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Research in Practice

Help Yourself by Helping Others

Students gain confidence in their own skills by supporting teammates.

By Senay Purzer

JEE SelectsImagine a student, Alex, who constantly disagrees with his team members and procrastinates in completing his project assignments. Imagine another student, Bryan, who patiently listens to his teammates and intervenes when discussions appear to take a disruptive turn. Is Alex’s behavior a reflection of his self-efficacy? Do interactions with teammates affect Alex’s and Bryan’s achievement in class? Do Bryan’s positive verbal interactions result in improved self-efficacy and learning? While much research has been conducted to study the relationship between cooperative and collaborative learning in higher education, few studies have explored the nature of team discourse and how these discussions support or hinder individual student learning.

In a mixed-methods discourse analysis study involving 22 engineering students, I investigated the relationship between team discourse, self-efficacy – perception of one’s own academic competence – and individual student achievement. By combining survey and discourse analysis methods, I was able to gain an in-depth understanding of team learning processes. Thousands of verbal exchanges of the students were recorded weekly in the classroom when students worked on their design projects. These exchanges were then transcribed and coded. Quantitative data on students’ pre- and post-project self-efficacy were also collected using a Likert-scale survey. Next, I interpreted my results within a framework of two robust learning theories: Bandura’s social cognitive theory and Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory. Three key findings emerged from these analyses.

There is a relationship between being supportive toward peers and one’s own self-efficacy. The results indicated a moderate and positive correlation between the post-project self-efficacy of a given student and support-oriented discourse initiated by that student. However, in contrast with the social cognitive theory, receiving verbal persuasions did not improve self-efficacy. This suggests that what affected students’ self-efficacy and academic performance was not necessarily the negative or positive comments they received, but the amount of support-oriented discourse they themselves provided to others.

Lots of explaining, little task clarification. Students engaged in six types of discourse actions during their classroom discussions: task oriented, response oriented, learning oriented, support oriented, challenge oriented, and disruptive. Among these discourse actions, they spent most of their time answering questions and explaining ideas (response oriented) and less time identifying goals and clarifying tasks (task oriented). In addition, engaging in challenge-oriented discourse or learning-oriented discourse did not reveal correlations with self-efficacy or achievement.

Self-efficacy gains were related to task-oriented discourse. Another relationship was found between self-efficacy and task-oriented discourse. Students who were primarily told what to do had only small gains in their self-efficacy.

These results indicate that a team is not just a group of individuals who share a common goal, but a social entity with complex social, affective, and cognitive interactions. Teamwork can support individual student learning when these interactions promote self-efficacy. The results also suggest three observable characteristics of teams that reinforce learning and self-efficacy. Teams that lead to better learning for the individual members: 1) determine and assign tasks collaboratively, 2) respond to, critique, and elaborate on each other’s comments, and 3) minimize off-task behavior and negative criticism.

To reinforce positive actions and achievement of all individuals, teams can be monitored closely or taught how to monitor their own interactions. Video case studies of experts and novices and how they interact in their teams can be used to stress learning through vicarious experiences. These team self-monitoring skills and video case-study reviews have been put in place as a part of the revised curriculum at several institutions following this research, and the impact will be an area for future study.


Senay Purzer is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. This article is an extract from “The Relationship Between Team Discourse, Self-efficacy, and Individual Achievement” in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.




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