Group Investigation:
An Introduction to Cooperative Research


Nancy L. Gallenstein

A major goal of social studies instruction is to create well-informed and effective citizens. I would like to describe a group investigation technique that can help provide elementary students with the tools to be such citizens.1

The group investigation model was described in 1960 by Herbert Thelen, who drew upon John Dewey’s educational philosophy concerning democratic problem solving.2 In Thelen’s model, students are provided with opportunities to experience democratic decision making and problem solving through the investigation of real problems, issues, or concerns.3 This model also provides educators with an opportunity to integrate subject areas such as science, language arts, and math with social studies.

Group investigations have recently been discussed by Martorella.4 First, either students or the instructor identifies a broad topic of concern. For example, environmental and energy concerns could be the topic. Students then brainstorm subtopics that would fall under the designated topic such as recycling, global warming, population growth, and air and water pollution. During brainstorming, all ideas are “accepted” onto the list of topics for possible research.

Next, the teacher might narrow down the list of possible topics to a manageable four or five and invite students to vote on which topic most interests them. Learning teams of three to four members are then formed on the basis of each student’s subtopic of interest. Once organized, students meet in their learning teams and determine how their subtopic could be investigated. Students are encouraged to develop a set of questions that guide their study. Approximately three to four weeks are allowed for research. Learning teams meet according to group members’ schedules with some class time allotted for periodic updates. Research can be done at the school library, on the web, and by phone. Research can also be done at public libraries and museums and in parent-supervised interviews with professionals and other adult citizens.

The students then organize information into a written report. Each learning team shares its findings with the class in a creative format such as a role-play, simulation, “TV interview,” puppetry, or other presentation. Last, class members evaluate each group’s presentation. Evaluators comment on the quality of the form and content of the presentation. For example, was the presentation well-rehearsed? Were graphics clear and well-made? Were details presented about the topic being studied? The course instructor evaluates each team’s written product and group presentation (criteria were set and shared with students in advance). Each student also completes a self- and peer-evaluation form, which provides class members with an opportunity to reflect on their individual contributions to their learning team’s project as well as areas for improvement. Students also evaluate each of their team members’ contributions to the investigation, attendance at group meetings, and presentation skills.

In my course for preservice teachers, class members must investigate and present their topic as if they were elementary students. They must investigate a subject area at a level that would be appropriate for a specific grade and also determine what learning skills elementary students would be acquiring or practicing. Students give an oral presentation. For example, in 1999, one investigation team chose the Y2K computer problem as its environmental/ energy topic of concern.5 This team interviewed personnel from local utility companies, but the questions had to be at a level of complexity that fifth grade students would understand. The following article describes how such a lesson plan—focusing on a different topic of concern—worked in a sixth grade classroom.

Group investigations provide numerous benefits to students. With regard to cognitive skills, students are confronted with an academic problem or concern that they must address in a group through inquiry. Critical thinking, decision making, and problem so ving are all essential elements required in this cooperative learning model. Additionally, by working in groups rather than as individuals, students share the knowledge they acquire and, in the process, become aware of different points of view. These varying viewpoints provide opportunities for discussion, reflection, and enhanced knowledge. With regard to social skills, students have an opportunity to respect other’s value systems and ways of learning. A sense of affiliation can develop during the group’s construction of knowledge. Collective responsibility results in a sense of accomplishment and self-worth for participants.6 Because of the benefits derived from this cooperative learning model, it appears that educators should promote and implement the group investigation technique at many grade levels.



1. Bruce Joyce, Marsha Weil, and Beverly Showers, Models of Teaching (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1992).

2. Herbert Thelen, Education and the Human Quest (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1960); John Dewey, Democracy in Education (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1916).

3. Judy W. Eby, Reflective Planning, Teaching, and Evaluation K-12 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1998).

4. Peter H. Martorella, Social Studies for Elementary School Children: Developing Young Citizens (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1998).

5. Nancy L. Gallenstein, Mary Berry, Monica Estes, Holly Poteete, and Kristine Stried, “The Group Investigation Technique and Student Concerns Over Y2K,” Education Issues 10, no. 1 (Fall 1999): 1-14.

6. Joyce, Models of Teaching.

About the Author

Nancy L. Gallenstein is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.