Collaborative learning is a strategy in which students work together in small groups with minimal guidance from the instructor in order to achieve an outcome or goal which can only be achieved collectively and interdependently (Johnson and Johnson, 1993). Team members are responsible for discussing and explaining content, solving problems, providing feedback, and ensuring mutual success among all members. They depend on one another as knowledge-providers instead of expecting the instructor to be the sole source of knowledge.
Before discussing assessment of collaborative learning it is important to understand the predominant theory at the core of collaborative learning, which is social cognition or social learning. Social cognitive theory focuses on the social and cultural interactions that are associated with knowledge acquisition. Throughout the 20th century, theorists from varying perspectives sought to explain the value of interaction in human development.
Some say that the rise of social cognition was not only due to dissatisfaction with behaviorism, but also with the “Piagetian structuralist approach to cognitive development” (Butterworth, 1982, p. 5). Others contend that while Piaget primarily focused on developmental stages and how children acted upon knowledge as individuals, he also believed that peer interaction played a role in cognitive development and “emphasized cooperation as the ideal form of social interaction promoting development” (Tudge and Rogoff, 1989, p. 20).
Piaget’s work is sometimes contrasted with that of Vygotsky who focused on a concept known as the “zone of proximal development” which is the difference between the ability of a learner working alone as opposed to the learner’s potential ability working with help from more experienced colleagues. Vygotsky also championed the concept of intersubjectivity, which is the understanding achieved when people work together to co-construct resolution of a problem and is an important part of effective peer interaction. Piaget emphasized “that infants must act to know” while Vygotsky stressed “that they must share to know” (Trevarthen, 1982, p. 81).
The educational movement in the 1960’s that sought to prepare students for a more democratic learning experience was inspired by Dewey’s philosophy of “active participation by the learner in defining the learning environment” (Boettcher and Conrad, 2004). Dewey emphasized the value of the individual experience in the learning process as well as collaboration with others in order to define the learning environment.
Bandura in his 1977 work Social Learning Theory, postulated that thoughts and action were fundamentally social in nature and that they in turn influenced cognitive aspects such as motivation, emotions and action.
Bruner embraced the philosophy that humans learn more effectively through interaction with others. Bruner (Bornstein and Bruner, 1989) stated that “development is intrinsically bound up with interaction” (p.13) and went on to describe the aspect of reciprocity as the “deep human need to respond to others and to operate jointly with them toward an objective” (p. 67).