Research studies recommend many strategies that teachers can implement to improve the quality of student interactions during collaborative problem solving activities in face-to-face STEM classrooms. Little is known about the strategies that teaching assistants (TAs) implement during collaborative problem solving in undergraduate engineering classrooms and the impact of these strategies on the quality of students’ interactions. This study examines how the strategies that two graduate teaching assistants and three undergraduate course assistants (CAs) used to intervene in the groups’ work influenced the quality of students’ interactions in the groups during four collaborative problem solving undergraduate engineering discussion sections.
This study is a part of a multi-year design-based implementation project that aims to develop tools to support collaborative problem solving in undergraduate engineering courses. Participants were two TAs, three CAs, and 45 undergraduate engineering students (29 males and 16 females) in 14 small groups (3 to 4 students per group). The data for this study were collected during four 50-minutes discussion sections that were a required part of an introductory engineering course at a large Midwestern university. Each discussion section was taught by one TA and two CAs. During all discussion sections, students worked in small groups to solve the same ill-structured, authentic engineering task. The task was on 11-inch tablets, with project software installed. Each student had one tablet; tablets of students in the same group were synchronized, so that members of each group worked on and contributed to the same document.
The video recordings of the 14 groups were transcribed for analysis. The analysis focused on task-related intervention episodes. An intervention episode began when the teacher joined a group and ended when the teacher left it. There was a total of 61 task-related intervention episodes across the four discussion sections. Two emergent coding schemes were used to identify the initiating move and the follow up moves that the teacher used at the beginning and during an intervention episode. The codes and sequence of the moves in each intervention episode were examined to identify the strategy that teachers used to intervene with the groups’ work. Verbal interactions of the groups were also coded on the collaborative, cognitive and metacognitive dimensions within an interval of one minute before and one minute after the time when the intervention occurred. The coded turns were examined and compared to identify how the teachers’ intervention strategies influenced the quality of students’ interaction in the groups.
Findings show that providing elaborated answers to students’ questions or explanations of problem solving procedures had a negative impact on the quality of students’ interactions in groups. Clarifying task related issues by providing simple answers to students’ clarification questions or probing and exploring students’ understandings until they figured out their next step had a positive impact on the quality of students’ interactions in groups. Findings from this study can inform programs that aim at preparing TAs for implementing collaborative problem solving activities in undergraduate engineering classrooms.
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