Information Age Education
   Issue Number 187
June, 2016   

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Group Productivity Enhances Joyful Learning

Brian M. Pack
Science Educator and Researcher

A Modest Beginning

Those Monday after school faculty meetings were a real drag, and so you can imagine how we felt when our principal announced, "Kathy from our middle school is going to discuss the merits of cooperative learning" at 5 pm. Notwithstanding, she was enthusiastic and eloquent as she expounded on the benefits and some of the strategic elements during her fifteen-minute presentation.

A walk down the hallway in the following months revealed clusters of students working cooperatively on assignments in a few classrooms. I decided to try this approach to teaching and learning, and so had my chemistry students put their desks together to complete fifteen-minute tasks from time to time. They worked in an industrious manner, perhaps finding the group work to be novel. I wasn't sure about cognitive gains but saw it as a nice change of pace from my being the center of attention the entire period.

As with many educational innovations, the number of teachers using cooperative learning in our school diminished. I began to see value in it, however, in the months and years ahead, usually with short worksheet assignments after a presentation. As a chemistry teacher, collaboration was normal because students were paired in the laboratory and thus were accustomed to the cooperative mode about twice per week while manipulating apparatus, collecting data, as well as retrieving reagents or weighing samples.

After a student remarked sarcastically that it would be nice to do graded quizzes in a collaborative manner, I followed suit and arranged for such a process in groups of three. In time, all quizzes were done in this manner. Either distributed around the lab stations or in desk clusters around the room, students were noticeably engaged and never balked when quizzes were given. Furthermore, as you would expect, the grades were considerably higher than were grades from individual attempts.

I became particularly sensitive to the cognitive gains in this area and established a collaborative 'how to' agenda that explained the value of teamwork and how everyone benefits from the process. Only in rare instances would a student complain that classmates were not collaborating. I would typically see three-person modules with heads hunched over, in close proximity, sharing wisdom to derive answers.

I found this method very beneficial and that it could be done up to three times per week. It provided a comprehensive and considerably faster review of homework compared to doodling at the board. More importantly, cooperative quizzes amplified engagement considerably and the long-term effect manifested in a better understanding of the curriculum. Scores on unit tests and final exams increased. Further, the stronger students received praise for their leadership and everyone derived a feeling of inclusiveness. As an educator I was particularly pleased because significant engagement occurred and with it a universal sense of ownership of my content area.

Recent Research Has Revealed Why I Had Success in this Area

Why did my students flourish in this setting? Brain scans have elucidated the profound effects of socialization on different regions, particularly memory. Here are a few recent studies.

1. Brains Synchronize

Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson, Professors of Psychology at Princeton University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the spatiotemporal brain of people as they read a story into a tape recorder. The researchers then scanned people that listened to the recorded story. What they found was that the listeners' brain pattern mirrored the speaker's. In some cases it coincided perfectly, as if the listener was anticipating the words. The experimenters found that those research subjects who demonstrated higher comprehension of the narrative had remarkably similar scans, or what they referred to as high neural coupling. Stephens and Hasson concluded that coupling crossed many brain areas "aligning with phonetic, phonological, lexical, syntactic, and semantic representations as well as processing social information crucial for successful communication, including, among others, the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals of others".1

2. Face-to-face Proximity Amplifies

A team from Beijing Normal University investigated the neural consequences of face-to-face communication by comparing brain scans with Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). Four male–male pairs and six female–female pairs were each scanned during four task sessions sitting: (1) face-to-face with dialog, (2) face-to-face with only one speaker, (3) back-to-back with dialog, and (4) back-to-back with only one speaker. They found a significant neural synchronization increase in the left inferior frontal cortex, or language and sound processing center, only in the face-to-face dialog scenario.2

3. Eye Contact Sets Off Neuronal Activity

The midbrain's amygdala receives a vast array of sensory signals from the environment and makes determinations that have emotional contexts based on potential threat. By targeting 318 individual neurons in the amygdala of three Rhesus macaques, Katalin Gothard, a neurophysiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, noted that twelve percent selectively changed their firing rate when the subject fixated on the eyes of monkeys in movies. They contend that most amygdala neurons are category-selective in that they respond differently to monkey faces, human faces, and objects. The human context is that we process another's gaze as the first line of information by eye-sensitive amygdala neurons about external cues such as objects, events, and individuals, along with internal cues like emotions, beliefs, desires, and intentions. From the classroom perspective, students build trust and friendship with teammates with a repetition of this instructional technique.3

