Cognition and Instruction/Cooperative and Inquiry-Based Learning

This chapter will present theory, research and practice relating to cooperative and inquiry-based learning.

Collaborative Learning


An Overview


There are many different fields studying collaborative learning (CL). This group based approach is beneficial in many areas such as instructional design, learning sciences, sociology, computer supported collaborative learning and educational psychology. [1] Even though professionals in these fields may disagree on a theoretical basis, appropriate language, and research contexts, many of them believe that collaborative learning is the basis of human growth and development. Collaborative learning can be observed throughout history as being used in ancient gatherings to now present time scenarios such as online learning. Collaborative learning is when a group of learners all share opinions and experiences to build knowledge.[2] Each person contributes equally with their own resources, perspectives, and knowledge to find a solution to the task given. The group must coordinate their different opinions into one cohesive structure and everyone depends on one another to work on a common task. Some aspects of CL that are considered when forming these groups are the group size, having a heterogenous group versus a homogenous group, levels of ability of group members as well as race and ethnicity, the use of rewards, and the amount of structure of the tasks given to groups.[1]

Collaborative learning is often grouped together with cooperative learning.[1] Despite this grouping, the two types of learning differ. Cooperative learning is a group based approach but uses a clearly stated set of rules and structures, specific group goals, and the final work of the group is assessed.[2] Students also have specific tasks they must complete on their own that contribute to the final group goal while in collaborative learning there is mutual engagement with every task. [3] Not everyone separates the two types of group based learning. Although Damon and Phelps (1989)[4] recognize three types of peer learning (peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and collaborative learning), Hmelo-Silver (2013)[1] claim that this division is based on a developmental perspective that does not represent the variables included in collaborative and cooperative learning. Therefore, the author chooses to use the two terms interchangeably. Whether the difference between the two approaches is sufficient to warrant a distinction in the literature is still up for debate.



Collaborative Learning has a robust theoretical background and can be justified in different educational settings based on theoretical support. Early investigation was mainly based in North America but since then has been studied all over the world. Here, some of the most influential theories that have played an important role in the emergence and development of the approach will be discussed. Socio-Cultural approach, Socio-Constructivist approach, Shared cognition approach, Second Language Acquisition perspective and Motivational theories.

Social-Constructivist approach


Piaget believed knowledge was formed by the relationship between a child and their environment that includes assimilation (integrating a new concept into beliefs) and accommodation (changing of schema).[1] This adaptation to the environment results in cognitive growth. Experiences such as student disagreement can cause disequilibrium to this system. As they work together to synthesize their thoughts and come to an understanding, a cognitive equilibrium is then restored. Piaget developed a constructivist theory of individual’s cognitive development ,which inspired a group of psychologists known as the “Genevan School”. These psychologists undertook investigation of how social interaction affects individual cognitive development . These scholars borrowed the major concepts such as “cognitive conflict” and “coordination of points of view(centrations)” from Piaget. They described their new approach as socio- constructivist approach. They investigated the role of interactions with others rather than actions themselves. Peers may provide opportunities for others to experience cognitive conflict. According to Piaget, children are more likely to develop cognitively in contexts in which peers have equal power and all have opportunities to influence one another. The main thesis of this approach is that interacting with others and coordinating one’s approaches to reality with those of others is the most effective way of mastering new approaches. Individual cognitive development is seen as the result of a spiral causality: a given level of individual development allows participation in certain social interactions which produce new individual states which, in turn, make possible more sophisticated social interaction and so on. In social constructivist classrooms collaborative learning is a process of peer interaction that is mediated and structured by the teacher. Discussion can be promoted by the presentation of specific concepts, problems or scenarios, and is guided by means of effectively directed questions, the introduction and clarification of concepts and information, and references to previously learned material.

Socio-Cultural approach


The second major theoretical influence comes from Vygotsky (1962-1978) and researches from the socio cultural perspective. (Wertsch,1979,1985,1991; Rogoff,1990). The work of sociocultural theory is to explain how individual mental functioning is related to cultural, institutional, and historical context; hence, the focus of the sociocultural perspective is on the roles that participation in social interactions and culturally organized activities play in influencing psychological development. While the socio cognitive approach focused on individual development in the context of social interaction, the socio cultural approach focuses on the causal relationship between social interaction and individual cognitive change. This theory attaches significance to the degree of difference among co-learners and defines the Zone of Proximal Development which is the distance between actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. Based on the principles of this approach, Collaborative Learning by nature creates opportunities to develop students’ cognition by actively communicating with new proficient peers and thereby expanding conceptual potential.

Shared Cognition Approach


The concept of shared cognition is deeply intertwined with the situated cognition theory [5](Lave,1988). For these researchers, the environment is an integral part of cognitive activity, and not merely a set of circumstances in which context independent cognitive processes are performed. The environment includes a physical context and social context. Under the influence of sociologists and anthropologists, the focus is largely placed on the social context, i.e. not only the temporary group of collaborators, but the social communities in which these collaborators participate. This approach offers a new perspective on the socio-cognitive and socio-cultural approaches. In this approach collaboration is viewed as the process of building and maintaining a shared conception of a problem and all emergent conceptions are analyzed as a group product.

Second Language Acquisition Theories


The best known theories that look at Collaborative Learning from the perspective of second language acquisition are Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and Swain’s Output Hypothesis, both of which provided rationals for why second language learners achieved better linguistic competence. The input hypothesis posited that SLA is driven by comprehensible input. The output hypothesis claims that while comprehensible input is necessary for L2 learning, learners need opportunities to speak and produce output in order to restructure their interlanguage grammar (Swain2000). During Collaborative learning, the exchange of ideas makes the negotiation of meanings possible. Through this process, students have opportunities to both receive input and produce output. Collaborative Learning makes the input possible as the linguistic level of members in CL groups maybe more or less at the same level.

Motivational Perspectives


Learning does not only involve cognitive skills but also includes aspects of how learners feel about learning . Slavin criticizes the competitive structure of the traditional classroom for creating opportunities to demonstrate superiority over one’s peers, which can result in a destructive effect on academic effort. Motivational theorists have built models of incentive structures which incorporates variables of both one’s own achievement and peers’ attainment into CL methods. The rational for the collaborative learning structure is that if learners value the success of the group ,they will be motivated to help one another to achieve as well. While linking motivation with Collaborative Learning, Social psychologists assume that attitudes exert a direction influence on one’s behavior [6]. This perspective suggests that collaborative efforts are fueled by extrinsic motivations so as to achieve the group rewards. Jones and Issroff (2005) conclude that Collaborative learning combines many aspects of the advantages of individual and social processes of learning, contributing to group members’ participation and energizing students’ learning by generating a powerful motivational system, resulting in better performance. Another theory related to motivational perspectives is the Social interdependence Theory. Social interdependence exists when the accomplishment of each individual’s goals is affected by the actions of others (Deutsch, 1949, 1962) [7][8]. There are two types of social interdependence, positive (cooperation) and negative (competition).

• Positive interdependence exists when individuals perceive that they can reach their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked also reach their goals and, therefore, promote each other’s efforts to achieve the goals.

• Negative interdependence exists when individuals perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are competitively linked fail to obtain their goals and, therefore, obstruct each other’s efforts to achieve the goals.

• No interdependence results in a situation in which individuals perceive that they can reach their goal regardless of whether other individuals in the situation attain or do not attain their

goals. This theory postulates that the effects of Collaborative Learning are strongly mediated by the cohesiveness of the group. Johnson et al. (1994) explain that group cohesiveness is an index of the level of group development, and it determines peer interaction, which in turn determines the learning outcomes The motivation theorists along with the social cohesion theorists explain the instructional effectiveness of Collaborative Learning from a perspective of motivation, drawing on concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Current Areas of Research, Implications, Issues


These group experiences are shown to improve aspects of academic performance.[1] They increase interaction and respect in diverse groups and improve social outcomes for students with learning disabilities. CL can enhance conceptual understanding and other higher order skills. In addition to these benefits, students also tend to enjoy this type of group work and is a welcomed change from the common passive learning environment as a more interactive and inclusive alternative. Learning with other peers can act as a motivator for students. Another important consequence of collaborative learning is that it has been shown to increase critical thinking.[9] CL is different from the student-tutor relationship where one is the knowledge source. In collaborative learning everyone benefits and contributes equally.

The group work has a social skills aspect that cannot be derived from a teacher-student relationship. As mentioned above, this type of learning can remedy discrimination and increase acceptance among diverse group members and encourage interdependence. Peer acceptance increases school satisfaction, academic performance, and self-efficacy.[1] For those with learning disabilities, they often have a hard time fitting in. The respect, social, and emotional support that comes from group work among equals is not something that can be derived from a teacher-student learning context.

Despite these important implications, teachers often feel unequipped to implement collaborative learning.[2] This can be detrimental to the learning process since the success of CL depends on the quality of student interactions during learning and the implementation of the experience in classrooms depends on the teacher.[2] Current research has shown teacher contributions can improve by addressing the five following areas: planning student interaction, monitoring, supporting, consolidating interaction, and reflecting. One issue of debate is the involvement of teachers in the collaboration process. Some professionals suggest that teachers should have a limited role for planning and mediation during CL to let students form their own discussion. However, even with extensive planning on the teachers end, the student interactions can often lack depth. For this reason, it is important for teachers to be involved at every stage of the process, especially task monitoring.[10]

Current research also focuses on computer-supported learning.[10] Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) provides information and communication tools to facilitate the student collaboration process.[11] As in the classroom, there can be settings in which the group activity is not effective. Teacher’s using this technology must not assume that interaction will take place simply because it is possible. They should also consider how groups develop and maintain group cohesion, trust, respect, belonging, and a sense of community.

Another area addressed in current research is the use of collaborative learning in the work place. One study shows that collaborative learning is crucial in training peer support providers.[12] The job of a recovery peer support provider is to foster connections between others. Despite this goal they often feel disconnected in the workplace, stigmatized, and feel as though they are given unrealistic expectations. Since these supporters are supposed to share their stories, they often feel misunderstood by other mental health professionals. For these workers, communities of support are needed to share ideas and opinions, learn new perspectives and skills, and receive feedback and personal and professional growth. These communities can take the form of a collaborative learning group and provide benefits for not only workers but also those who they provide help to.

Instructional Issues and Approaches


Collaborative learning encompasses a variety of educational approaches that are aimed at encouraging students to make shared intellectual efforts with other students and/or teachers[13]. To reach this goal, students work in multiple groups of two or more to collaboratively search for solutions and work towards a deeper understanding of challenging problems. Even though the instructional activities used in collaborative learning may vary substantially, they all emphasize on promoting students’ explorative learning skills and practical application of the learning material. Educators who want to implement collaborative learning practices in their classroom need to agree that learning is an active and constructive process, learning is context-dependent, learners are diverse, and learning is social[1]. Teachers can organize their courses in many ways and incorporate collaborative learning techniques to various degrees. Collaborative Learning can be implemented through problem centered instruction, argumentation and discussion, cultivating a community of learners, peer tutoring, and leadership [1].

