Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Adult, Career, and Higher Education

Major Professor

William Young, Ed.D.

Co-Major Professor

James Eison, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Valerie Janesick, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Rosemary Closson, Ph.D.


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 is the strong identified practice of the defined concept reported as sparse in the literature. The single most defining attribute of this sophisticated concept of collaborative learning is the instructional criteria of distributed authority. In part, this manifested itself in students teaching students (e.g. intellectual negotiation, consensus building, and student(s) ownership of learning). The high level reported by the participants in classroom applications also constitutes skills sought by the work force. In addition, term interchange and confusion was found to be profound as also reported in the literature. The value is qualitative faculty data ascertaining the lack of definitional clarity between the terms collaborative and cooperative learning and providing a possible explanation for the reported lack of the defined concept in the college classroom. This study contributed to all three research attributes reported as minimal in the literature, qualitative research, a faculty perspective, and the specified concept of collaborative learning.

Given that a comprehensive participant selection process was not conducted and in view of the central finding in the context of existing gaps in the literature, a primary recommendation for future research would be a more intentional expansion of the candidate recruitment process. Potentially, this could increase identification of classroom instructors practicing the particularized concept of the phenomenon and service the import of definitional clarity. Rich in research potential, priority recommendations from this study include more intentional exploration of the defined concept of collaborative learning in relationship to: (a) the learning-centered institution, (b) faculty resistance (e.g. impact of personality, gender, age, teaching or learning styles), (c) the work force demand, (d) high density foundational knowledge disciplines, and (e) potential in webbased instruction.