The Value Of Small Group Interaction In Teaching Education Essay

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Collaborative learning, synergy learning, small-group learning, and cooperative learning seem to be the new buzzwords used by academics. This is due to the escalating interest over the past few years, with regard to the different approaches to teaching and learning. Particularly the transition from individualistic to collaborative learning styles has been under immense scrutiny as university faculty members and administrators are rediscovering the concept of 'two heads being better than one'. The interest is been mainly incited at a postgraduate level, where the key aims are to develop the ability of students to think critically, enhance interdependence and arrive at a socially constructed understanding of the material provided. In addition, changes in organizational infrastructure have resulted in an increased emphasis on team work within the workforce. Consequently, the learning style implemented at postgraduate level is vital as it is the stepping stone into the world of work.

This review aims to assess the value of small group interaction in the teaching and learning process. Specifically, this review will evaluate how this method impacts teaching and learning at a postgraduate level. More specifically, in this review small group interaction includes collaborative learning, cooperative learning, as well as peer learning. The history of this method of learning will be looked at first to give a clearer picture of how it has evolved since its inception. Key terms will then be defined, as they are applicable in this review, to ensure understanding of the most important concepts occurs from the start. This will be followed by the theories that have developed, the advantages, and then the limitations on the topic, so that a clear argument can be developed. Therefore, it will be determined whether collaborative methods result in the enhanced value of teaching and learning at postgraduate level. This investigation is greatly needed at a higher education level- as it is a place where the competition is rife, time pressures are high and there is a great deal of external pressure to train the leaders of tomorrow.

2. History of collaborative learning

Although the history of collaborative learning is very sketchy, it is not a relatively new method of learning. It appears likely that people have been learning informally in groups for thousands of years (McInnerney & Roberts, 2004). Kimber (1994) states that collaborative learning was first instituted in Greek and Roman schools and coincides with the philosophy of Socratic learning - when students' questioning and discourse were emphasized. Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec (1993) stated the Roman philosopher, Seneca showed support for cooperative learning through statements such as: Qui Docet Discet (when you teach, you learn twice).

Kimber (1996) and Johnson et al (1993) state that cooperative learning came into prominence in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Europe and England. During this period Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell made extensive use of `monitorial' systems which were devised to enable large numbers of students gain elementary education at post-industrial revolution schools which were lacking in trained teachers. Student 'monitors' were used to teach other disadvantaged or younger pupils. Similarly, in the early nineteenth century cooperative learning gained popularity among educators across a spectrum of didactic fields. In the late 1930's, however, interpersonal competition began to be emphasized in schools and in the late 1960s, individualistic learning began to be used extensively. In the 1980s, schools once again began to use cooperative learning. The work of Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1991) transferred the value of active learning to the university level and argued that large classrooms could also be transformed to become student-centered learning environments. In 1989, a workshop was held in Maratea, Italy. This workshop is considered by many to have marked the birth of the field of computer-supported collaborative learning (Bereiter, 2002; Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006; Lipponen, 2002). Additionally in 1996, Koschmann (1996) suggested computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) as an emerging model of educational technology and CSCL has been advancing ever since.

3. Definition of terms

Collaborative learning has been established in a variety of ways over time in a spectrum of academic fields. In the broadest sense, collaborative learning is defined by Dillenbourg (1999, p.1) as "a situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together." The 'two or more people' referred to in the definition above, is applicable in peer learning as "someone of the same social standing" (Falchikov, 2001, p.1), which in an educational context implies someone "within the same class or cohort" (Falchikov, p.3). For example, students currently completing their Masters Degree in Human Resource Management who network and gain knowledge from interaction with each other are engaging in peer learning. Common to the various definitions of collaborative learning is that emphasis is placed on the idea of joint construction of knowledge and mutual engagement of participants (Lipponen, 2002).