Problem-Centered Instruction (PCI)


Problem centered instruction connects students’ various experiences together and allows them to gain significant social and intellectual knowledge. Many of the problem centered instructional methods are similar as they reflect Dewey’s idea of direct experiential encounters with real world problems. Some of the strategies used in problem centered instruction are guided design, cased, and simulations. Based on the content and the level of students’ knowledge, one or a combination of these strategies is applied to engage students in authentic real problems they need to solve. Both research and practical experience give us recommendation regarding the features of descent problems [14]. To increase critical thinking and to be group-worthy, problems should have the right level of complexity, be ill-structured, and be open-ended with multiple solutions [15]. Research indicates that if problems are perceived as realistic by the learners and are aligned with their experiences, they will probably increase learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement and help them become more efficient decision makers when encountered with uncertainty. While problem centered instruction is a crucial learning strategy in inquiry based learning, implementing this instructional approach can also increase collaboration among learners. For instance, the strategies that students apply at different stages of problem-solving, such as group brainstorming, sharing and exchanging information with the group members, and assessing various approaches provide a great opportunity for learners to understand the value of collaboration and engagement.

Collaborative Argumentation


Argumentation is an essential component of collaborative learning. The goal of collaborative discussion is to provide an environment that allows learners to reconstruct their previous structures of knowledge and build new structures as a team [16] [17]. During collaborative argumentation the learners work together to target the core issues of class material by analyzing and discussing them from various perspectives. Since knowledge is not something fixed that can be transferred from an expert to a learner, students need to exchange information through regular discussions and argumentation to understand the true nature of knowledge [18]. For example, to understand a piece of writing, learners can keep editing each other’s statements about what the piece means, or to solve a mathematics problem they can keep revising their procedures. If they realize that they disagree about a solution, they may provide reasons for their different procedures, and try to negotiate on the best or most efficient solution. Since this approach involves taking positions, making claims, and giving reasons and evidence for claims, it can create higher motivation in learners, better understanding of the content, gaining general and specific argumentation skills, and better knowledge building skill in students. One serious limitation of argumentation that needs to be considered is the quality of the reasoning style. The instructional research on argumentation emphasizes on teaching the fundamental components of argumentation and scaffolding students once they engage in the basic processes of argumentation. According to Kuhn and her colleagues (2010), it is very important that students learn basic components of argumentation, and learn to complete diagrams regarding their various skills such as identifying their key arguments, counterarguments, and contradictions of counterarguments. Recent research also focuses on how to provide scaffolds for students so they can learn more effectively from collaborative argumentation [1].

Collaborating Learning Communities (CLCs)


The goal of collaborating learning communities is to support the individual growth of every learner by developing the collective knowledge of all learners [19]. In this approach, everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding and sharing. Peer writing groups, team projects, and study groups are only some of the examples of what is practiced in learning communities. These programs provide a distinctive social and intellectual bond for students that result in high rates of student retention, increased student achievement, and higher level of intellectual development [20]. The social-constructivist view of education, which is mostly based on the theories of Dewey and Vygotsky, considers individual learning as a process that is shaped in the socio-cultural context within which it is embedded. According to these theories people learn best by constructing knowledge based on personal experiences. To ensure that individuals construct knowledge, the community should ensure the diversity of expertise among its members, support a shared objective of repeatedly advancing the collective knowledge and skills, emphasize on learning how to learn, and teach strategies for sharing what is learned. If a learning community is presented with a problem, then the learning community can bring its collective knowledge to solve the problem[1].

Peer Tutoring


The process of students teaching their fellow students is probably the oldest form of the collaborative learning in the world. In peer tutoring, students learn from their peers under the classroom teacher’s supervision. Sometimes students work in pairs or groups with another student at the same age or grade level. Researchers have shown that this supplemental instruction is one of the most highly effective strategies to promote collaborative learning in the classroom [21]. It has also been indicated that this method is a powerful way of improving student academic, social, and behavioral functioning. For example, researchers have noticed that students are less likely to engage disruptive or problematic behaviors during peer-tutoring and are more willing to practice their social skills. That is probably why various structures of peer tutoring, under various names, have become common in secondary and higher education in recent decades [22]. The three most successful and widely adapted peer tutoring models are supplemental instruction, writing fellows, and mathematics workshops. While peer-tutoring provides proper conditions for students to become active, interactive, and self-regulated learners [23], not too many studies have investigated help-seeking behaviors in students during peer-tutoring sessions in the classroom. This area of study can probably be pursued by those who are interested in doing more in-depth study of collaborative learning in future.



Teachers view student leaders as confident, expressive, independent, and good listeners who are willing to help their peers by taking an active role [24]. In the context of collaborative learning, leadership is defined as the reciprocal social processes in which some individuals guide, coordinate, or enhance the behavior of other individuals. It is suggested that this type of collaboration can have beneficial effects on student learning, especially for low-achieving students [25]. Placing students as leaders of the classroom may encourage students to participate more frequently [26] and make them feel more comfortable to ask questions or challenge other students [27]. It may also encourage them to ask more questions from their peers. There are many leadership theories such as trait theories of leadership, leadership as a set of skills, leadership styles, contingency theories of leadership, and transformational leadership. However, the theory of leadership which is most applicable to collaborative group work in classrooms is team leadership theory. In this theory, teams can have assigned leaders or they can be self-managed. Teams who are self-managed often have one or more leaders selected by the members of the team [28] Can leadership be taught? Most leadership theories strongly support the idea that leadership can and should be taught. However, it should not be taught through direct instruction of social skills but through the social propagation of leadership. For example, once a student takes a proper leadership action such as asking another student “do you have something to share with us?” then other students learn and apply the same actions in the process of social diffusion [29]. Some students associate leadership with relationship building which causes them to lose sight of the overall purpose or task of the group. Therefore, while student leaders are building relationships with others, it is important to remind them of the intended purpose of this process.

Technology and Collaborative Learning


Why Use Technology in Classrooms?


Students in k-12 and post-secondary education today, heavily exposed to interactive multimedia and social media on the internet, have been called “digital natives”.[30] Such continuous digital exposure may have changed their learning preferences and expectations[31][32]. Moreover, the use of online technologies may enable educators to improve assessment and instructional planning by observing how students interact online.[33][34]. With the help from technology, instructors can also quickly assess each individual student performance, collect group learning information, and design an appropriate teaching technique that facilitates collaborative learning. In the context of collaborative learning, web-based platforms, such as virtual worlds, social media, and e-collaboration tools, can facilitate social interaction.

Learning a Language in a Virtual World


How does technology facilitate collaborative learning? An instructional example using technology will be second language learning (L2). Computer-mediated Communication (CMC) is a term often used in second language (L2) learning research[35][36]. Consistent with Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory [37], several L2 instructors and researchers often hold a belief that L2 learners must socially interact with the speakers who can speak the L2 in order to facilitate the process of language acquisition. Imagine that some learners are geographically distant and they still hope to communicate with real native speakers. In this context, CMC can help to achieve this goal by pairing L2 learners and native L2 speakers together on a web-based virtual world.

Some L2 research have made use of Second Life, a widely 3D virtual platform, as a CMC platform to aid second language learning acquisition[38] [39][40]. In Second Life, the users can possess a virtual space; this means that teachers can utilize this feature to create an educational field that allows their students to interact and socialize[38][39]. Research studies have confirmed that Second Life can be used as a friendly online environment that allows language learning students to socially interact with one another using virtual avatars, effectively complete collaborative learning tasks, and ultimately acquire the target language[39]. Furthermore, through the virtual platform, L2 learners can each be assigned a role for a task and then negotiate with one another for completing the task. Also, in this context, the learners will have more opportunity to exercise their freedom of expression, ensuring that they will not struggle with the fear of encountering strangers and the use of the second language.

Social Media and E-collaboration Tools


Another instructional example will be how instructors make use social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, to facilitate collaborative learning work among students[41][42]. Learners can construct their own knowledge collaboratively with their peers when they are given a topic, and the communication threads start to accumulate in the online social media platform[41]. Lee, Koo & Kim (2016) integrated Classting (a type of Korean social media for educational purposes) and e-collaboration tool (e.g. Google Docs) as the research instrumentation in exploring middle-school students’ development of problem solving skills in a science class. Their study has found that not only are the students actively engaged in the student-to-student communication in Classting, but they are also more interested in their classmates’ social lives, learning abilities, and the tasks. Furthermore, the students have reported that the use of Google Drive and Google Doc indeed increases their interest in science as well. The authors thus conclude that the use of social media along with an e-collaboration tool indeed seems to facilitate the students’ ability to explore the subject science and indirectly “enhance their capabilities of task commitment, problem solving, and creative inquisition through the process of applying scientific principles[41]” (p.255). On the other hand, the authors also mention the “side effects” of using social media in classrooms, including students’ lack of experience in technology, distraction, or cyber-bullying. Overall, while integrating social media in classroom teaching might be effective for facilitating collaborative learning, it might also pose some obstacles for both sides of the instructors and the students. Thus, before implementation, the instructors might have to spend more time on contemplating about the problems that the students might encounter, preparing for alternatives just in case of failures.

Collaborative learning environment in a university class

Future Trend: Cloud-based Technology and Borderless Collaborative Learning


The increasing use of Internet-based platforms might have suggested some changes of instructional practices for educational practitioners. In the United Kingdom, five universities across Europe collaboratively participate in Media Culture 2020 - a project aims to create a multidisciplinary workshop, designed and facilitated by the lecturers and the students from different disciplines at the five partnered universities across five different countries[43]. The theme of the multidisciplinary workshop mainly addresses how technology will influence future European media in 2020, and selected participants are responsible for designing the components of this workshop by using cloud-based technologies. Furthermore, this project integrates many forms of online technology that potentially facilitates collaborative learning for the workshop. For example, Google Docs, Google Drive, and Google + are the core cloud-based tools for collaborative document editing, sharing and processing, whereas the social media platforms like Facebook pages are the virtual open space for addressing several issues in discussion. In this project, selected undergraduate students, post-graduate students, lecturers from the five universities are collaboratively involved in the process of preparation (pre-workshop) and the actual implementation of the 6-week intensive workshop. Despite the nature of complexity from the workshop, in terms of implementation and task details, the workshop personnel (students, lecturers) have reported positive learning experience towards the interdisciplinary participation via a variety forms of cloud-based technologies. The authors conclude that the project is “a true example of an intercultural, multidisciplinary, blended learning experience in higher education that achieved its goals of breaking down classroom walls and bridging geographical distance and cultural barriers[43]” (p.71). From the perspective of learning and teaching, this project successfully facilitates collaboration among teachers and students in practice, fulfilling the goal of collaborative learning. Therefore, collaborative learning is an abstract concept. However, to put it into educational practice, we, as educational practitioners, can foresee that technology, especially with cloud-based learning tools, might be another innovative way that transforms students’ future learning experience and instructors’ instructional practices.

