Independent vs Collaborative Learning

This week in Dr. Graham’s class our four readings had to do with issues of self-directed, independent learning versus collaborative, group-based learning.  It’s interesting that I didn’t think of the “vs.” element until later.  While reading the articles the tensions between collaborative and independent learning were not foremost in my mind.

Of the four readings, I had actually blogged on the Carabajal et al. reading earlier (it was then pushed back).  I didn’t understand the article well then, however.  But this time around it made more sense, in part because it fit more cohesively into the themes for this week.  One of the most interesting points of the article was that there are two main needs which “all groups serve … : to attain the defining goal or central task of the group (i.e., the purpose the group was formed to achieve) and to satisfy the social needs of the members….  Conflicts then develop between task-oriented learning goals and the socioemotional needs of the members” (p. 137).  This tension between the task-attainment and the social needs of group members was at the core of much of our in-class discussion about these articles, though we didn’t highlight this passage in particular.  As the Graham & Misanchunk and the Carabajal et al (and the Johnson & Johnson) articles demonstrate, there are clear benefits to collaboration.  Yet students often fight against it, at least in part because they feel they can better complete a task on their own.  Dr. Graham suggested making tasks complicated enough that working collaboratively seems ideal, despite the extra “overhead” required to coordinate with others.

I liked the article by Graham & Misanchuck, especially because it outlined a lot of key factors that an instructor must consider when devising collaborative learning.  I would now like to read the work of Johnson & Johnson (though we did go into this in more depth in class).  I found their “challenge-and-explain” cycle very interesting, especially as it ties to communication or conversation as a means to improving critical thinking.  Graham & Misanchuck discuss a lot of other factors important in collaborative learning.  One was group size: I wish I knew the perfect discussion group size. I’ve often broken my classes into asynchronous discussion groups of 12-15, but this was based not on educational research but on something from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point — I can’t remember what he calls it, but he discussed 15 after talking about Dunbar’s Number of 150. (Sorry for my vagueness here! Not much of a solid basis for my actions!)  But in the Carabajal reading this quote did seem to back up my choice in size of discussion groups:

Fisher, Thompson, and Silverberg (2004/2005) found online groups need at least 15 members to ensure a minimum of messages, 25 was best for student and instructor satisfaction, large groups worked well for conferences and_discussions, and small groups of three to five members worked best for joint Projects. More than 10 members are needed for collaborative dialogue (Paulus, 2005, quoted in Carabajal, p. 144)

I also feel torn about the issue of heterogeneous vs homogeneous groups, another thing discussed by Graham & Misanchuck.  I do think students have a lot to learn from those less like them.  But I know that they are more comfortable in homogeneity, and the overachievers especially do not want to do group work if they feel their partners will be “social loafers.”  Designing collaborative work that truly stretches all students in a heterogeneous group is also challenging; I would love to see examples of things that teachers, in the trenches, have used.

The other two readings were about the “versus” to collaborative learning — independent or self-directed learning.  I did appreciate that both made the point that even directed, independent learners do not learn in a vacuum, and do not learn without others.  Here are a few quotations I thought were important:

Although it is appropriate to encourage autonomy and independence of thought through the process of constructing personal meaning, even the innermost learning activities occur in a social context mediated by communicative action. (Garrison, 2003, p. 164)

Up to now, SDL has been largely associated with individual external control issues. However, education is a transactional experience between the personal world of the learner (meaning focused) and the shared world of society (knowledge focused). Education is a purposeful and collaborative experience that is inherently normative and community based. (Garrison, 2003, p. 166)

These readings made me reflect on the courses I am teaching.  I haven’t given enough control and choice to the students. I want to do this better; it always helps me to see models of how other instructors are crafting assignment that offer a variety of choice to students.  These are harder to design, but I do believe that they are worth it in terms of student satisfaction, achievement, and engagement.


Carabajal, Kayleigh, Deborah LaPointe, and Charlotte N. Gunawardena. “Group development in online distance learning groups.” In Handbook of distance education, edited by Michael G. Moore, 137-148. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2007.

Garrison, D. Randy. “Self-directed learning and distance education.” In Handbook of distance education, edited by Michael Grahame Moore and William G Anderson, 161-168. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2003.

Garrison, D. Randy, and Myra Baynton. “Beyond independence in distance education: The concept of control.” American Journal of Distance Education 1, no. 3 (1987): 3-15.

Graham, Charles R., and Melanie Misanchuk. “Computer-mediated learning groups: Benefits and challenges of using teamwork in online learning environments.” In Online collaborative learing: Theory and practice, edited by Tim S. Roberts, 181-202. Hershey, PA: Idea Group, Inc., 2004.


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