Learning Together and the Challenge of Collaboration: the effects of trust and open and closed dynamics on consensus and efficacy.

blog post 13Cooperative learning and collaborative inquiry are increasingly influential areas of research and practice in psychology and education. Cooperative learning refers to the learning that occurs when a group works together to accomplish shared learning goals (Johnson et al., 2001). Many collaborative inquiry methodologies also emphasise the cognitive and social growth of individuals working together in a group setting. While there is a large research literature suggesting that cooperative learning and collaborative inquiry can be used to facilitate student learning, Janssen et al. (2010) noted that the majority of the studies in the area are effect-oriented in nature, that is, examining the effects of cooperation and collaboration on outcomes such as student achievement, time on task, and the use of metacognitive learning skills. Janssen et al. (2010) suggested that more process-oriented research is needed. Process-oriented research focuses on the process of collaboration as opposed to the effect of the collaboration process. To date there has been very little research focused on factors that influence the collaborative learning process. With this in mind, a recent study from our lab investigated the effects of both open versus closed group dynamics and dispositional trust on consensus and efficacy judgements of groups that were engaged in a collaborative learning exercise.

The study used the following method: two groups of participants came together to use our new systems thinking software to structure relationships between various problems and benefits associated with online social media usage. Participants completed a number of questionnaires prior to the collaborative learning session to assess their levels of dispositional trust (how much they trust other people generally), perceived consensus (perceptions of agreement amongst group members), objective consensus (actual levels of agreement amongst group members), and perceived efficacy judgements (i.e., whether they thought the systems thinking tool is useful and valid). They were then split into two groups: an open group and a closed group. Participants in the open group were directed to a room in which chairs were arranged in a circle, such that all of the group members could see each other. Participants assigned to the closed voting group were directed to a room in which the seating was arranged in rows facing the group facilitator, thereby limiting nonverbal communication between participants. As part of the systems thinking process, a number of structural relations were presented on screen, in the form of “Does X significantly influence Y?”. In the open group, participants were asked to consider and discuss each relation, before voting “yes” or “no” to the relational question. In the closed group, the participants were asked to consider each relation, but to do so silently — they then cast their vote by raising their hand and these votes were entered into the software. Once the session was completed, participants once again answered a set of questions to measure perceived consensus, objective consensus, and perceived efficacy of the systems thinking software tool.

The results of the study revealed a number of interesting effects. First, in comparison with participants low on dispositional trust, participants scoring high on dispositional trust reported higher levels of perceived consensus and perceived efficacy in relation to the systems thinking methodology. Similarly, in comparison with those in the closed voting group, participants in the open voting group reported higher levels of perceived consensus and perceived efficacy in relation to the systems thinking methodology. An analysis of the means across groups indicated that the highest perceived consensus scores were observed in the open-voting, high-trust group, and the lowest perceived consensus scores were observed in the closed-voting, low-trust group. Overall, these findings suggests that those in the open voting group and those higher on dispositional trust found the group design methodology to be more useful and valid as a consensus-building methodology, and their perception was that there was greater consensus amongst members of the group in relation to the problems and benefits associated with the use of social media. This result is consistent with research conducted by Flowers (1977) who found that more open groups that used dialogue and discussion when working together establish positive norms of information sharing that may influence their responsiveness to group design methodologies. Conversely, those in the closed condition, deprived of the opportunity for dialogue before their collective voting, may not have considered the process to be an effective method in helping them to structure their collective knowledge and reach a consensus view in relation to the costs and benefits of social networking, which in turn led them to judge the systems thinking methodology to be less effective.

The effect of both dispositional trust and open group dynamics in this regard represents an important finding in relation to computer-supported collaborative learning tool use, and the use of our systems thinking software in particular, as higher perceived consensus is likely to lead to higher endorsement by the group of any action in response to a shared problem. With collaborative systems thinking seen as increasingly important by scholars for the resolution of societal problems, this line of research focused on the social psychology of collaborative systems thinking will become increasingly important if we are to understand the conditions under which groups flourish and flounder in their efforts to work together to solve problems.

Originally published Sep 11, 2013 in ‘In One Lifespan’ @ PsychologyToday.com

Some links contained within this post are external


Flowers, M. L. (1977). A laboratory test of some implications of Janis’ groupthink hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(12), 888-896.

Harney, O., Hogan, M.J., Broome, B. (2012). Collaborative learning: the effects of trust and open and closed dynamics on consensus and efficacy. Social Psychology of Education, 15, 517–532

Janssen, J., Kirschner, F., Erkens, G., Kirschner, P. A., & Paas, F. (2010). Making the black box of collaborative learning transparent: Combining process-oriented and cognitive load approaches. Educational Psychology Review, 22,139-154.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, F. P., & Stanne, M. (2001). Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from http://www.tablelearning.com/uploads/File/EXHIBIT-B.pdf.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A, & Jochems, W. (2002). The sociability of CSCL environments. Educational Technology and Society, 5(1), 8-22.

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