Cooperative learning


Historical Background


There was a time in recent memory when all public institutions in the United States of America were racially segregated. The notion that different races should be treated in the same hospitals, or use the same washrooms, or simply drink water out of the same fountain was unfathomable. This type of racism extended to all public institutions including the school system. As public policies progressed we realized that racial segregation was inherently unethical and would be better left in our past. However, this was not forgone conclusion to everyone and the day to day emotional realities of creating integrated classrooms became a nightmare scenario for many teachers, parents, and children alike. Indeed, the system was in turmoil, at one point students were having to obtain police escorts to their classrooms. This is only one example of the lengths to which administrators had to go to in regards to protecting the ideals of integration. It became painfully apparent that this should not and could not continue. Nonetheless the question remained, how could we eliminate this contentious atmosphere and encourage some much-needed unity? This question was answered in 1971 by a man named Dr. Elliot Aronson, in Austin, Texas. By observing conventional classrooms Aronson noted that most classrooms had inherent operational traits. The teacher would stand at the front of the room and ask questions and as the teacher did so the students would enthusiastically raise their hands. This behaviour, on the surface, seems fundamentally harmless. Aronson however saw a critical systemic duality, the traditional method seemed to only incite competition for such things as a teacher’s approval and favour. Aronson felt that this was in direct juxtaposition with the ideals of integration. How could a student both compete and cooperate? In Aronson’s mind these two agendas could not coexist so he hypothesized an alternative. Aronson felt that the key to reducing the tension brought on by integration was to reduce or even eliminate competition. Indeed, the concept that one student’s success could also contribute to the success of other students just by sharing collective knowledge was gaining momentum in the educational community. The crucial piece of this concept involved interdependence, Aronson advocated the creation of small mixed race groupings and assigned them to a task that depended on cooperation. The essential piece of cooperative methods, including the Jigsaw classroom, is that students depend on each other. In this way Jigsaw classrooms came to exemplify the benefits of cooperative learning in educational practice. Using this method enabled learning to no longer be about competition but instead to involve a deep level of cooperation that worked to the mutual benefit of teachers and students regardless of socio-cultural boundaries. This is not only the theoretical basis for the jigsaw classroom but also for cooperative learning in general. As with a jigsaw puzzle every piece is essential to the creation of the picture, in a classroom every student is an essential piece to a larger puzzle. The theory then hinges on the idea that it is only through cooperation and interaction with each other that classrooms can fulfill their potential as interactive, engaging learning environments. Of course, the ideas behind the jigsaw classroom are not attached exclusively to the 1970s indeed a great deal of contemporary research shows that cooperative learning still has relevant benefits in current educational practice. Cooperative learning has manifested itself in countless ways and on numerous levels, from kindergarten up to graduate students. Any interested party who types in the words “cooperative learning” into a scholarly search engine will inevitably end up with a plethora of results. The question then becomes, what is this research saying about the effectiveness of cooperative learning? The evidence that has been collected is overtly positive regarding the effects of cooperative learning. Indeed, in his article “Cooperative Learning: Student teams. What the research says to teachers.” (1982.) Robert Slavin along with an advisory board noted that social psychologists have been interested in the benefits of working as a group for decades. Indeed, social psychologists such as Deutsch were exploring cooperative groups long before cooperative learning was being consistently implemented in educational practice. His subjects were undergraduate psychology students who were presented with both a puzzle based problem as well as an interpersonal problem, for example “How should a hypothetical soldier disclose to his wife that he has an overseas girlfriend?” As one can see, one type of problem has a concrete solution while the other problem is more flexible. The conditions were set up to include cooperative and competitive groupings. Some of the participants were graded as a group, meaning that the more they all participated and contributed, the higher the group would be graded. The “competitive” condition also involved participation, however the student who participated the most or came up with the highest quality solutions as determined be an observer got the highest grade and it was made explicit that there can only be one student who participated the “best”. What the researchers observed was a pronounced difference between the cooperative and competitive groups. Slavin notes that the researchers found, “that the cooperative groups solved the puzzle problems more rapidly, produced longer and better solutions to the human relations problems, and were rated more productive by observers. The cooperative group members were also rated more friendly. helpful, and attentive to one another, and enjoyed their task more than did the competitive group members.” (1982)

 Slavin and his team also investigated classroom techniques such as, Student Teams-Achievement Divisions (STAD), where higher achieving students were group some lower achieving peers, as well as Teams-Games-Tournaments (TGT) were students worked together as teams to take part in weekly tournaments,  Team Assisted Individualization (TA I) were students not only worked collectively but also graded each others work, Group investigation, where small student groups collectively plan an ongoing project, and the aforementioned Jigsaw method. Indeed, even with this large array of techniques for cooperative learning in the classroom Slavin found positive results. In fact, he concluded that although there may be individual differences in a student’s level of accountability, overall cooperative learning allows students to benefit “academically as well as socially” (1982) and although the researcher acknowledges that there are many different methods to improve a student’s social acuity, advocates for cooperative learning would argue that there are very few methods that are as comprehensively helpful as cooperative learning. Again, Slavin suggest that, 

“few (learning techniques) apply equally well in almost all subjects and grade levels, and fewer still can document improvements in learning and also show improvements in students' social relationships, self-esteem, liking of school, and other outcomes.”

Research on cooperative learning seems to lend credence to the saying “two heads are better then one”. Another contention in regards to cooperative learning is the argument that teachers can implement cooperative learning with minimal to no special training and with no need of any specific resources (Slavin, 1982). Indeed, who of us cannot remember a moment from their own educational experiences when they or another student felt the detrimental effects of a competitive classroom environment. The situation would play out like so,

                               Teacher: “Zoe what is 17+24?”
                                   Zoe: “Umm, 42?”
                               Teacher: “No. Louise can you please help Zoe?”
                                Louise: “Its 41”
                               Teacher: “Thank you Louise”

Now in that scenario did Zoe feel like she was being helped by her classmate? Was she thankful for Louise assistance? Most likely not, Zoe might feel embarrassed and resentful towards her classmate and Louise more then likely felt some sense of satisfaction for outperforming her. This type of interaction does happen and the assumption is that it happens quite often. What proponents of cooperative learning would suggest is that this type of competition acts only as a hindrance to the educational process. It is only thorough a fundamental reframing with an emphasises on cooperation that the classroom becomes an environment that truly allows for budding scholars to fulfill their potential.

Theory and Research


Social interdependence perspective


Social interdependence exists when the outcomes of individuals are affected by their own and others’ actions. [44]This occurs for example, when John’s goals of completing successfully a biology quiz is affected by the actions Arthur takes to prepare for the quiz. There are two types of social interdependence, positive and negative. Positive interdependence exists when learners perceive that they can attain their goals if and only if the other learners that are on their same team, attain their goals. Positive interdependence results in individuals encouraging and facilitating each other’s efforts to complete tasks in order to reach the group’s goals. Negative interdependence exists when leaners perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other learners with whom they are competitively linked, fail to obtain their goals. Positive interdependence results in encouraging acting in trusting and trustworthy ways, exchanging needed resources, such as information and materials, providing help to group mates, and being motivated to obtain mutual benefit.

Cooperators tend to spend more time on task than do competitors.[44] Cooperation, when compared with competitive and individualistic effort, tends to promote greater long term retention, higher intrinsic motivation and expectation for success, more creative thinking, greater transfer of learning, and more positive attitudes toward the task and school.[44]

Motivationalist perspective


Motivational perspectives on cooperative learning state that task motivation is the most important part of the process of cooperation[45]. Therefore, these scholars focus primarily on the reward or goal structures under which students operate. From a motivationalist perspective, cooperative incentive structures create a situation in which the only way group members can attain their own personal goals is if the group is successful. Therefore, to meet their personal goals, group members must both help their groupmates to do whatever enables the group to succeed, and, perhaps even more importantly, to encourage their groupmates to exert maximum efforts. To give an example of the application of this perspective, a group of five grade 7 students in a history class will have a certain reward (which keeps the learners motivated), only if the group achieves a certain level of performance (which is measured at the end of the cooperation activity) in relation to ancient Greece knowledge. That level of performance is measured in these steps: At the end of the cooperation, every learner in the group completes a personal ancient Greece quiz and gets a certain score. After that, an average of the scores in the group is calculated, and if that score fulfills the expectations set by the instructors, the group gets the reward. The only way the team can succeed is to ensure that all team members have learned, so the team members' activities focus on explaining concepts to one another, helping one another practice, and encouraging one another to achieve.

Of sixty-four studies of cooperative learning methods that provided group rewards based on the sum of group members' individual learning, fifty (78%) found significantly positive effects on achievement, and none found negative effects[45]. In contrast, studies of methods that used group goals based on a single group product or provided no group rewards found few positive effects.

Developmental perspective


The fundamental assumption of the developmental perspective on cooperative learning is that interaction among children around appropriate tasks increases their mastery of critical concepts[45]. Slavin argues that Vygotsky defines the zone of proximal development as the distance between the actual developmental level and the level of potential development, in terms of problem solving. In the actual level, the person can only resolve the problem with a more capable peer’s guidance and collaboration. By doing this (with the other’s person guidance), the person will eventually acquire the skills to solve the problem without help, and will no longer require peer assistance. For example, John is in a group with Steven, Keith and Thomas. Their task is to complete a list of math exercises together, that contain multiplications and divisions. John has not learned how to multiply yet, but Steven knows how to do it. However, Steven does not know how to divide, whereas John knows how to. Thomas has not learned divisions, nor multiplications. In the process of cooperation, Steven helps John to do multiplications, John helps Steven to do divisions, and both Steven and John assist Thomas how to do both. In this situation, they all learn new math procedures through the guidance of more capable peers. From the developmental perspective, the effects of cooperative learning on student achievement would be largely or entirely due to the use of cooperative tasks. In this view, opportunities for students to discuss, to argue, and to present and hear one another’s viewpoints are the critical elements of cooperative learning with respect to student achievement.

Despite considerable support from theoretical and laboratory research, there is little evidence, from classroom experiments, that "pure" cooperative methods, which depend solely on interaction, produce higher achievement[45]. However, it is likely that the cognitive processes described by developmental theorists are important mediating variables which can help explain the positive outcomes of effective cooperative learning methods

Cognitive elaboration perspective


Research in cognitive psychology has long held that if information is to be retained in memory and related to information already in memory, the learner must engage in some sort of cognitive elaboration, of the material[45]. One of the most effective means of elaboration is explaining the material to someone else. In a group with common goals, learners could explain the material to other learners, in order to make sure everyone has the knowledge and abilities to successfully complete the group’s mission. In the process of explaining, the “explainer” would elaborate his own knowledge, improving his own learning process. Research made by Sporer, Brunstein and Kieschke [46] has shown that students who practiced reciprocal teaching, in which students learn to formulate questions for each other, got higher reading comprehension scores than students who were involved in traditional teaching methods.

Slavin argues that studies of Reciprocal Teaching, in which students learn to formulate questions for each other, have generally supported its positive effects on student achievement.

Research on cooperative learning through the years


From the beginning of the 1970s empirical studies began to emerge on the social and academic benefits students derived from working together[47]. These studies included research by David and Roger Johnson[48], Shlomo Sharan and his colleagues[49] and Robert Slavin and his colleagues[50]. While each developed their own interpretation of cooperative learning, all agreed that provided this pedagogical approach to working together was well structured and correctly implemented, students benefited from this approach to learning.

Meta analytic review of the use of cooperative learning on learning chemistry


Findings from 25 chemical education studies involving 3985 participants, show a positive association between chemistry achievement and cooperative learning[51]. According to this review, in terms of academic performance, students in the Cooperative Learning group are in the 75th percentile, and students in the traditional group are in the 50th percentile. In other words, students who went through Cooperative Learning scored better than 75% of the students who participated in the study.