In this review the terms collaborative learning and cooperative learning are used interchangeably. However, a distinction between the two must be noted. The former involves the joint engagement of students, at various performance levels, in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together (Panitz, 1996). The latter is accomplished by means of the division of labor, students work together in small groups to accomplish a common goal, whereby each person is responsible for a fraction of the problem solving (Roschelle & Teasly, in press; Cooper, McKinney, and Robinson (1991); Gokhale 1995). In addition, Dillenbourg, Baker, Blaye and O'Malley (1996) indicate that essentially the two differ by virtue of the way the task is divided: in cooperative learning, the task is split hierarchically into autonomous subtasks; in collaborative learning, the cognitive progression may be heterarchially divided into intertwined layers. When using the terms collaborative or cooperative learning interchangeably, the definition applicable, as stated by (Yazici, 2005, p.217) is: "the instructional use of small groups or teams where peer interaction plays a key role in learning".

Additionally, Dillenbourgh (1999) contends that collaborative learning can be understood as a pedagogical method or a psychological process. Collaborative learning in a pedagogical sense is prescriptive: one asks two or more people to collaborate because it is expected they will in this manner learn efficiently. In the psychological sense it is descriptive: one observes that two or more people have gained knowledge and collaboration is viewed as the mechanism which caused the learning. In this review, collaborative learning will be applied in the pedagogical sense with regard to postgraduate level learning.

4. Learning at postgraduate level

There are considerable differences in the aims and methods of teaching and learning at undergraduate and postgraduate level of education (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Barnacle, 2005; Donnelly, 2008; Butler ,1993). The fundamental aim at postgraduate level is to progress the ability of students to think critically (Jones, Michael, Gear, & Read, 2006). The process referred to as 'post-conventional thinking' by Ashley (1973 as cited in Jones et al 2006) is vital in accomplishing this aim. He defines it as a process "during which the student is able to move from a position of uncritical acceptance of the orthodox to one of creative dissent, a process that stretches the intellect and encourages the emergence of new or revised ways of thinking" (Ashley, as cited in Jones et al, p.379). Collaborative learning fosters this process as it stretches the intellect and encourages the emergence of innovative or revised ways of thinking (Ladyshewsky, 2006 ; Jones et al, 2006).

Similarly, Machemer and Crawford (2007) argue that the traditional lecture method of teaching has two significant weaknesses at postgraduate level. Firstly, it promotes student passivity which does not enhance or sustain the students' learning. Secondly, the radical changes and intricacy of the information makes it difficult to draw-up lectures that cover the necessary depth, breadth and advanced knowledge required. Conversely, a study conducted in postgraduate medical education resulted in both collaborative learning and the traditional lecture method being equally effective in improving the knowledge levels of students (Smits, De Buisonjé, Verbeek, Van Dijk, Metz, and Cate , 2003). Thus, when considering implementation of collaborative learning methods, the context which it is to be applied as well as the concept of engagement should be taken into account.

The concept of engagement is key to successful learning at postgraduate level (Jungst, Licklider, and Wiersma , 2003). Accordingly as cited by Jungst et al. it is in the active learning environment that a deeper level of understanding and true learning occurs, learning that can be transferred to the world outside of the classroom. In addition, at postgraduate level, students transform as social agents and form identities as learners, professionals and, more widely, as members of society (Havness, 2008). However, previously O'Donell, Tobell, and Zammit (2007) argued that the nature of transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study is less challenging and there is little to overcome because, in essence, the environment remains the same. After further study, O'Donell et al (2009) concluded that there should be greater independent study by students at postgraduate level and further interactive workshop-style teaching, leading to knowledge and understanding which is socially constructed rather than passively received.

(Source: Stahl, 2000, p.71)

In addition to knowledge being socially constructed, Stahl (2000) states that knowledge should be personally constructed as well. Stahl further explains that the diagram aims to link the individual and the social aspects in the knowledge-building process. This process begins with the cycle of personal understanding. The remaining parts of the diagram illustrate how the individual's personal beliefs and culture are influenced by other people's values, beliefs and viewpoints (social process). A shared culture is then formed, which impacts on the personal understanding, as it takes shape through influencing the ways of thinking, diversity influences, as well as motivational concerns. The process is initiated again when the new culture adopted by the individual influences others as he / she interacts with different groups of people. However, to ensure that a knowledge-building process does in fact occur, the pros and cons of collaborative learning should be weighed up.

