Assessing Collaborative Learning (Distance Learning)


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.

Over the last several decades collaborative learning, sometimes referred to as cooperative learning, has been utilized primarily in the classroom environment. It became an instructional strategy in distance and online learning environments soon after the first courses went online as it became clear that more interactive ways of developing knowledge were needed in what could otherwise be a very static learning environment. Since the utilization of online collaborative learning began, research has indicated that online collaboration groups score higher on post-tests than traditional collaborative learning groups (Mukit, Razali, et. al., 2005), reinforcing the notion that a collaborative strategy can be effective online.

Methods of assessing collaboration have always been complicated due to the fact that an instructor cannot always evaluate individual and collective knowledge development that has occurred in the group. It is further complicated in an online learning environment due to the lack of physical proximity not only between instructors and learners but between learners themselves. These issues support the use of multiple perspective assessment, which will be the focal point of this article.


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).

The attributes espoused by these theorists are evident in Johnson and Johnson’s (1993) description of the five key aspects of collaborative groups: face-to-face interaction, positive interdependence, individual accountability, collaborative skills and group processing. Learners should work together in close proximity to one another (face-to-face interaction), believe that all group members must succeed in order for the group to succeed (positive interdependence) with each member’s performance being individually assessed (individual accountability). Per Johnson and Johnson, collaboration will not occur unless learners understand the nature of interaction (collaborative skills) and continually analyze and adjust operational aspects of the group as the project continues (group processing). In a distance or online learning environment, learners must use creative means to work together via various technological tools to simulate the collaborative elements of “face-to-face interaction” and to promote “close proximity.”

The effectiveness of collaborative learning has been heavily researched particularly in the latter half of the 20th century. Research has indicated that members of collaborative groups have higher levels of participation, achievement, productivity, self-esteem, peer interaction, group cohesion as well as enhanced critical thinking skills.

There are also aspects that need to be improved. Learners sometimes do not know how to collaborate in a learning environment, particularly in an online learning environment, and need training to do so. If this training is not done, some learners opt out of the collaboration process and let one person do all the work (Salomon, 1995). This can frustrate and de-motivate remaining team members, particularly if all members of the group are assessed on the quality of the final product and receive the same grade. Learners who are accustomed to working individually, will dread the opportunity to collaborate if it is not perceived to be a valuable part of the learning experience and not assessed based on the unique characteristics inherent in collaborative learning.

assessing collaborative learning

It has long been contended that assigning the same grade to all team members promotes the interdepen-dency of learners in order to achieve a satisfactory grade (Cohen, 1972). However, this strategy can also result in student dissatisfaction with the collaborative process due to unequal participation by some team members. If a learner is to be dependent on others for successful completion of a course, he or she must feel confident that fellow team members will participate in the collaboration. Unless there is an equal distribution of workload, a sense of commitment to the team by individual team members and belief that the group product is more than a personal reflection of a select few, students will instinctively avoid collaboration (Gummess, Day-Ryan and Papineau, 1996). As early as 1979, Latane, Williams and Harkin found that when people thought they were being held individually accountable, one of the greatest deterrents to collaborative learning, “social loafing,” disappeared. Individual accountability is lost if the same grade is given to all group members based on the quality of the collective product. Assessment of collaborative activities must include an evaluation of individual knowledge development as well as the individual input to the collective knowledge development.

When a collaborative effort results in a product, such as a paper, project, case study analysis, or discussion summary, it is difficult for an instructor to assess individual contributions that largely occur outside the purview of the instructor. Additional assessments are needed to determine individual contributions to the collaborative effort. Assessment of collaborative learning needs to encourage, promote, and maximize individual team member knowledge contributions and the quality of collaboration. It also needs a means to provide feedback to the instructor concerning the contributions of each team member. So while the traditional method of providing a group grade remains important, it should by no means be the only evaluation in a collaborative learning environment.