Cooperative, Competitive versus Individualistic Learning


The founders of Cooperative Learning (CL), Johnson and Johnson state that (1994; p. 1)[52] learning in the classroom setting can be structured in three ways: cooperation, competition or individualism. Morton Deutsch, a graduate student of Lewin formed a theory on cooperation and competition in the late 1940s. Cooperation involves working with others to achieve shared goals (cooperative structure[53]). The objective of cooperative activities is to seek beneficial outcomes for oneself and everyone else. In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups to maximize individual and others’ learning. After teacher instruction, small groups are selected within the classroom to complete an assignment where all members contribute and successfully understand the material. The result should be that all members: thrive from everyone’s efforts, realize they participate in a shared outcome, know that one’s performance is dependent on the other’s, and feel happy when a member receives recognition[54]. These types of situations reflect a positive interdependence (cooperation) amidst learners’ goal achievements, which means learners’ view that they can attain their goals on the condition that everyone in their group achieves their goals. The decision to structure goals per lesson is the teacher’s. Competition is the idea that students work to reach a goal that is higher than their peers (competitive goal structure; Deutsch, 1949[55]). This can include: working towards one’s own gain, rejoicing over classmates’ failures, viewing higher grades as limited (Example: “A’s” or “Exceeding”), realizing that when a classmate performs well there is less gain for oneself, and believing “only the strong succeed”. Johnson and Johnson (1994) observe that goal achievements have a negative interdependence (competition), which means students think they are able to reach their goals on the condition that other classmates fail. Johnson and Johnson (1994)[52] view students’ competitiveness as either working diligently to achieve better than others or ‘slacking’ because they don’t think they can be high achievers. Individualism is when learners work on their own to achieve goals that are not connected to other students (absence of interdependence). Every student works at their own pace ignoring other classmates. Learners must focus on their self-interest, value their efforts and achievements, and perceive others’ victories or failures as having no impact on themselves[54].

Research on CL has been guided by many theories, but specifically social interdependence theory, cognitive developmental theory, and behavioural learning theory. Johnson and Johnson extended Deutsch’s theory of cooperation and competition into the social interdependence theory. Without interdependence there is individualistic effort.[52] Cooperative, competitive and individualistic efforts have been studied in the form of experimental and correlational research dating back to 1898.[54] Due to numerous research, three key points have been proven on the significance of cooperation in the context of learning. Through theoretical and demonstration research, CL has been supported by its effectiveness.[54] Secondly, since studies have been conducted on various participants with a range of tasks, structures and measures, CL has validity and can mostly be applied at any grade level, any subject and with every task ([54];[56]). It is regularly reviewed and revised in theory and in practice[56]. One example is several countries have shown CL’s positive effects to skills, such as: improving reading, mathematics, learning another language, and studying social and natural sciences (Foley and O’Donnell, 2002[57]). More research has been conducted on post secondary education settings as well as professional fields including nursing, engineering, business, music, and others (Baloche, 2011)[56]. Thirdly, the effort to achieve positive interpersonal relationships and psychological health are three broad outcomes that are affected by cooperation.[54] Examples of specific outcomes that can be categorized in the three include: achievement, motivation, friendships, prejudice, self-esteem, and moral reasoning.

Cooperative versus Competitive Learning


Ke (2008) completed a study on fifth graders applying cooperative, competitive and individualistic goal structures. Students played computer math games and were placed randomly into a Teams-Games-Tournament where they participated in one of the following groups: cooperative, interpersonal competitive, individualistic gaming, and a control.[58] Participants were assessed on a math exam and a pre and post test for attitudes towards mathematics. Results indicate the cooperative goal structure for game based learning was beneficial in positive attitudes for math. This discovery shows support for Johnson and Johnson’s and Slavin’s (1996, 1995)[59] belief that higher self-esteem compared to competitive or individualistic experiences is the result of cooperative learning.

Many psychologists including Johnson and Slavin view cooperative learning as highly beneficial than competitive learning in the classroom context[60]. An experiment was completed on university students majoring in either mathematics or engineering. Students were expected to work in pairs on tasks and use simulation-based Project Management Trainer (PMT) software. They had the option to cooperate or compete in these tasks with their partner. The outcome of the study shows that cooperative and competitive learning strategies were beneficial. Yet, these researchers discovered that overall cooperative strategies were most effective, particularly due to the participants who preferred this type of learning. It is suggested that the most optimal pairing is a high and low performing student in cooperative learning. Also, it is important to note that although this is a helpful finding, the sample size of this study was 50 individuals.

Cooperative versus Individualistic Learning


In an interview study by Gillies and Boyle (2011), CL was applied by seven teachers for two years. Teachers described their experiences based on their view of students’ responses. They observed that CL was effective in that students were engaged and students developed more confidence in group learning. Additionally, teachers believed that CL is best implemented when it is well planned, learners are prepared for group work and teachers explicitly explain expectations.

One may wonder whether cooperative learning is perceived as beneficial to high school students or older especially since they are more subject to standardized testing and may tend to be more performance oriented when it comes to academic achievement. According to a study on ninth grade classrooms at an elite school, students of various socioeconomic status (SES) and abilities were completing a group project. It was expressed by some students three weeks later that they did not want to participate in group work and preferred individual work. The reason being that these high-achieving students were afraid that their grades would be lowered by group members who were low achieving. In this case, the resolution to this problem was instilling the social value of group work, which would not reduce letter grades for each person. These results raise the question of whether CL is beneficial to the academic success of high achievers. Gillies and Ashman (2003)[61] state these conclusions show that CL did not provide significant benefits for high achievers.

A study conducted by Sherman and Thomas (1986)[62] compared two high school mathematics classrooms where one group was taught with a cooperative goal structure while the other was with an individualistic goal structure. Both groups were taught on computation and percentages and the academic composition for each group was fairly distributed. Students were grouped for peer tutoring and were expected to compete in a learning-game-tournament the following day. There were no significant differences on the pretest. However, the posttest scores reveal that the cooperative goal structured group had significantly higher scores than the group who received individualistic goal structure. These results show robust support for Deutch’s theories on cooperation and competition, specifically the benefits of cooperation.

Types and Techniques of Cooperative Learning


Formal Cooperative Learning


Formal Cooperative Learning Groups are composed of students working together for a class period or several weeks on, specific tasks or assignments to achieve learning goals. Examples of these tasks and assignments include: problem solving, writing a report, conducting an experiment, learning vocabulary, or answering questions at the end of a chapter[1]. To ensure the effectiveness of the groups, teachers should follow a four step process that goes as follow: Make pre- instructional decisions, Explain, Monitor, and Assess. In the pre- instructional decision phase, the teacher must make specifications of the objectives for the lesson. These pre- instructional decisions include: size of groups, the method of assigning students to groups, roles of each student, the materials needed, as well as, room arrangement[1]. After setting guidelines, the teacher must now explain the task and positive interdependence[1]. Positive interdependence is an element of cooperative learning, in which group members share common goals, understand the benefits both personally and collectively of working together, and comprehend that the success of the group relies on the participation of each member. Once the teacher has instructed the necessary concepts and strategies for the task, the assignment must now be clearly defined. Specifications of positive interdependence and individual accountability, as well as, the necessary social skills for the task are also explained by the teacher in the second step[1] . In the following step, the teacher should monitor all groups and step in when necessary to provide guidance, task assistance, and to improve the students’ interpersonal and group skills. In this phase the teacher collects data based on systematic observations of how each group is cooperating together. In the final step, the teacher will assess the students’ learning and help students process how their groups functioned[1]. The learning and performance of each student in each group is assessed carefully by the teacher. Lastly, each group discusses how adequately they worked together and discuss any improvements that can be made for the future.

Informal Cooperative Learning


Informal Cooperative Learning Groups are ad hoc groups that last for a few minutes to one class period[1]. Students in these groups work collaboratively to attain a common learning goal. Informal cooperative learning can be used during a lecture, demonstration, or film to produce specific criteria for the joint learning goal[1]. According to Johnson and Johnson, this criteria is as follows: focus the attention of the student on the material to be learned, establish a frame of mind useful to learning, assist in setting expectations of what will be covered in a class section, ensure that students cognitively process the material that is taught, lastly provide closure to an instructional session. The teacher will face certain challenges during the instructional phase, such as assuring that each student is participating in the intellectual work of formulating material. The teacher must also ensure that students are able to clarify and condense the learning material as well as combine what they are learning with existing academic principles. These groups are formulated to engage students for three- to five minute discussions focused on the common goal before and after a lecture. Throughout the lecture “turn- to- your- partner” style discussions are facilitated which last for two- to- three minutes at a time.

Cooperative Base Groups


Cooperative Base Groups differ from the previously mentioned groups in that they are long-term lasting from one to several years. These cooperative learning groups consist of individuals from different proficiency levels and perspectives with a required stable membership. The objective of these base groups are to support, help, encourage, and assist the needs of one another to continue progressing academically as well as socially and cognitively[1]. In elementary schools, these base groups meet daily where as in secondary school the groups meet twice a week. Due to the fact that these base groups are permanent, they promote caring peer relationships that have longevity. More importantly, they enable members to encourage each other to work hard in school. During these base group meetings, members discuss their academic progress, confirm the completion of assignments of each member, and ensure that everyone is progressing satisfactorily in their program. In addition, members keep track of each other’s attendance and provide any assignments and lecture materials that a member may have missed while absent. The benefits provided by the facilitation of these base groups are numerous. Not only do members serve as a support system for one another, they also improve the quality and quantity of learning[1]. The formation of base groups enhances the classroom and school management when given the responsibility of conducting a year long service project to improve the school[1]. It is also important to note that these groups are most advantageous for larger classrooms and/or schools, as well as, complex subject material.

Now that the types of Cooperative Learning have been explained, it is now important to recognise and explain different techniques of Cooperative Learning. The techniques that will be covered are: Think - Pair - Share, Numbered Heads, Three- Step Interview and Inside-Out Circle. It should be noted that these are just a small sample of techniques as there are many, including the Jigsaw method discussed earlier.

Techniques of Cooperative Learning


Think - Pair - Share is a popular cooperative learning strategy that enables students to engage in higher level thinking. This strategy provides students with the opportunity to think about a question posed by the teacher. Students are then asked to share and discuss potential solutions. This simple yet effective method enables students to generate and revise their hypothesis as well as elicit their inductive and deductive reasoning[1]. This technique is applicable to a variety of course domains.

Numbered Heads Together begins with the teacher instructing each student to number off into groups of 1, 2, 3, or 4. A question is then asked by the teacher to which the students discuss together in their groups and decide collectively on the answer. A number (1, 2, 3, or 4) is then called by the teacher and students with that corresponding number respond.[63]

Three-Step Interview can be used as an icebreaker, to help introduce students to one another. Students first interview each other in pairs and then reverse roles. The function of this technique is to enable students to share their ideas, reactions and, conclusions on a topic [63].

Inside-Out Circle technique provides students with the opportunity to discuss details with their classmates in an organised way. Students are asked to stand in pairs of concentric circles. The inside circle faces out while the outside circle faces in. Students may use flashcards or can respond to the questions posed by the teacher as they rotate to each new partner [63].

Criticisms, Issues, Challenges and Future Considerations


Despite the promise of cooperative learning in promoting academic and social goals, its nature of multidimensionality brings criticism, issues and challenges to researchers and practitioners. [64]

Criticism and Issues of Cooperative Learning


The validity and reliability of research on cooperative learning are often questioned for its uncontrolled variables, such as teacher personality, student’s age, student’s expectation, and sample size[65][66]. Specifics in the learning context are not always fully identified, and therefore teachers cannot get clear practical directions from empirical research  [65]. In the early years, critics claimed that high performers may not benefit from cooperative learning as low performing ones, whereas,  noticeable increase of social self-esteem and improvement of leadership skills was then reported in gifted student group with cooperative learning experience [67]. Criticism also arises from the additional cost of cooperative learning implementation. This includes teacher’s time developing new teaching techniques, cooperative learning tasks, dealing with discomfort and conflicts of students, and potential negative result in the initial trial. Cooperative learning also tends to be time consuming on the learner’s part. Nevertheless, one should consider the improved effectiveness of this pedagogy together with its extra cost [65]. The critics were right, though, on low differentiation of individual ability when the majority of course grade only comprises of group tasks.  