5. Advantages of collaborative learning

For the successful transition to take place, a great deal of research regarding the outcome of collaborative learning in contrast to traditional instructional practices has been conducted (Kimber , 1994). Instructor-centered methods of teaching cannot adequately affect the complex outcomes (problem solving skills; higher order thinking skills; the ability to have a diverse perspectives view; ethical reasoning; and life-long learning) that a postgraduate student requires (Jungst et al , 2003). Numerous studies investigating higher education conclude that students who follow in-class collaborative learning procedures and actively cooperate with each other are more satisfied with their learning experience and result in greater positive outcomes when compared to students who are exposed to the traditional lecture method (Kimber, 1994; Alavi, 1994). Consequently, this satisfaction results from interpersonal relationships which are developed and enhanced through group learning (Johnson et al, 1991). Another factor contributing to the satisfaction of collaborative learning methods is that it is intrinsically motivating, as each individual member is vital to securing a productive, cooperative learning practice (Havness, 2008). Andrews' (1992) work with learning teams confirms the view that greater satisfaction is experienced as collaborative learning improves self-confidence and supports the learning process. Additionally, Johnson & Johnson (1994) concluded that cooperative learning consistently produced higher scores of self-efficiency than did individualistic conditions. Also greater satisfaction is achieved since peers are at an equal level and thus can be more open and explore fully the areas of cognitive conflict (Ladyshewsky, 2006). This satisfaction experienced results in eagerness to learn (Kimber, 1994).

In addition, the level of equality with peers encourages greater dynamic engagement in the learning process and construction of knowledge with deeper understanding (Alavi, 1994). Attainment of greater understanding results in longer retention of information and avoidance of attrition (Cooper, 1990). As a result, problem solving skills are enhanced and it results in higher order thinking (Jaarsma, De Graves, and Muijtjens, 2008). Likewise, Mazen, Jones, and Sergenian (2000) further supports the importance of group learning by pointing out that by working cooperatively, students can enhance skills and innovative ways of thinking which will result in group process gains.

When working cooperatively, the issue of diversity must not be forgotten. Escalating numbers of postgraduate students from diverse backgrounds with varying perspectives and interpretations are having a profound effect on cooperative learning (Booth, Bowie, Jordan, and Rippin , 2000). Wyss-Flamm (2002) points out that the emergence of 'difference' is essential to learning. Exposure to the differences can arouse the need to attempt to enter each other's minds and thus learning something for which the tool of conversation is invaluable (Argyris & Schion, 1996). Similarly, Stein and Hurd (2000) acknowledge that collaborative learning transforms the learning environment into a student-centered one, which capitalizes on the diversity of the students, and lessens dependence on the professor as the single conveyer of knowledge. This can result in interpersonal as well as intrapersonal processes interacting with each other, creating opportunities for learning to occur within the established routines (single-loop learning) or learning that requires innovative routines be created (double-loop learning) (Argyris, 1999). In contrast, Foldy (2004) states that individuals who are part of diverse groups will be characterized by feelings of mistrust or not feeling safe as they are not grouped with those similar to them. Consequently, there will be greater intra-group conflict arising. Thus, Booth et al. indicate that diversity can only be valuable to the learning if the differences are recognized and appreciated. Similarly, Milliken & Martins (1996, p. 403) state that diversity in cooperative learning groups can be seen as a "double-edged sword", meaning that it possesses the potential to be of great advantage, but this will only occur if it is managed effectively.

