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Applying Graph Theory to Examine the Dynamics of Student Discussions in Small-Group Learning.


Group work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses is an effective means of improving student outcomes, and many different factors can influence the dynamics of student discussions and, ultimately, the success of collaboration. The substance and dynamics of group discussions are commonly examined using qualitative methods such as discourse analysis. To complement existing work in the literature, we developed a quantitative methodology that uses graph theory to map the progression of talk-turns of discussions within a group. We observed groups of students working with peer facilitators to solve problems in biological sciences, with three iterations of data collection and two major refinements of graph theory calculations. Results include general behaviors based on the turns in which different individuals talk and graph theory parameters to quantify group characteristics. To demonstrate the potential utility of the methodology, we present case studies with distinct patterns: a centralized group in which the peer facilitator behaves like an authority figure, a decentralized group in which most students talk their fair share of turns, and a larger group with subgroups that have implications for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Together, these results demonstrate that our adaptation of graph theory is a viable quantitative methodology to examine group discussions.

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