The positive outcome of cooperative learning originates from meaningful group interactions such as exchanging conceptual explanations and learning assistance [68]. Problems remain unresolved why teachers could still obtain the benefits of cooperative learning even without incorporating the key elements of cooperative learning design [69]

Challenges in Cooperative Learning Practice


The challenge of cooperative learning is rooted in its multiple dimensions[64]: physical organization of the classroom, learning task, instructional and communicative behaviors of teachers, as well as, academic and social behaviors of students. Cultural factors should also be considered particularly when cooperative activities  are incompatible with firm traditional beliefs[70].

Given the complexity of cooperative learning, it is not surprising that researchers are confronted with subject-specific learning design as well as reluctance from both teachers and students. Teacher’s resistance is partially attributed to losing control of communication channel. It becomes a bigger issue when the added preparation time for cooperative learning does not translate into a success. Student resistance, especially after unproductive experience, is often caused by a lack of necessary social skills. Although social skill training is a required element in cooperative learning, it is under-emphasized or even neglected in reality. Challenges in learning design occur mainly in group composition, task construction, and assessment stages. In group composition stage, there remains the question of how teachers balance multiple factors including gender, group size, individual ability, personality, and social proximity, to make an informed decision; Group tasks have a significant impact on intergroup interactions and student motivations. Research has shown that flexible, open-ended, discovery- based tasks are generally effective; in the assessment stage, concerns are expressed about conducting precise assessment of individuals in a group assignment.[71]

Another challenge is the discrepancy between teachers’ and researchers’ understanding about cooperative learning. It is reported that only a small percentage of teachers employed identifiable forms of cooperative learning[71]. The source of such discrepancy comes from additional workload in cooperative learning practice, which makes teachers opt to scale down their practice to a manageable level. A second reason of perception discrepancy could be in current research. Research studies frequently emphasize the benefits of cooperative learning but do not reveal sufficient practical details about the specific approaches for teachers to use for their teaching situation. Also, there may have been a lack of consensus between teachers and researchers about the meaning of cooperative learning and the importance of each cooperative learning element.  

Future Considerations in Cooperative Learning


To address the aforementioned issues and challenges, the cooperative learning community have recently concentrated on teacher’s receptivity of cooperative learning –their beliefs and attitudes, implementation and adaptation of tested models, and how they evaluate their practice. Teachers’ main motive to adopt the methodology is grounded in their belief about social constructional of knowledge, and the proved benefit of social learning in heterogeneous classrooms[68]. There are also signs that teachers interpret cooperative learning through the theoretical framework of social constructivism. Yet it should not be overlooked that teachers’ experience as students also shape their initial attitudes towards cooperative learning[68].    

The transformation of “working together” into authentic cooperative learning experience requires certain conditions in order to promote positive interdependence and individual accountability. Other components of cooperative learning include promotive interaction, group process, and development of student’s social skills. It is essential to emphasize the importance of establishing these key components in teacher education. It is also helpful to have ongoing professional development in the classroom applications of cooperative learning[72]

New forms of cooperative learning are constantly emerging across a variety of disciplines, age levels and cultures. Future researchers need to identify distinct features between different approaches, and understand what could have impeded successful implementation of cooperative learning. Eventually, a comprehensive framework will be established with specifics of the method with their optimal conditions. In a recent statistical meta-analysis of cooperative learning multiple moderators including method, discipline, content, age level and culture, were examined for their effects on student achievement. Other moderators such as use of pre-test and duration of intervention can be further investigated[73]. Moreover, while most of the attentions have been on the academic achievement of cooperative learning, the following research can be conducted in affective domain (student’s attitude and motivation). Researchers may also extend their investigations to adult learning environment and online learning environment. 

This section has attempted to shed some light on the issues and challenges that are repeatedly encountered in cooperative learning. Although these challenges remain to be addressed in the future, cooperative learning is an irreplaceable methodology in promoting academic achievement and social involvement in today’s diverse classroom.  

Inquiry-based Learning


An Overview


Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is not a new concept in learning; it has roots in constructivism as described in the works of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Ausubel [74] as well as in the texts of Bruner and Dewey[37]. Inquiry involves the active participation of students in the discovery of new knowledge through the use of natural curiosity, wonder, and the asking of questions.  For some educators, inquiry is a philosophical stance that learning is a social process that involves posing and solving problems while collectively making discoveries and creating knowledge (  Examples of Inquiry-based learning (IBL) include problem-based learning, discovery learning, project-based learning, and game-based learning.  Inquiry is often linked to the skills that are thought to be necessary for learning in the 21st century due to changes in technology and the way in which we are now communicating with each other [75].

IBL can be applied in a variety of disciplines and subject matters, however, its application may vary depending on the context of the teaching-learning environment [37]. IBL is adaptive across disciplines because it is not prescriptive, but rather is a general approach to learning. In IBL, the instructor plays an essential role in creating the environment in which effective learning can take place, while at the same time allowing the learner to assume greater responsibility over their own learning. In this process, the learner is an active participant in their learning, and the instructor acts as a guide or mentor.

What is Inquiry-Based Learning


Inquiry-based learning is a strategy used in education that aims to create a more learner-focused, active, and engaging experience than in traditional teacher-centered approaches[37].  In IBL, the student is not seen as a passive recipient of knowledge, but is instead responsible for their own learning by being active in a process that is similar to that of professional scientists [76].  Learners are involved in defining a problem or hypothesis, and then solving or exploring it through self-directed investigation and the use of inductive and deductive reasoning.  It is suggested that IBL changes the culture of learning in schools into that of collaborative communities of inquiry [75].   There is an emphasis on personal meaning and relevance, that is thought be more motivating as students form their own questions and deepen their understandings through investigation, conversation with others, and reflection on their own learning within the phases of the inquiry process.

There are many different ways in which the inquiry process can be described.  However, Pedaste et al. [76] suggest that most researchers and authors use some kind of ordered sequence of phases but often emphasize that it is not a linear process. Their study examined 32 articles describing an inquiry process and identified five distinct general inquiry phases in which several sub-phases could be grouped.  The first phase is the Orientation phase in which the learner becomes interested or curious about a certain phenomenon that is either introduced by the teacher or defined by the learner.  Some of the descriptors of this phase include observation, exploration, finding a topic, orientation to a question.  The second phase of inquiry can be described as Conceptualization which is the process of understanding the concept that underlies the problem through the two sub-phases:  Questioning, stating a theory-based question, and/or Hypothesis Generation, creating a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon to be studied.  This phase generates the research questions to be answered and/or hypotheses to be investigated through the inquiry process.  Investigation is the third phase in which action takes place to answer or investigate the questions or hypothesis.  The sub-phases of investigation include Exploration (systematically planning data generation), Experimentation (designing and conducting experiments to test the hypothesis), and Data Interpretation (analyzing the collected data and synthesizing new knowledge).  The fourth phase is Conclusion in which learners address their original questions or hypotheses through the results of their investigation.  The last phase of inquiry is the Discussion phase. Students present their findings of their inquiry to others (peers, teacher, community) and collect feedback through the sub-phase of Communication and then evaluate their own process through the sub-phase of Reflection. The key to the phases is that they are not necessarily linear - at any point there will be discussion between peers and the teacher, communication of student thinking and reflection, and there may be movement back and forth between orientation, conceptualization and investigation as the process continues.  

The Phases of Inquiry


Pedaste et al. [76] used the phases identified to create a synthesized inquiry-based learning framework that demonstrate how the phases are interconnected (page 56).  The framework suggests that while the cycle of inquiry might start with Orientation, there is flexibility in the different pathways that can be followed in the process.  The main point of the framework is to provide a general structure in which the complex processes of IBL can be designed to provide adequate guidance and enhance the efficiency of the learning process.

Why does Inquiry-Based Learning Matter?


IBL has become an increasingly popular way of teaching and learning in the K-12 education system in part due to recent emphasis on personalized and 21st Century learning[75][77].  There is growing concern that traditional ways of learning are not meeting the needs of students who are living in a rapidly changing world that is becoming increasingly interconnected through advances in technology.  Kuhlthau, Maniotes, & Caspari[75] suggest that schools have the challenge of preparing students for the workplace, citizenship, and daily living within an uncertain and changing environment.  They argue that guided inquiry responds to this challenge.

Vaughan & Prediger [37]suggest that IBL has also been somewhat controversial in K-12 education.  They report that the announcement of the Province of Alberta’s plan to focus on an IBL approach was met with protests and petitions by some parent groups while others have argued the importance of using IBL to help students in critical thinking, problem solving, and communication. Those opposed to IBL argue that this method leaves students without necessary foundation skills particularly in areas of Mathematics and Literacy and advocate for a return to more traditional methods of teaching that emphasize "the basics". Those in favour of IBL insist that in order to thrive in an age where technology is changing how we access information, student need to learn how to inquire and discover information that may not even currently exist. They suggest that the future of the economic success depends on students having skills to be engaged learners who have critical thinking skills, creativity, a strong work ethic, the ability to communicate and collaborate.

However, while IBL practices are increasingly being adopted at all level and disciplines in K-12, Wilder [78] points out that in order to ensure that IBL provides positive learning outcomes, attention needs to be paid to careful and adequate implementation.  She argues that the process of using these instructional strategies is complex and requires that in addition to teachers and students being well-trained in the process, so must administrators and other school staff.   Additionally, there needs to be enough evidence that these methods are effective to justify the time and resources required to properly implement these processes.



IBL has been firmly rooted in constructivism, with John Dewey making one of the first cases for inquiry-based teaching using the scientific method as a model in the 1930’s and Piaget and Bruner adding their support afterwards (   IBL became particularly prominent in the 1970’s in the teaching of science education[74].  Scientific inquiry has guided the practices of IBL which is reflected in its emphasis on questioning, gathering and analyzing data, and drawing conclusions[79].  In 1979, McMaster University extended the IBL approach to their interdisciplinary Arts and Science program that was so successful, the approach was expanded to other areas and programs including the social sciences[80].  Since the 1980’s several educators and researchers have continued to promote IBL, coining phrases such as “a community of inquiry” along with models and frameworks with which to guide classrooms and schools of all levels of education[37].  Most recently in Canada, in 2013, IBL was featured by the Government of Ontario in their Capacity Building Series newsletter for parents and educators (, the Government of Alberta redesigned curriculum in 2014 to become more inquiry focused[37],  and the Ministry of Education in British Columbia featured IBL in its redesigned curriculum in 2015

Theoretical Contributions towards Inquiry Based Learning

Constructivist Learning Perspective

Inquiry based learning draws it roots from the theory of constructivism which states that people construct their own knowledge and understanding based on their experiences and reflection on those experiences. Constructivism gradually added to itself various cognitive and social perspectives among many other that are increasingly applied to learning and teaching through Inquiry. The major theme of constructivist theory is that learning is an active process based on learners' prior knowledge and is modified by new learning. It can be broadly divided into cognitive constructivism – that focuses on humans constructing their own knowledge based on their mental frameworks; and social constructivism – that lays its importance on the social interaction to build knowledge.