Additional benefits of collaborative learning, adapted from Nunamaker, Dennis, Valacich, Vogel, and George, (1991), include: the group generates more information and alternatives as compared to the average individual group member; group learning motivates the individual to perform better; groups are more effective and objective in evaluation, and lastly, interactions amongst group members lead to synergies. Similarly, Boud, Cohen, and Sampson (2001, cited in Havnes, 2008) highlight five outcomes that can particularly be advanced by peer learning strategies, these include: working with others; critical enquiry and reflection; communication and articulation of knowledge, understanding and skills; managing learning and how to learn; self and peer assessment. In addition, collaborative learning has been found to support greater productivity, generation of creative ideas or innovative solutions, and enhance the students' ability of social perspective taking (Cuseo, 1992 ; Lord, 2001). However it must be noted that these positive outcomes do not prevail with all groups and in all contexts as the expectations of group members may not conform to each other (Felder & Brent, 2001) or social loafing of free riding may occur within the group (Mello, 1993). These problems, if experienced, can ultimately result in the destruction of the group.

However, when the positive outcomes of collaborative learning do transpire, it supports the constructive impact that this method of learning has on academic-related achievement (Alavi, 1994). This is further supported by empirical evidence of improved achievement at postgraduate level (DaRos- Voseles, Onwuegbuzie, and Qun, 2008 ; Collins, Cao, and Robidoux, 2004). The levels of academic achievement attained are fostered by the collaborative learning environment as it gives students an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their individual learning as well as achievement of the group's goals, and thus become critical thinkers (Totten, Sills, Digby, and Russ, 1991). This was further proven in a study conducted by Gokhale (1995).

5.1 Study to determine effectiveness of collaborative learning : Gokhale 1995

The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of collaborative learning versus individual learning as it relates to learning outcomes achieved. The population for the study comprised of students in industrial technology, enrolled at Western Illinois University. The treatment comprised of two parts: lecture and worksheet. Firstly, a common lecture was delivered to both treatment groups. Next, one section was randomly assigned to the "individual learning group" while the other section was assigned to the "collaborative learning group". The same worksheet was given to both treatment groups. It was comprised of both drill-and-practice items (factual knowledge and comprehension) and critical- thinking items (analysis, synthesis and evaluation of concepts).

Subsequent to a statistical analysis of the test scores, the results depicted that students who participated in collaborative learning had performed significantly better on the critical-thinking test than students who studied individually. It was also found that both groups performed equally well on the drill-and-practice test. The collaborative learning medium provided students with opportunities to analyze, synthesize and evaluate ideas cooperatively. Therefore, the positive outcomes of this study on collaborative learning can be applied at a postgraduate level where the fundamental aim is for students to think critically and enhance knowledge and understanding which is socially constructed (Jones et al 2006). The results of this study conform to the developmental perspectives (Slavin, 1995) of collaborative learning proposed by the proponents of collaborative learning such as Vygotsky and Piaget.

5.2 Piaget's Constructivist Perspective

Validation of cooperative learning stems, in part, from theories of social interdependence (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1998). Piaget's socio-cognitive conflict theory states that children (or adults) on different levels of cognitive development, or those individuals on the same level of cognitive development with differing perspectives, can engage in social interaction that leads to a cognitive conflict. Through discussion with other peers, the 'shock of our thought coming into contact with others' (Piaget, 1928) leads to a disequilibrium within participants. This results in the construction of new conceptual structures and understanding in order to restore equilibrium. (Ladyshewsky, 2006 ; Slavin, 1987; Lipponen, 2002). The importance of collaborative learning can be further understood by Vygotsky's theoretical framework.

5.3 Vygotsky zone of proximal development

Parallel to Piaget's constructivist perspective (Piaget ,1969), Vygotsky's theoretical construct of the zone of proximal development provides strong support for the inclusion of cooperative learning as a method of instructional strategy as it results in the enhancement of the learning that occurs. Vygotsky (1978) defines the zone of proximal development as "The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers." (See figure 2)

Figure 2: Zone of Proximal Development

Source: Harnum (2009)

5.4 Theory of cooperative learning

Supporting the theory of social interdependence, Slavin (1995) proposed a two-element theory of cooperative learning comprising of positive interdependence and individual accountability. Likewise, Johnson et al. (1991a, 1991b) advocated a five-component theory of cooperative learning. According to the model, the following five elements are essential for maximizing the long-term success of the cooperative learning venture:

Figure 3: Pillars of cooperative learning

Pillars of Cooperative Learning

Face-to-face interaction

Positive interdependence



Individual Accountability




The presence of the five basic components of cooperative learning may all be accounted for within the theoretical framework provided by Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.

