Exploring Group Learning in Higher Education Using Discourse Analsysis

  • Derek Davies

Student thesis: Doctor of Education


Name of the University: The University of ManchesterCandidate Name: Derek DaviesDegree Title: Doctor in Education (EdD)Thesis Title: Exploring Group Learning In Higher Education Using Discourse AnalysisDate: 02.12.2010AbstractFor some considerable time, group activity has been an accepted feature of teaching and learning practice in Higher Education (HE) (Tennant, 1997). This exploratory study has the broad aim of investigating group learning on a Communication Skills course unit of a Foundation Year programme at the University of Manchester. Alongside the aim of identifying evidence for learning in groups, the study is also concerned with developing new understandings related to research methodology in the area of group learning. The study first sets the unit under investigation in the context of relevant current national and institutional policies that have played an important role in shaping the development of university teaching over the last 20 years, particularly with regard to supporting economic development through the provision of an appropriately skilled workforce. The aims of such policies are considered as well as empirical research carried out into cooperative learning in education generally, and group work activity in HE institutions in particular. There are two main elements to the empirical inquiry: (i) discourse analysis of verbatim transcriptions of student group talk, and (ii) content analysis of student group interviews and tutor discussions. Particular emphasis is given to the discourse analysis element as a means of critiquing the effectiveness of group work in facilitating learning. To this end, two specific approaches to discourse analysis are utilised: 'Idea Framing' (Tan, 2000/ 2003) and sociocultural discourse analysis (Mercer, 2005). These approaches to uncovering evidence of learning in group talk are critiqued and the findings reported. These finding are then considered alongside the data that emerged from the staff and student discussions.The investigation revealed methodological insights in researching group work in the HE classroom as well as new understandings about what 'learning' means in this context. Firstly, in terms of methodology, the inquiry suggests that the combination of the two approaches to discourse analysis adopted provide an effective means of identifying instances of learning as well as insights into the group environment that influence such occurrences. Secondly, with regard to group learning in the HE context, the data highlight (i) the importance of social aspects of group activity for students, and (ii) the link between evidence for learning and the nature of the task they were asked to perform. However, in terms of acquiring 'transferrable' or 'employability' skills, the data reinforce many of the reservations voiced in the literature about the potential for developing such skills. The implications of these findings for task design are highlighted and suggestions provided in terms of how the course unit may be adapted. In addition, the wider applicability of the findings are considered in terms of improving understanding of aspects of group processes as they occur in the context of undergraduate HE. The study concludes with reflections on the impact of doctoral study on my professional development and practice, and suggestions for further research.
Date of Award31 Dec 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJulian Williams (Supervisor)


  • Group Learning
  • Discourse Analysis

Cite this