Cognitive Constructivism

John Dewey

John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher and educator who defined inquiry as the “controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to the elements of original situation into a unified whole”[81]. He promoted the idea of ‘learning by doing’ that influenced contemporary constructivism. John Dewey believed that going to an education institution is not the same as getting an education[82]. Learning does not necessarily happen only in schools and colleges. According to him, a person who is self motivated, diligent and a keen observer working in a factory is also acquiring education albeit with out getting a degree. For learning to take place, the person must be involved in a circuit of disequilibrium and restoration - a concept further focused by Jean Piaget. Therefore, learner’s active involvement to construct knowledge piece by piece into a comprehensive product of phenomenon is the essence of inquiry based learning. He advanced the following pattern of inquiry that form the basis for the steps in inquiry based learning in our classrooms[83].

  • Antecedents Conditions of Inquiry: Per Dewey, the pre-requisites to inquiry is ability to question – only then there is a motivation to seek for answers or inquiry. He mentions that inquiry stems from unique uncertainty and disturbance of a situation, otherwise in case of non-specific doubtfulness about a situation, it would result in ‘complete panic’[83] and blind responses.  In other words, students are encouraged to engage in self regulated process of questioning to describe a unique problem that arouse a focused response necessary for transition to the next steps of inquiry.
  • Defining a Problem:  the next step of inquiry is determining the problem. It is a partial transformation of a discomfort state to a more controlled situation about the problem. However, an important note that Dewey makes is that defining the problem does engage a student in applying inquiry to the situation but it does not involve deeper explorations of inquiry.
  • Determination of a Problem Solution: Dewey explains this stage of determining a problem solution as the first predictor of the possible explanation of the problem. The process requires learners to make various suggestions towards determining the solutions of the problem that will produce ideas for the hypothesis generation.
  • Reasoning: This stage refers to constructing propositions or hypothesis, a general guiding set of reasoning that controls the direction of study. The ideas formulated in the previous stage of a creating some probable solutions must be further refined so that, per Dewey, they become more relevant or focused to the problem than original set of broad ideas. Additionally, the hypothesis thus formulated should be then open to be tested in its applicability to be either rejected or accepted as plausible solutions to the problem.
  • The Operational Character of Fact Meaning: The next stage in inquiry is based on the interaction between facts and its meaning and test if they meet an end (based on the proposed hypothesis). Dewey states that the nature of the facts is operational i.e based on their relevance to the problem and its hypothesis, facts are either accepted for further research or dropped. Therefore, they posses a character of being acted upon (tested) to reach an end and is not a final product.
  • Common Sense and Scientific Inquiry: John Dewey refers to the final stage as a true nature of a scientific inquiry. It stems from undertaking a scientific research to establish relationships between factors to understand a phenomenon. The scientific character of a phenomenon is its absolute nature – ‘it means that it is free from restriction to conditions which present themselves’[83] at any given time.

Application of Pattern of Inquiry in Classrooms: The pattern of inquiry is applied in inquiry based learning classrooms to direct learners towards generating scientific solutions to a problem situation: a) arousing an emotional response, b) translating an intellectual response, c) formulation of hypothesis, d) testing/ experimenting, e) evaluating the result.He rejected the curriculum driven method of schooling delivered in an instructional method and promoted the intertwining of the content to be taught with the interests, prior knowledge of the learners in a constructive manner. The role of the learner in education is being an active participant in the learning rather than being passive recipients of information and experience.

Jean Piaget   

Jean Piaget (August 9, 1896 – September 16, 1980) was a Swiss clinical psychology who developed a framework on how children construct their thinking from their experiences. He mentioned that children begin to make sense of their environment by constructing schemas. Schemas are constructs in the brain that are built by the continuous process of assimilation and accommodation. Piaget expanded Dewey’s idea of reflexive arc, which refers to the circular process of producing a response (to reach a state of reconstitution) to a stimulation or sensation (from a state of disintegration)[84], by postulated that children are motivated to inquire and learn to reach a state of equilibrium. Hence, students learn best when they are provided with questions that cause a situation of disequilibrium for learners and they strive to find solution to the problem to reach back to a state of equilibrium. This is the focus of inquiry based learning where the teacher instruments learning by facilitating students to think critically, thus generating meaningful questions/ problems and encouraging them to find relevant solutions. The focus of cognitive constructivism undermines the role of a facilitator that necessitated to include a social perspective of constructivism.

Social Constructivism  

Lev Vygotsky  

Cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky (November 17, 1896 – June 11, 1934) theorised children’s learning as a product of internalising environment with their social interactions. Vygotsky emphasised the importance of social exchanges as an instrument for developing individual thinking through the process of internalising the co – constructed high order mental processes[85]. According to Vygotsky, scaffolding plays an important role in developing students learning in classroom. As mentioned earlier, inquiry based learning focuses on student’s motivation to address open ended questions through guided research. Vygotsky emphasises the importance of the role a facilitator to allow the students to successfully reach their learning goals. Applying Vygotsky’s social constructivism to classroom teaching and learning, it is inferred that the facilitator is a significant instrument to keep the students research in perspective and direct their research towards attaining their equilibrium. Although, inquiry based learning is student lead study, the noteworthy part of a teacher in streamlining the students’ effort, to sustain their motivation, is recognised by Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. 

Jerome Bruner

Bruner (October 1, 1915 – June 5, 2016) was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to our understanding of the mind and instruction for the children to learn best. He is a strong propagator of constructing knowledge through enquiry[86]. In his view ‘knowledge is made not found’[86] that is the core element of constructivism and thus, inquiry based learning. Bruner says that learners learn best by discovery because such learnings are based on ‘extensions, elaborations or reformulation of current or preceding understanding’[87] rather than verbal, curriculum focused, already inferred explanations lead by the teacher.

He, following Vygotsky, believed the vital role of culture and language skills in the process of learning and postulated a theory often named as Bruner’s Triad that outlines the stages of human learning – enactive, iconic and symbolic[86].  He also stressed, influenced by Piaget, the importance of indeterminacy and uncertainty that motivates students to create new findings or organise into the existing mental frames, like schemas. He mentioned ‘will to learn’ as an important factor in motivating the learner to engage in the process of constructing new knowledge.

Having focused on the various factors for inquiry based learning viz. self elaboration, motivation and language, he does not undermine the importance of a meaningful constructive teacher interaction with the learner. He mentions the importance of a ‘systematic and contingent interaction’ of the student and teacher for a robust intellectual development[86].

Applications & Strategies


Inquiry Communities


Applying the general skills of inquiry-based learning (IBL) requires the formation of a community, in which students must be encouraged to develop meaningful questions [37]. In this context, the school is considered a larger inquiry community in which individual classes exist and each class is its own inquiry community [75]. In order for IBL to be used effectively, the teacher must take the time to create a respectful environment for students to openly share their ideas [88]. In addition, the environment must provide the resources, knowledge and skills required by learners to be able to ask questions and take responsibility for their learning [37]. This environment is meant to encourage students to think critically and creatively by applying logic, reasoning, argumentation and judgement, in order to develop higher order thinking skills [37]. By enabling students to engage in more holistic investigations of questions that are meaningful to them, IBL communities allow students to consider others perspectives, and make meaning out of complex life situations [37]. IBL learning communities must understand the interdependence of IBL tools and must embrace the idea that inquiry is relevant to learning in life, that learning happens in a social context, and that collaboration enables an individual’s capacity to learn [75].

Figure 1: Interdependence of inquiry tools

Figure one, taken from Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari framework for inquiry model, conveys how the different aspects of IBL are interconnected. Students rely on each other to collaborate, record, log, organize, synthesize and develop their inquiry tools to construct personal understandings from a variety of information sources. The largest circle within which all the other ideas are located is the inquiry community, which is a collaborative environment where students learn with each other, raise questions, hear others perspectives, try out ideas and share their own views [75]. Kuhlthau et al. focus on the importance of the inquiry journal which is at the centre of the learning community. It provides a way for individuals to compose and reflect throughout their inquiry process and is the center of learning because it is student-created and embedded within IBL to help students think and reflect. Inquiry logs provide ways to keep track of quality sources that are chosen as important for addressing inquiry questions and inquiry charts provide a way to visualize, organize and synthesize ideas in the inquiry process [75].

Applied Inquiry Strategies


In IBL, there are four main levels of inquiry that range from simplest to most complex, based on ability level: confirmation, structured, guided and open inquiry. Useful in any subject matter and for all ages, the inquiry levels are most effectively used with students who have had extensive practice with developing their inquiry abilities and understandings before conducting their own investigations [88].

Confirmation inquiry is the most basic level of IBL. In confirmation inquiry, students confirm a principle through an activity when the results are known in advance [88]. To do so, the teacher first provides the students with the results. They then provide the students with questions and procedures from which the students goal is to confirm a theory [89]. For example, a science teacher may say “In this investigation, you will confirm that leaves change colour because the break down of chlorophyll in the autumn season allows other pigments to be seen. You will use chromatography paper to verify this principle. Using the following procedure, record your results as indicated and answer the questions at the end of the activity.” This technique is often used when a teacher wants to reinforce a previously introduced idea, have the students practice a specific inquiry skill (eg. collecting and recording data), or introduce students to the experience of conducting investigations [88]. The second level of IBL is structured inquiry in which students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure [89]. In structured inquiry, students need to use data they collect in order explain the relationship between the phenomenon and the outcome [88]. For example, a history teacher may request students to conduct an investigation to determine the relationship between the strength of an economy and civil conflict. The teacher will help students narrow down which economies and conflicts to study, and guide them towards using reliable sources to enable them to answer the questions provided. The students will follow a teacher-prescribed procedure, record their results as indicated by the teacher and answer teacher created questions at the end of the activity.

Third, guided inquiry allows students to design and select their own procedures to investigate a question proposed by the teacher [89]. For example, in a physical education class, the teacher may ask the students to design an investigation to answer the question: how much physical activity is required for lactic acid build up in an athlete’s muscles to result in muscle fatigue? Students will be directed to design each component of the investigation including a hypothesis, procedure, data analysis and conclusion [89]. In order for this level to be successful it’s imperative that teachers scaffold the skills of planning experiments and recording data, as well as provide students with ample opportunity to practice these skills [88]. The investigation can be started once the procedure is approved by the teacher.

The highest level of inquiry is open inquiry. In this level, students investigate questions that are student-formulated through student-designed and selected procedures [89]. For example, an English teacher might ask students to design an investigation to explore and research an English topic related to the concepts of language that they have been studying during their unit on linguistics. This level employs the greatest cognitive demand from students and requires that students can successfully design and carry out investigations when provided with the question [88]. This is because, open inquiry includes being able to record and analyze data, as well as draw conclusions from the evidence collected [88].

Types of Guidance in Inquiry Cycle


Guidance as defined by Lazonder and Harmsen (2016) meta-analysis could be any form of assistance provided before and/or during the inquiry learning process. The guidance is offered by the teacher in an attempt to simplify the task, supplant (i.e., provide scaffolded instructions), provide a perspective on, prompt, and prescribe the scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. Reid, Zhang, and Chen (2003) proposed interpretative guidance for helping learners develop a conceptual understanding, experimentation guidance that guides learners to plan and conduct a more sophisticated experiment, and reflective guidance that helps learners to reflect on their inquiry and learning. In order to account for the younger and more naïve learners, a broader and more explicit framework is offered by T. De Jong and Lazonder (2014). The types of support offered in T. De Jong and Lazonder typology of inquiry learning guidance include the following:

  • Process constraints offer less specific assistance to learners with more inquiry skills. This type of guidance breaks down the inquiry learning process into smaller and more feasible tasks that allows for more components that the learners can investigate and have control over.
  • Status overview offers a summary of learners’ performance in order to display students’ progress. The decision to use or not to use this type of guidance is left to the students.
  • Prompts offer cues or hints at relevant times to remind the learners of what they are required to do.
  • Heuristics remind learners to perform a task and offers assistance on how to perform the task. Heuristics could be used as cues offered before the inquiry learning process or provided in response to students’ actions.
  • Scaffolds offer help with more demanding tasks by explaining the tasks that the students need to do, by explaining to students how to carry out the task, by providing the identified means to execute the task, by structuring the task, or by simplifying the task to make it more achievable. In comparison to heuristics, scaffolds provide more specific guidance. Based on the Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of the zone of proximal development, the scaffolding instruction should be removed gradually as the learners attain competence in the task. However, because acquiring inquiry-based learning skills is a lengthy process, the scaffolding might not fade away in cases of short-term inquiry learning.
  • Explanations provide the most detailed guidance to learners who lack inquiry skills. In contrast to the other types of guidance, explanations could be offered prior to the inquiry as an introductory training or during the inquiry as a just-in-time feedback to illustrate the application of the required rules and procedures and to illustrate concepts and principles.

