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Article of Volume 6, Issue 3, September 2011

Are two heads always better than one? Differential effects of collaboration on students’ computer-supported learning in mathematics

Authors: Nikol Rummel, Dejana Mullins, Hans Spada

Abstract: While some studies found positive effects of collaboration on student learning in mathematics, others found none or even negative effects. This study evaluates whether the varying impact of collaboration can be explained by differences in the type of knowledge that is promoted by the instruction. If the instructional material requires students to reason with mathematical concepts, collaboration may increase students’ learning outcome as it promotes mutual elaboration. If, however, the instructional material is focused on practicing procedures, collaboration may result in task distribution and thus reduce practice opportunities necessary for procedural skill fluency. To evaluate differential influences of collaboration, we compared four conditions: individual vs. collaborative learning with conceptual instructional material, and individual vs. collaborative learning with procedural instructional material. The instruction was computer-supported and provided adaptive feedback. We analyzed the effect of the conditions on several levels: Logfiles of students’ problem-solving actions and video-recordings enabled a detailed analysis of performance and learning processes during instruction. In addition, a post-test assessed individual knowledge acquisition. We found that collaboration improved performance during the learning phase in both the conceptual and the procedural condition; however, conceptual and procedural material had a differential effect on the quality of student collaboration: Conceptual material promoted mutual elaboration; procedural material promoted task distribution and ineffective learning behaviors. Consequently, collaboration positively influenced conceptual knowledge acquisition, while no positive effect on procedural knowledge acquisition was found. We discuss limitations of our study, address methodological implications, and suggest practical implications for the school context.

Keywords: Computer-supported collaborative learning, Learning in mathematics, Procedural and conceptual knowledge acquisition, Tutored problem-solving

Citation: Mullins, D., Rummel, N., & Spada, H. (2011) Are two heads always better than one? Differential effects of collaboration on students’ computer-supported learning in mathematics. ijcscl 6 (3), pp. 421-443

DOI: 10.1007/s11412-011-9122-z

Preprint: Acrobat-PDF mullins_rummel_spada_6_3.pdf

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