CONSIDER: A Novel, Online Approach to Conflict-Driven Collaborative-Learning


Piaget’s classic work on cognitive development showed that engaging learners in critical discussions with peers about ideas that are different than theirs leads to deep conceptual understanding. Implementing such an approach in college-level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) courses has some specific challenges: (a) Short meeting times and large class sizes; (b) Competitive nature of the courses and single answer questions on assignments and exams; and (c) Overall lack of collaborative learning culture where students are unsure of how to seek help and many faculty members tend to think that engaging in collaborative activities may affect content coverage; etc. Based on Piaget’s theory, I have developed a highly innovative collaborative-learning approach that exploits specific affordances of web technologies to address these challenges. This approach, named CONSIDER, short for CONflicting Student Ideas Discussed Evaluated and Resolved, allows creation of small groups of students with different ideas about the topic in question, engages them in a highly-structured rounds-based discussion so that the group progresses at an equitable pace, and makes their submissions anonymous to others so that students can receive the comments without any preconceived notions they may have about the poster. While a number of researchers have explored approaches to collaborative-learning, a key difference with this work is that my focus is helping individual students develop their own understanding, whereas the focus of much of this other work is on developing students’ team skills, effective communication abilities, and the like. While a discussion in CONSIDER is always among small groups of students, typically 4 students in each group, with each group consisting of students with distinct conceptions of the topic being discussed, the discussion may be organized as either a rounds-based discussion or a forum-based discussion. In a rounds-based discussion, the discussion takes place in a series of rounds, each of specified duration with each student in the group making exactly one post in each round; the student’s post is not available to the other students in the group until the end of round; indeed, each student will be able to freely edit her post until the end of the round. The other possibility is to have the discussion organized in a forum-based manner where each student makes as many or as few posts as she chooses and each post becomes visible to all the students in the group as soon as it is made. In addition, the discussion may be either anonymous with the students in the group being known to the others in the group as simply S1, S2, etc., or they may know each other’s identities. Since the default setting in the CONSIDER system is rounds-based and anonymous, I will use the term "CONSIDER-approach" to refer to this type of discussion. A platform independent responsive web application was developed to implement this approach and to compare it with the forum-based approach. This app was used in three offerings of two junior/senior level undergraduate Computer Science and Engineering courses at The Ohio State University, where one discussion was conducted using the forum-based approach and the other using the CONSIDER approach in each class. Students performance on the pre- and post-discussion question and participation of individual students was measured. In two of the studies, a significant difference was found in the discussion that used the CONSIDER approach, compared to the forum-based approach on both these measures: improvement in learning (Study 1: N=37, r=-.63, ptextless.05; Study 2: N=26, r=-.38, ptextless.05) and participation (Study 1: r=-.57, ptextless.05; Study 2: r=-.76, ptextless.05). In the third study, there was no significant effect on the post-activity scores (p=.37), and the participation in the two types of discussions did not differ significantly, either (r=-.20, p=.09). In an anonymous, optional post-activity survey, a majority of the students self reported that they found the rounds-based structure (55%) and anonymity (80%) to be helpful in their participation and learning.