Intervention Strategies: The Six C’s


Inquiry-based learning is more than just identifying a task, collecting information and accomplishing the task. Rather it is a process of thinking and learning from a variety of sources that involves constructing a personal understanding [75]. Gradually introduced and integrated across the four strategies of inquiry, the six C’s allow students to practice learning strategies required to be successful in IBL [75].

Chart one below briefly explains the 6 C's.

Intervention Strategies: The Six C's
Collaborate Works together with others.
Converse Talk about ideas with others in order to clarify questions.
Compose Keep reflection journals throughout entire research process.
Choose Selects what is interesting and relevant.
Chart Visualizes ideas using pictures, timelines and graphic organizers.
Continue Develops an understanding over a period of time and finishes project to completion.

During the collaboration phase, students try out ideas and listen to their peers' perspectives. Consulting with classmates allows students to learn from each other, identify gaps and inconsistencies in their thinking, raise questions about the facts and ideas they are encountering and construct meaning about new ideas. In the composition phase, students construct new ideas and shape learning [75]. Composing and reflecting, through journal writing, fosters thinking, and is the main strategy for forming thoughts and developing understanding in the inquiry process [75]. Choosing allows students to make their own decisions and encourages them to take control of their own inquiry process by letting them select what they find interesting and important [75]. In addition, encouraging students to present information visually, by constructing concept maps, graphic organizers, timelines and flowcharts, allows them to chart their learning and organize their ideas while making connections between them [75]. Following these steps when implementing IBL will foster expertise within students and enable them to share their learning with others in their community.

Problem-Based Learning


Instructional approaches such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project based learning, discovery learning, case-based learning are considered to be inductive (Prince & Felder, 2007). In inductive methods of teaching, students are given challenging issues or problems and are required to acquire knowledge in order to resolve the issues or problems. According to Prince and Felder (2007), “all inductive methods are variants of inquiry, differing essentially in the nature of the challenge and the type and degree of support provided by the instructor” (p. 15). The following two scenarios illustrate the difference between the nature of the challenge, the type of the support, and degree of the support provided by the instructor:

Mr. Jones is teaching grade 8 students. He wants his students to learn their state’s geography and each region and city’s major characteristics. He put students into small group to engage in a collaborative problem solving activity. The following scenario was given to the students: a large computer company is starting its manufacturing business in the state. Each small group is required to work on an assigned region in the state and to develop an argument for why the proposed facility location should be in that geographic region. To support their reasons, students are invited to collect evidence regarding the region’s labor force, cost of utilities in that region, quality of educational facilities, proximity of the higher education facilities, and accessibility to transportation-related facilities. Students are expected to collect information by utilizing resources in the media centre or Internet and create a poster including textual descriptions and supporting images, and to put together a presentation of their conducted reasons and evidence in support of their position. Each student is expected to undertake responsibility for collecting information on different elements.

Adapted from Schunk [90]

Definitions of Problem-Based Learning


As a type of inquiry-based learning (IBL), problem-based learning (PBL) has its roots in scientific reasoning[91].   However, the practice of PBL as an educational strategy was born from the desire to improve the education of medical students and originated at McMaster University in the 1960’s[78]. The original goal of McMaster University was to prepare their medical graduates to be competent learners who have the skills to keep up with the changing knowledge in the medical field [92]. In 1960s, Howard Barrows developed a tutorial process in which student-centered approach became an alternative to the traditional disciplinary teacher-centered approach in medical curriculum. Barrows implemented an instructional method in which the teacher builds on the students’ collaborative thinking and the students elaborate on the teacher’s facilitation. In fact, based on Barrows’ perspective, knowledge is co-constructed by the students and the teacher [93]. Barrows and Kelson (1993) argue that problem-based learning is a “total approach” that is used across the whole curriculum. Barrows and Kelson further explain that in problem-based learning, there is a “curriculum of carefully selected and designed problems that demand from the learner acquisition of critical knowledge, problem solving proficiency, self-directed learning strategies, and team participation skills” (p. 2). The PBL process “replicates the commonly used systemic approach to resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career” [94](p. 2). Boud (1985) expanded on the early definitions of problem-based learning and identified eight distinguishing features of problem-based learning courses:

  • Acknowledge learners’ prior experiences
  • Learners take a responsible role in their own learning
  • Create connections across disciplines
  • Bridge the gap between theory and practice
  • Concentrate on the process of acquiring knowledge rather than the end product of knowledge acquisition
  • Change the teachers role from disseminator of knowledge to facilitator of learning
  • Focus on self- and peer-assessment rather than teacher-assessment
  • Develop communication and teamwork skills so that learners become competent in communicating the acquired knowledge with others

In fact, the main elements of problem-based learning focuses around organizing curriculum around problems, teaching problem solving skills, teaching in small groups, and developing life-long and self-directed learners who are capable of taking control of their learning and assessing themselves [95]. Furthermore, PBL focuses on using real world problems that are relevant and contextual and on using open-ended problems that have more than one answer [96]. Taking the lead from McMaster University, other medical schools also began using this learning strategy and research indicated that this method improved clinical and problem-solving skills for doctors in training. The content and structure of PBL are varied across courses but the overall goals and learning objectives of PBL remain the same. In the 1980’s the success of PBL inspired other health and professional fields such as architecture, business administration, chemical engineering, law schools, leadership education, nursing, teacher education, science courses, biochemistry, calculus, chemistry, economics, geology, and psychology [97]. This was expanded to undergraduate education in the 1990’s with further extension into secondary education, particularly in math and science (STEM)[91].

Problem-Based Learning Process


Problem based learning is an experiential learning process where students collaboratively work in small groups to investigate, explain, and resolve meaningful problems [98] [99]. According to Hmelo-silver (2004), teachers facilitate students’ learning by guiding them through the learning cycle (see Fig. 2). In PBL cycle, a problem scenario is displayed for students. The students work together to analyze the problem by identifying relevant facts related to the problem. The identification of facts enables students to better represent the problem. When students develop an understanding of the problem, they begin to produce hypotheses about potential solutions. Another significant factor in the PBL cycle is pinpointing the knowledge insufficiencies. When knowledge deficiencies are identified, students begin to search for corrective actions. Addressing the learning deficiencies requires engaging in an independent or self-directed research. After having an independent research, students regroup to report and discuss the findings. When the task is completed, students pause to think reflectively about the problem in order to abstract the knowledge acquired relative to the problem and relative to their self-directed and collaborative problem-solving process. In groups, students re-evaluate hypotheses and create new hypotheses if needed.

Figure 2. Problem Based Learning Process.

Strategies to Facilitate PBL


Barrows organized inquiry learning in groups. His goal was to have students internalize metacognitive skills (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2006). He wanted students to ask metacognitive and causal questions (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2006). As a facilitator, his role was to guide students through learning by making students’ thinking visible. When students’ thinking became visible, their assumptions became the issue under discussion, reflection, and modification. Barrows identified several strategies to facilitate problem-based learning. The facilitation strategies identified by the Barrows include: propelling students to explanation, rephrasing, summarizing, generating/evaluating suppositions, focusing the discussion, addressing new learning issues, drawing causal connections, reaching consensus, and constructing visuals for analysis. The use of these strategies are explained in the following scenario that was developed in Hmelo-Silver and Barrows’ (2006) study:

Strategies to Facilitate PBL
In a problem-based learning environment, the facilitator pushed students to explain their thinking. A student referred to multiple sclerosis as the leading factor to the problems of a patient:

Student: the numbness in the patient’s feet could be a symptom of multiple sclerosis. The patient is old. Although the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis usually occur in 30s and 40s, it can happen in older people.

Facilitator: tell us about multiple sclerosis.

Student: multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease that can cause motor problems. It refers to the sclerotic plaques that develop on the brain.

Facilitator: what causes the sclerotic plaques?

The facilitator rephrased what the students said and reflected back to students the important factors.

Student: one of the hypotheses that we eliminated is that the patient’s condition is caused by too little vitamin B12.

Facilitator: you have eliminated this hypothesis but you still mention the lack of vitamin B12. You’re talking about Pernicious Anemia, which is caused by too little vitamin B12, right?

The facilitator encouraged students to create summaries of the discussion. The summary enabled students to evaluate their assumptions.

Facilitator: Amy could you summarize this patient’s case?

Facilitator: Can I have everyone to indicate whether you agree or disagree with Amy’s summary of the case.

Student A: I agree but I would have included Romberg test to detect balance problems.

Facilitator: You mentioned that she had a loss of balance when walking.

Student B: Yes, she noted that she lost balance at night.

Student C: But she said instability. I don’t interpret instability as a lack of balance.

The facilitator pushed students to create suppositions because it would help them to focus on a purposeful inquiry, to gain awareness of their knowledge deficiencies, to monitor their learning, and to develop self-regulated learning.

Facilitator: Could you tell me what diabetic neuropathy is?

Student A: I’m not able to explain it properly. But, high blood sugar can damage the nerve fibers. One of the symptoms could be the loss of sensation.

Student B: I heard that glucose is transformed into methanol, and the toxicity of methanol imitates creates symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis.

Student C: I’m not sure.

Student D: all diabetics will eventually experience diabetic neuropathy, microvascular problems, and etc. Therefore, it’s a possibility in this case.

Facilitator: Are you pleased with your understanding of diabetic neuropathy?

The facilitator pushed learners to evaluate their hypotheses. The evaluation of the hypotheses occurred throughout the PBL learning process where students jotted down the presented hypotheses, the collected information about the case, and the issues to be addressed during self-directed investigation. Furthermore, the facilitator guided learners to draw causal connections between symptoms and causal mechanisms.

Facilitator: why did you order these tests for the patient?

The facilitator ensured that students addressed all the important issues and asked them to construct visual representation (i.e., flowchart) of their understanding of the case.

Effectiveness of PBL


Several studies have examined the problem-solving performances of students in PBL classes [100] [101] [102] [103]. Patel et al. (1991, 1993) examined the responses of students in traditional (i.e., lecture-based) curricula and students in PBL curricula when asked to explain the diagnosis of a clinical problem. The results indicated that although PBL students were more likely to make errors, they were more elaborated than the students in traditional curricula. Knowledge elaboration involves organizing knowledge into a coherent structure and integrating new knowledge with pre-existing knowledge structure [104]. The researchers suggest that it is more advantageous to form well-elaborated knowledge structure that includes some degree of error than to retain a poorly elaborated knowledge structure that cannot be used [105]. Furthermore, Hmelo-Silver (1998) conducted a longitudinal study of medical students who were followed for the first year of medical school. The study compared students in PBL curricula with students in traditional curricula. Problems were given to students at every testing session during the first week of classes and again after three weeks and seven months. The students were asked to provide causal explanations of these problems. Their explanations were evaluated based on the accuracy, coherence, and the use of science concepts. The results of the study indicated that students in the PBL curricula outperformed students in the traditional curricula. The PBL students were better able to create accurate hypotheses and comprehensible explanations.