Assessment of online collaboration should be learner-centered, aligned with learning objectives, based on clearly communicated expectations and feedback guidelines, and designed with student input (Pall off and Pratt, 2005). In addition, it should be based on the multiple perspectives of the instructor, peer collaborators, and the individual learner. (Oosterh of, Conrad, Ely, 2008). “When students get into the habit of assessing their own work and sharing it with peers in a small group where it often gets adjusted slightly, the concept of continuous, performance assessment really begins to happen at an individual and group level.” (Johnson and Johnson, The Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, Retrieved June 15, 2006, from

Peer assessment is a method of evaluation in which all team members assess the contributions, skills and behaviors of an individual team member as they relate to group work and project completion and provide this feedback to the instructor. The benefits of involving peers in the assessment process include: a greater ownership of learning and assessment, a perception of more autonomy and control, improved critical thinking and self-learning in that if a student is able to evaluate another individual’s performance, this will improve evaluation of his or her own learning (Searby and Ewers, 1997). Qualitative feedback or assessment, in particular, can help learners improve their performance when they are uncertain about the correctness of their actions (Johnson and Johnson, 1993).

Instructors may feel that peers will not fairly assess their fellow team members due to potential peer pressure, but it may be more likely that learners may not feel comfortable assessing their peers either because they do not feel they have the skills (Humphreys and Greenan, 1997) or because they believe peer assessment is not always reliable (Pond, Ul-Haq, Wade, 1995). To deal with these issues, learners could use a rubric that is either developed by the instructor, by the teams themselves through team contracts, or collaboratively between the instructor and the team. Evaluation surveys can also be used as a tool for peer assessment. Joliffe (1991) indicates that “peer evaluations work best if students know their responses will be kept confidential (although they cannot, of course, be anonymous)” and will be honest if “administered the day projects are turned in, while frustrations about non-contribution remain high” (p. 22).

Self-assessment balances peer-assessment and provides an opportunity for the individual to determine his or her own weaknesses and take corrective action so that the effectiveness of the collaboration and the knowledge development within that collaboration is maximized.

Multiple perspective assessment can be used both formatively, to evaluate individual learning on an ongoing basis, and summatively, to evaluate individual learning on a course completion basis. Rubrics and Likert-scale surveys are particularly useful for peer and self-assessment. Swan, Shen and Hiltz (2006) suggest the following methods of formative and summative assessment of collaborative learning. To formatively assess knowledge development that occurs in discussion forums, use rubrics that define the desired discussion behaviors. Then judge the value of an individual response based on peer reaction to it. To summatively assess using a test, combine the individual score with the average score of the group. They further suggest that other elements of assessment be developed collaboratively, such as the grading scheme, and test questions.

future trends

As more interactive technologies are utilized in distance and online learning environments, more comprehensive project presentations and improved collaborative communication will be possible. However, the issues surrounding equity in collaborative learning will remain and multiple perspective assessment which adds peer and self assessment to instructor assessment must be in place to support individual accountability of knowledge development and contributions to the collaboration. Future research should look at ways to improve the combination of these three types of assessment in an online learning environment. It should also focus on the effects of utilizing authentic types of assessment that not only encourage collaboration but are collaborations themselves.


The use of collaborative learning in distance and online learning environments has the potential to advance the effectiveness of learning and to prepare learners for useful participation as a team member in their chosen field. Assessment of collaboration should occur from multiple perspectives. First the final collaborative product that represents the collective effort of the group must be assessed. Next, individual involvement in the compilation of the final product is necessary as is individual knowledge developed as a result of the collaboration. This can be accomplished with peer assessment and reflective self-assessment, as well as more traditional instructor-developed approaches such as tests and portfolios. By triangulating the results of these types of assessments, a complete picture of the quality of the collaboration and the knowledge of the individual learner can be provided.


Collaborative Learning: An instructional 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.

Formative Assessment: The evaluation of knowledge development that takes place periodically while instruction is occurring and can be informally done via discussions or more formally done via quizzes.

Multiple perspective assessment: An assessment strategy in which the instructor, learners and peers provide collective input to determine the level of knowledge developed by a learner.

Peer Assessment: The evaluation of a learner by fellow group members who have the opportunity to work with an individual and see individual knowledge development and contributions to a collaborative product. Examples include Liker-scale surveys, rubrics, and team contracts.

Self Assessment: A reflective assessment strategy by which a learner evaluates his or her own learning and quality of collaboration. Examples include journals, Likert-scale surveys, rubrics, and team contracts.

Social Cognition: This theory focuses on the social and cultural interactions that are associated with knowledge acquisition. Theorists who contributed to the understanding of social cognition include Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, Bandura, and Piaget.

Summative Assessment: Occurs at the end of instruction and provides an evaluation of knowledge development at that point in time. Examples include tests, projects, portfolios, and analytical papers.

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