Positive Interdependence: It is the connecting of students mutually so that the individual cannot succeed unless all group members succeed (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1998). Vygotskys's theory rests upon the principle that a child's development is dependant upon interactions with other children and adults. Thus, children and adults are developmentally dependant, and therefore interdependent (Doolittle, 1995).

Face-to-face interaction: Within cooperative learning, face-to-face interaction involves students need to do real work jointly in which they promote each other's success by sharing resources and assisting, supporting, encouraging, and recognizing each other's efforts to achieve the group's goals (Johnson et al 1998). It is interpreted in the Vygotskian system as social mediation and encultration. Encultration refers to what is learnt, while social mediation refers to how it is learnt.

Individual accountability: It is the belief held by each individual that he/she will be held responsible for his/her own performance and learning (Johnson et al 1998). For Vygotsky, individual accountability would be reflected in each group member being responsible for developing within their own unique zone of proximal development (Doolittle, 1995).

Group Processing: Group processing exists when group members discuss how well they are achieving their goals and evaluating ways to improve the productiveness of all group member in achieving the group goals ( Johnson et al 1998; Doolittle, 1995). Within the framework of Vygotsky's theory, part of instruction entails the constant monitoring of each student's growth within their zone of proximal development (Doolittle, 1995).

This study was inconclusive in showing that graduate teams perform better with collaborative learning styles. However, the results for graduate students indicate that collaborative learning style is influential in performance, along with competitive and participant learning styles. Johnson and Johnson (1998) also conclude that graduate students portray the traits of independent learners and are enthusiastic to obtain some initiative and keen to accept responsibilities for their own learning. Thus, professors should be more interested to facilitate independent learning. Furthermore, Johnson and Johnson state that the role of facilitator or delegator ensures working with students in a consultative fashion and enhancement of the students' capacity to learn independently, this is similar to what is required in organizational teams.

6.2 Problems with collaborative learning style

Despite the positive outcomes that have been stated, there are many problems that exist as well (Machemer & Crawford, 2007). These problems have resulted in some professors resisting to engage in alternative models for teaching and learning despite having academic freedom in their teaching styles (Moore, 2005). The problems experienced firstly include, a slow transition from traditional to collaborative forms of learning may occur especially with students who cannot adapt easily or those who are highly resistant to change (Kimber, 1994). Secondly, the level of psychological safety in the conversational space is a major determinant in outcomes achieved (Jones et al. , 2006). Anxiety may arise as a result of the unfamiliarity of the material being studied, or by the strain of contributing to the conversation in a challenging way and could incite a negative response and avoidance of learning (Vince & Martin, 1993). Thirdly, unconstructive discourse may arise when consensus cannot be reached with regards to the material, goals or values (Bruffee, 1984). The increasing heterogeneity (Baer, 1996) and diversity amongst postgraduate students (Booth et al., 2000) escalates the occurrence of dysfunctional discourse in the learning process. Students may present further hurdles for collaborative learning which include: lack of participation, withdrawal due to fear of negative evaluation, fear of some students dominating the session, difficulties in keeping the discussion focused, information overload for individual members and assessing the level of understanding (Anderson, 1995; Nunamaker et al., 1991). The problems experienced have caused certain lecturers to give up on cooperative learning techniques on the whole (Cohen, 1994).

In the same way, Machemer and Crawford (2007) point out that lecturers give up on cooperative learning methods as it has limited classroom (lecture) application. In addition, the design and testing of collaborative activities and lessons can be time-consuming on currently overloaded faculty schedules (Cooper, 1995). This results in concerns from a teaching perspective, such as: the syllabus not being completed as the activities take up a great deal of time; perceived loss of control in the classroom; and difficulty in evaluating the students' participation and effectiveness of the collaborative learning styles (Gerlach, 1994). Similarly, additional concerns include: the inadequacy of collaborative learning techniques in reaching high knowledge-attainment levels with complex material, as well as students lacking the vital characteristics for working in effective teams( Cooper , 1995; Lord, 2001) .