On the other hand, the skeptics have criticized PBL for being ineffective. They argue that PBL is ineffective because it places a great demand on teachers and students’ time to produce learning outcomes that are similar to non-PBL methods (see [106]). A number of meta-analyses on empirical studies in PBL have been conducted (e.g., [107] [108] [109] [110] [111]). The results of these meta-analyses were mixed and inconclusive [97]. Therefore, there continues to be a disagreement between the proponents and the opponents on the effectiveness of PBL.

Guidance in PBL


Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) argued that unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are ineffective because they generate a heavy working memory load on lower expertise learners. They claimed that the complexity of ill-structured problems prior to instruction would generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to the learning process. Contrary to the argument of Kirschner el al., Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn (2007) claimed that PBL provide students with a significant amount of guidance by implementing scaffolding (i.e., support for learning and problem-solving) through the use of prompts. Lloyd-Jones, Margetson, and Bligh (1998) addressed how PBL allows for flexible adaptation of guidance and how it allows for management of learners’ cognitive capacity. Lloyd-Jones et al. suggested the following elements for the PBL curricula:

  • Putting students in small groups
  • Providing training in group collaboration skills before the delivery of instruction
  • Assigning a learning task that requires students to explain the basic principles underlying the situation presented in the problem
  • Activating prior knowledge by initiating a discussion about the problem
  • Having a tutor available to facilitate learning
  • Problem designers providing tutors instructions about relevant information and questions
  • Providing resources such as books, articles, and media for self-directed study

The two main activities that facilitate PBL are activating prior knowledge and eliciting elaboration on that knowledge [112]. Schmidt, De Grave, De Volder, Moust, and Patel (1989) tested the assumption that initial problem discussion facilitates the activation of prior knowledge. Schmidt et al. tested the assumption by giving a small group of fourteen-year old high school students the following problem: A red blood cell is placed in pure water and viewed through a microscope. The blood cell swells up and bursts. Another red blood cell is placed into an aqueous salt solution. The cell shrinks and crinkles. The students were asked to explain these phenomena. The students were not familiar with the biological process of osmosis. Therefore, they relied on common sense explanations. One group of students assumed that the membrane consisted of a valve that allowed the water in, but prevented the water from being released. The second group assumed that the cells are filled with sponges. They were convinced that the sponges inside the cell were the reason for water being absorbed in the cell, causing it to bloat. According to a third group, just as salt is used to absorb the liquid from a table cloth that is stained with wine, salt had absorbed all the fluid from the cell, resulting in its shrinkage. In this scenario where all the students had been given a text to study, on the topic of osmosis, different approaches were noticed to be taken by the participants. The group that had taken the time to discuss the blood-cell problem before reading the text were able to remember the details mentioned in the text far more (about 40%) than the students who were given the same text but had talked about an unrelated problem. What is concluded from this finding is that when a problem is discussed within a small group and students’ prior knowledge is activated, even if that prior knowledge is not strongly relevant for comprehending the problem, it would be effective in terms of facilitating students’ memorization and understanding of the new material.

The research in cognitive psychology suggests that prior knowledge plays a role in the acquisition of new knowledge (e.g. Anderson). Therefore, the difficulty level of the problem needs to be adjusted to students’ prior knowledge [113] [114] [115]. The problem designer should carefully consider whether the problems are overpowering students or whether they are insufficiently challenging. According to Dewey (1916), "A large part of the art of instruction lies in making the difficulty of new problems large enough to challenge thought, and small enough so that, in addition to the confusion naturally attending the novel elements, there shall be luminous familiar spots from which helpful suggestions may spring" (p. 157).

Engaging learners in PBL tasks and making the tasks within their zone of proximal development (i.e., providing appropriate support that assists learners perform a task that he or she would not be able to perform alone) requires scaffolding [105]. As a facilitator, the teacher’s role is to scaffold learning through modeling, coaching, and eventually reducing the support provided to the student [105]. A critical aspect of success in PBL is the level of scaffolding provided during the PBL process. It is of great importance that teachers guide learners through the learning process, help them to think more deeply, and model the PBL and PBL skills [105].



According to Vygotsky, students can learn more in collaborative situations than when working individually. Working with peers that contribute diverse abilities will benefit learners according to Vygotsky's zone of proximal development (ZPD) [116]. Contexts that are collaborative and interactive and involve frequent, well-designed assessments significantly improve student confident levels, sense of responsibility, communication skills, initiative, engagement, and learning [117]. It is important to associate collaboration with peer learning rather than individual achievement, otherwise it can lead to unnecessary competition amongst the learners. Implementing group assessments, peer feedback, self-assessment, and cumulative assessments are some suggestions to promote collaborative learning [118]. Assessments can become a part of regular classroom practices to promote students to take responsibility for one another's learning and in fact, incorporating well-designed and managed assessments is the most important step to take to improve student learning [117]. It is important to develop the mindset that all students can acquire the targeted skills, that confusion is part of the learning process, and taking risks by asking questions or proposing suggestions is valued [119].

When students are learning in a collaborative setting, the traditional assessment methods (i.e., the teacher administering a written test and students answering individually) are not suitable to assess collaborative learning. The assessment should reflect the learning process and therefore, be collaborative as well. Collaborative assessment provides the learners with an opportunity to contribute to the assessment. Furthermore, it allows for the teacher and learners to work together to establish a mutually agreed upon assessment of the work or performance of the learners [120]. The use of collaborative, peer, and self assessments have several benefits. In theory, students will a) participate in the assessment process, b) think more deeply, c) develop cognitive skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and self-monitoring, d) see how others solve problems, e) get inspiration from their peers, f) learn to collaborate, provide constructive criticism, suggest improvements, g) reflect on their own efforts [120].

Peer Assessment


Peer assessment is a way to increase participation within group learning situations. Since there are more students than teachers in a classroom, using the students to provide feedback is more immediate and individualized compared to teacher feedback [121]. It typically involves students using standards and criteria and applying them to make judgements on the work of their peers [122]. In well-designed peer assessment based tasks, learners are required to engage in conversations about how to approach the task, discuss how to provide feedback, and finally, how to use the feedback [123]. Peer assessment is intended to consider the quality and value of a product or performance of other equal-status learners [121]. It can be formative or summative and be applied to a variety of tasks, such as oral presentations, written tests, or a particular skill. Peer assessments typically involve three components: task performance, feedback provision, feedback reception, and finally feedback revision [123].

Task performance refers to the activity that the learners are asked to complete or solve. This could be in the form of solving a math problem or building a structure out of newspaper. In the feedback provision phase, there must be a decision as to what is being assessed. The members of the group can assess the product of the task or the process by which the student arrived at the product. In addition, the delivery model of the assessment should be decided prior to the task (eg. 5-point scale). In feedback reception, the learner receives the feedback. The feedback could be provided in a conversation where the learners listen to each other, or the feedback could be given in written form where the person can read it on his/her own. In more interactive situations, learners would be able to discuss the feedback provided. Finally, in feedback revision, the learners have the opportunity to work on the task while incorporating the provided feedback. Learners can do this independently but ideally, they can work together with their peer(s) who provided the feedback to revise the task together [123]. These components coincide with Bandura's ideas that goals can be achieved when people combine their efforts. This collection of knowledge and skills provide mutual support and allow learners to accomplish more working together than on their own [116].

Peer assessment has been used successfully in the elementary and high school levels, including students with learning disabilities [121]. Evidence has shown the effectiveness of peer assessments in improving student learning. However, there are some concerns and limitations to using peer assessments. One of these limitations lies within the students themselves and their level of participation and quality of assessment. Some of the negative social processes may include loafing (failure to participate), free riders effects (accepting another peer's work as their own), diffusion of responsibility, and interaction disabilities. Teachers may also be reluctant to implement peer assessments due to lack of reliability and validity of the peer feedback [122][124]. This is apparent when there is a discrepancy between the teacher's feedback and what the peer's feedback is for the same work. This discrepancy can be the result of biased assessments due to friendships, gender, age and ability, although there isn't enough evidence to indicate the validity of these effects [124].

Group Assessment


If working collaboratively is valued, then this should be reflected in the assessment process, where students are judged on their collaborative efforts, rather than on individual efforts [118]. Group assessments can be used when students are collaborating on a task that is submitted as a collective group, and therefore assessed as a group [125]. The difference between group assessment and peer assessment is that in group assessments the feedback and the judgement of the product or skill is determined by the teacher and applied to the whole group rather than on individuals. In peer assessments, it is another student within the group that is providing judgement on the product or skill [125]. The feedback is a key piece to helping learners grow. According to Vygotsky, learners in the ZPD will use feedback as a scaffold to increase their cognitive growth in peer collaboration [116], which reinforces the merits of group assessments. Although there is some discussion about group assessments in literature, there doesn't seem to be a large presence of empirical research that focuses on the effects and implications of group assessments so there is still a need to explore group assessments further. One of the challenges of using group assessments is ensuring that all learners will obtain the same benefits. Research has shown that in order for all students to receive the same advantage, there must be high-ability students among each group [126].



Self-assessment refers to the involvement of the learner in making judgements about their own work, performance, and learning. As a result, this should foster a sense of reflection and responsibility of one's own learning [127]. To achieve the aims of self-assessment, it should be adopted starting in the primary years to extend the student-centered approach towards learning. Self-assessment will encourage learners to become critical evaluators of their own work and to acknowledge responsibility for their learning [128]. Once developed, the attributes derived from self-assessments can be applied to all levels of education including graduate studies. Students will come to value their own learning and achievements. Self-assessment is commonly linked with peer assessments and in fact can be enhanced by such if done correctly [129]. Similarly to group assessments, some researchers indicate that there needs to be further studies on self-assessment. In particular, a focus on how self-assessment abilities improve over time and in what capacities should be considered [130].

Cooperative Learning


“First, cooperative learning is based solidly on a variety of theories in anthropology (Mead, 1936) , sociology (Coleman, 1961), economics (Von Mises, 1949), political science (Smith, 1759), psychology, and other social sciences” Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Stanne, M. B. (2000). Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis. - Mead Mead, M. (Ed.). (2002). Cooperation and competition among primitive peoples (Vol. 123). Transaction Publishers. - Coleman Coleman, J. S. (1961). The adolescent society.

                               -social cognitive theory/Bandura

“Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency: direct personal agency, proxy agency that relies on others to act on one's behest to secure desired outcomes, and collective agency exercised through socially coordinative and interdependent effort.” Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 1-26.

                               -social interdependence theory/Lewin

“Social interdependence theory provides a foundation on which cooperative learning is built” Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational researcher, 38(5), 365-379.

                               -Piaget, Vygotsky,5





Ill structured Problems: Problems that do not necessarily have a single correct answer but require learners to consider alternatives and to provide a reasoned argument to support the solution that they generate[100]

Problem-Based Learning: Problem-based learning is an active learning method based on the use of ill-structured problems as a stimulus for learning [98]

Shared goals

Small groups

Criteria referenced basis

Dynamic scaffolding


Promotive interaction

Multi-level group process

Interpersonal skills

Individual and group accountability

Suggested Readings



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