asian. And that might be the basis for their preferences. A study of student engagement in high school math and science classes found significant variations in engagement levels among racial and ethnic groups, depending on whether students were listening to a lecture, working independently at their seats or working collaboratively in groups.

Part of an evaluation of the National Science Foundation’s Urban Systemic Initiative, the study defined engaged students as those who “pay close attention to ongoing classroom activities, are interested in the content of classroom lessons, and may feel that time flows quickly.”

Hispanic students were found to have the lowest overall level of engagement, while black students had the highest. Whites and Asians were only slightly less engaged than blacks.

But Hispanic students became just as engaged as black and white students when the activity was group work. Listening to a lecture or doing individual work caused Hispanic students’ engagement to drop.

In contrast, Asian students were most engaged when working alone and least engaged by group activity. Black students had similar engagement levels across all three types of work.

The study included two high schools in each of four cities: Chicago; El Paso, Tex.; Memphis; and Miami. Researchers observed the classes of one math and one science teacher at each school for one week. Ten students from each class were given vibrating beepers and, when beeped, were asked to complete brief surveys about what they were doing and how they were feeling about the class.

Students in Chicago had the lowest overall engagement scores of the four cities, while El Paso students had the highest. However, with only two schools included from each city, co-author Kazuaki Uekawa of the University of Chicago says the sample is much too small to draw any city-to-city comparisons.

And since the sample size of students was relatively small (only 21 Asian students were in the study), Uekawa says it’s also too early to draw conclusions based on race or ethnicity.

“It’s too big of a sweeping statement to say that ‘Hispanics like this’ or ‘Asians like that,’ but it’s a starting point for looking at this,” says Uekawa.

Group work is on the rise

In the study, students listened to lectures 41 percent of the time and worked alone 34 percent of the time, compared to working in groups for only 13 percent of class time. Those figures are consistent with previous research that shows lecture and seatwork are the predominant classroom activities, says Uekawa. Group work is on the rise, though, particularly in math, says Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“There’s a growing body of knowledge that says kids do learn some math better in groups.

Sometimes we expect kids to learn things totally on their own, when simply talking to their peers about it helps in the learning process,” Lott says.

Lott adds that studies done in Montana, where he lives, have shown Native American students, like Hispanics, prefer collaborative learning. “They perform better in school when they’re able to talk with each other,” Lott says.

Students interviewed at Von Steuben report working in groups at least once a week, depending on the teacher.

Martin Gartzman, chief officer in the CPS Office of Mathematics and Science, says assigning group work is up to the individual teacher and adds that there is no way to accurately measure whether group work is on the rise in CPS.

Not surprisingly, group work was rated highest by those students who also said they had more fun and felt less sleepy when working with others.

More surprising, says Uekawa, is the finding that group work discouraged chatting (talking about non-school matters). Students were found to be more likely to chat with friends during lectures and seatwork.

Kenneth Addison, an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University who teaches a course in cultural diversity and schools, says it’s not surprising that the study found ethnic and cultural differences in learning preferences.

Addison explains that Hispanic cultures value the common good over individual achievement, which explains why Hispanic students might prefer working together. He also theorizes that the overall lower engagement of Hispanic students in the study might be a result of their more interdependent culture.

“Relationship is paramount [for Hispanics],” says Addison. “They look to the teacher and want to establish a relationship. People count first.” If the teacher doesn’t engage them on a personal level then the student might not become engaged in the class.

In East Asian cultures, Addison adds, the learning process “requires an individual focus on perfection because that’s what is required to bring honor to your family.”

For teachers who have a diverse student population, Addison recommends using several instructional models, perhaps spending one-third of class time each on teacher-centered instruction, well-structured group activities and individual work.

“If you rotate through the three, you’ll touch every learning style,” he says. “You also can create group activities that have imbedded individual responsibilities, and that’s something I’ve found my East Asian students can enjoy because they can work at home and get their portion done as perfectly as they can, but also contribute to the overall group.”

Not enough difficult material

The study also examined students’ perceptions of the curriculum, and found students believed they were exposed to new content only 37 percent of the time. Group work again fared the best, with students believing they were exposed to new content 54 percent of the time while in groups, 10 percent more than when they were listening to a lecture.

Students also reported covering what they deemed to be difficult content only 10 percent of the time, echoing previous research. Students gauged their work to be “very easy” or “easy” 30 percent of the time.

Uekawa says this finding points to a perception gap between students and teachers, and recommends teachers ask students directly if the work is too easy or too hard, “to see what students are thinking.”

Lott says he wouldn’t generalize about math classes being redundant. “It may depend on the sample of students they used or the types of materials being used,” he says.

The study also found engagement did not depend on the teacher. “We tend to think of boring teachers or bad teachers,” Uekawa says, “but based on our sample, the difference between teachers was not that great.” Instead, the bigger gaps were found among individual students in the same class, or when the same student was engaged in different activities.

Time also proved to be a factor. Students reported slightly lower engagement levels on Mondays and Fridays, and during classes that lasted more than 45 minutes. Uekawa says the 90-minute block scheduling of classes in El Paso, “really restricts opportunities to learn because [teachers] seem to do less teaching.” Teachers would teach for about 30 minutes, students would work on seatwork for another 30 minutes and then they’d socialize until the class was over.

In Chicago, students with low math scores are assigned to double periods of algebra this year. Gartzman says in some schools those classes are back-to-back, while other schools separate the periods. “We’re looking carefully at the effectiveness of the various configurations,” he says. Grades on first-semester tests will be the first indication of how the configurations are working.

Says Gartzman, “Some people say [double periods are too long] and others say having back-to-back classes allows the kind of problem solving you’re not able to do in 45 minutes.”

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