4. Rapid Communication Promotes Productivity and Camaraderie

Dr. Alex Pentland, computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a small device (about the size of a cell phone) called a sociometer, strapped over a person's shoulder, that captured an assortment of data from infrared, sound, and movement detectors. The combination of signals from the sociometer were received by a computer and quantified to derive what Pentland calls honest social signaling. From a compilation of a group's workday data using mathematical algorithms, an assessment of the company's network intelligence was compiled. They amassed data from hundreds of participants from many venues and found that groups are at peak productivity when they:

Accrue a large number of ideas: many short contributions rather than a few long ones;

Their interactions include responsive comments (such as "good," "that's right," "what?" etc.) to validate or invalidate the ideas and build consensus; and

Accumulate a diversity of ideas and reactions. 4,5

Improving the Model

Sensing that collaborative work was having a significant effect on the achievement level of my students across the board, I built a pedagogy that apportioned time for group work. At the start of the school year I stressed the value of collaborative learning and established guidelines that emphasized camaraderie and task efficiency. Furthermore I developed a script of comments that students could use to guide their work 'statements' and asked them to develop their own script that encouraged member participation. I also monitored their progress and made recommendations. In time, the groups became autonomous and productive. Students simply liked being in the collaborative setting to complete a wide array of tasks.

Take It to Another Level

  • Eventually, students worked collaboratively not just on quizzes but also on test review guides coupled with student-led chalkboard explanations.

  • The most daring application was eliminating the one month teacher-led review before the Advanced Placement Exam and replacing it with an almost exclusively team collaboration using well-crafted review guides and even laboratory experiences. Scores on that national test went up across the board.

  • Laboratories were done in pairs but teams could check with other classmates on data collection and interpretation. I incorporated more elaborate experiments to accommodate this full-range collaborative lab work.

  • Students made group presentations to the entire class on a wide array of tasks and topics.

  • In some courses, students took their final exam in a team format.

  • Many students from the poorest demographic in the Milwaukee area came to my weekly after-school mentoring program, and improved their academic performance in their school through tutoring and social interactions with my students.
I saw young people who were relaxed, smiling, encouraging one another to understand the material fully, and employing a full range of prosody and gestures not observed in row settings. In general, they were completing tasks and having fun with their peers expressing ideas without fear, able to ask questions that they might not offer in the teacher directed situation. It was participation to the highest degree.

Did I Abandon Lecturing?

No. It continued to be the starting point for many lessons, but expedited within a time window that allowed students to attend to other tasks individually or in groups for the rest of the period. Anticipating a collaborative element, students were very focused during the teacher presentation to assimilate core knowledge for the subsequent tasks. Moreover, students developed a greater respect for me because they recognized that I trusted them to manage their learning and goals. Whole period lecturing was no longer a common occurrence.

The American education system is often criticized these days, and blame is distributed to many parties. In my judgment, using strict autocratic means to control behavior by maintaining equidistant rows minimizes content area mastery and favors the auditory-able students. I found that this pedagogy was labor intensive and did not take into account the full range of learning styles of my students as well as any discipline concerns brought on by monotony. Building a strong collaborative system changed all that, and bolstered the comprehension, enjoyment, and achievement levels of everyone in the class.

My colleagues were good content area facilitators but many petered out of the collaborative realm because they were accustomed to the chalk-and-talk methods experienced in their formative years. I hung on in the early going because collaborative learning seemed to be a good way to break up the tedium for both the students and myself. However, it was extended so that they could experience nearly full control of the learning atmosphere and pace of the lesson. They were rewarded with the enjoyment that goes with brain enhancement accompanied by socialization and eye contact. They liked coming to chemistry class. It was a risk worth taking and I hope my colleagues will do likewise. Research supports it.


  1. Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L.J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved 5/11/2016 from

  2. Jiang, J., Dai, B., Peng, D., Zhu, C., Liu, L., & Lu, C. (November, 2012). Neural synchronization during face-to-face communication. The Journal of Neuroscience.

  3. Mosher, C., Zimmerman, P., & Gothard, K. (2014). Neurons in the monkey amygdala detect eye contact during naturalistic social interactions. Current Biology.

  4. Pentland, A. (2008). Honest signals: How they shape our world. Boston: Bradford.

  5. Pentland, A. (2014). Social physics: How good ideas spread—The lessons from a new science. USA: Penguin.


Brian Pack taught secondary school science in Wisconsin, including physics and AP Chemistry, and received the United States Presidential Scholar Teacher Award and the Siemens Advanced Placement Teacher of the Year Award. He served as head grade level advisor, and coached both football and cross country. He was a community advocate, and coached the six-time state champion Academic Decathlon team. He did numerous stints at research institutes in molecular biology and biochemistry.


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