These vital characteristics are what the ideal team member should possess, which leads to the issue that the collaborative model assumes how professors are supposed to teach, how students are supposed to learn, and how knowledge is created (Moore, 2005). However, Bruffee (1993) argues that knowledge is not something transferred from one individual's head to the next. "Collaborative learning assumes instead that knowledge is a consensus among the members of a community of knowledgeable peers-something people construct by talking together and reaching agreement" (Bruffee, 1993, p. 3).

Moreover, Nias (1987) argues, that it is apparent that not all students take an active role in the analysis of cases through debate. As affirmed by Jones et al 2006, a number of factors may contribute to this, including:

Lack of confidence: students may comprehend the case but do not put across their


Lack of interest: the subject area may not be of interest to each student.

Lack of involvement: there are identifiable barriers to involvement; e.g. domination of some students or language barriers.

Lack of preparation: a lack of time, commitment or motivation.

These factors should be mitigated as far as possible so as to create positive groups which help people to make positive changes (Goleman, Boyatzis, and Mckee, 2002). Positive groups emerge where there are high levels of individual accountability, group cohesiveness, timely and effective feedback and explicit rewards for high levels of group performance (Michaelson, Fink, and Knight, 1997).

In contrast, unsatisfactory groups appear where free riding or social loafing (making less effort to achieve a goal) occurs (Brooks & Ammons, 2003; Mello, 1993). This may give rise to interpersonal conflicts and ultimately group destruction (Jehn & Mannix 2001; Miller, 2003). Conversely, a longitudinal study conducted; found that a particular pattern of conflict resulted in higher group performance. This pattern was created as "teams performing well were characterized by low but increasing levels of process conflict; low levels of relationship conflict, with a rise near project deadlines; and moderate levels of task conflict at the midpoint of group interaction" (Jehn & Mannix, p.238). The individuals' dissatisfaction will most likely influence team performance, team stability, the size and structure of the group, and temporal scope (Alge, Wiethoff, and Klein, 2003 ; Johnson et al., 1991 ; Jaques, 2000). In addition, diversity (Koppenhaver & Shrader, 2003) and the team members' personal characteristics, such as psychological profile, collective orientation, and learning preferences are likely to influence performance (Kunkel & Shafer, 1997; Lancaster & Strand, 2001; Mennecke, Hoffer, and Wynne, 1992 ; Robbins, 1994). These limitations thus pose a major threat to full exploitation of the positive aspects associated with collaborative learning and to the success of this method on the whole.

7. Conclusion

From the review it is apparent that there are mixed results regarding the value of collaborative teaching and learning at postgraduate level. It is apparent that the benefits of this method outweigh the negative aspects. However it must be noted, that the benefits do not apply to all involved and if the limitations are not adequately taken into account, the effects are bound to be disastrous. In addition, the diversity amongst students especially at postgraduate level is escalating. The heterogeneity of students must be considered and therefore, a 'one method fits all' approach should not be applied. Supervisors should vary teaching styles to accommodate for the diversity of learning preferences amongst students. However, future research should be conducted to determine the effect of collectively applying the different learning methods on students, their perceptions or value placed on these techniques, and whether these methods will ensure that optimal learning takes place.

Professors need to shift from the notion that "teaching is telling, learning is absorbing, and knowledge is subject-matter content" (Spence, 2001, p.12). This is crucial as employers in current organizations are demanding more than simply technical knowledge of university graduates (Jungst, Licklider, and Wiersma, 2003). They require graduates who can think under pressure, ensure effectiveness in team-work, communicate effectively, and construct new knowledge and ideas that will give their employers the edge in the current fast-paced world. (Gardiner, 1994; Brown & Lassoie, 1998). Thus, by changing the practices of teaching and learning in the classroom, there is greater potential for the occurrence of transformations -for the individuals, organizations, and systems (Moore, 2005). The possibility to restructure and rethink teaching and learning at postgraduate level is exciting, stimulating, challenging, risky, and ripe with possibility.