Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Adult, Career, and Higher Education

Major Professor

William Young

Co-Major Professor

James Eison


Cooperative Learning, Higher Education, Learning-Centered College, Qualitative Research, Small Group Learning



In the 1980s, academic assessments called for "the ability of individuals and groups to talk, listen judge, and act on issues of common interest" (Morse, 1989, p. 30). More recently, corporate research findings, Are They Ready to Work? Employers' Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce (The Conference Board, Inc., Partnership for 21st Century Skills, The Corporate Voices for Working Families, & Society for Human Resource Management, 2006), report the workplace is seeking college graduates with skill in collaboration (e.g. build diverse relationships, negotiate, manage conflict). While the interest in collaborative learning has expanded in higher education and business, "sparse application" is reported in the college classroom. In academia, collaborative learning has been dependent on cooperative learning research focused on quantitative student achievement outcomes while faculty perceptions of a nonfoundational social constructivist view of collaborative learning is reported as "hardly begun." Along with an increased ambiguity in the terms collaborative and cooperative learning, a comprehensive understanding of collaborative learning and its potential uniqueness, if any, has been skewed.

The purpose of this study was to describe and explain collaborative learning from the perspective of selected classroom practitioners representing multiple academic disciplines at a learning-centered institution. The exploratory questions guiding this qualitative case study were: (a) what elements constituted community college collaborative learning practitioners classroom experience and (b) what variables influenced the elements. The theoretical framework undergirding this dissertation is social constructivism nested in constructivism.

A purposeful sampling of four instructional criteria indicative of a nonfoundational socio-constructivist concept of collaborative learning guided the participant selection process. The limited candidate list consisted of 31 faculty (20 females, 11 males) at the field site, a learning-centered community college with an FTE near 30,000 for the 2009 - 2010 school year. From 22 initial responses, seven faculty participants (6 female, 1 male) were selected and participated in two semi-structured in-depth interviews. The data collection included interviews, institutional and practitioner documents, the researcher's reflective journal, and field notes. The male participant was removed from the study because he did not submit all requested documents. Therefore, though unintended, six case studies of female instructors were analyzed over an eight month period and reduced to four when saturation was reached, no new information was elicited. All four participants fulfilled all four specified instructional criteria.

The central finding able to help the college classroom is the strong identified practice of the defined collaborative learning concept with the articulated understanding limited and term interchange and confusion profound. Thus, the value of this study is the lack of definitional clarity in the terms collaborative and cooperative learning within academia which may offer one possible explanation for the reported sparse application in the college classroom. Supporting this major finding the single most defining attribute of this sophisticated or challenging concept of collaborative learning is the instructional criteria of distributed authority. Manifesting itself in students teaching students the faculty participants high level of consistent classroom application in concert with intellectual negotiation, consensus building, and student ownership of learning constitutes the collaborative learning skills sought by the work force. This study contributed to all three research attributes reported as minimal in the literature, qualitative research from a faculty perspective on the specified concept of collaborative learning. A comprehensive participant selection process was not conducted. In view of the central finding and the existing gaps in the literature, a priority recommendation for future research would be a more intentional expansion of candidate recruitment to potentially increase identification of classroom instructors practicing the particularized concept of collaborative learning. Other research recommendations would include a more focused study of the defined concept of collaborative learning in relationship to: (a) the learning-centered institution, (b) disciplines with a high density of foundational knowledge, (c) student and faculty resistance, (d) lines of authority, and (e) personality, gender, teaching styles, and learning styles.