Limitations and Definitions

Limitations of the study (i.e., those factors that constrained the study and were beyond the control of the researcher) included the fact that the participants were graduate students and therefore may have been more inclined to take a deep approach to learning and more able to think critically than undergraduate students. Also, as the study buddy activity was voluntary, participants might have been more motivated to take deeper approaches to learning than non-volunteers. Finally, as the quantitative part of the study was a quasi-experimental design with a non-random sample of participants and no control group, the results are not generalizable to other contexts.

Delimitations of the study (i.e., those factors that restricted the study and were under the control of the researcher) included the fact that the study buddy activity in one course offered by one faculty member was examined.  Also, because the study utilized an instrument designed to measure student approaches to learning within a particular personal and teaching context (the study buddy activity in MDDE 604), the findings cannot be extended to other learning activities or contexts. Finally, the study only explored one possible cooperative learning structure out of many that could have been explored.

Definition of Terms

Academic rigour: the degree to which programs and courses are cognitively challenging as measured by the amount of reading and writing students are required to do, how much students study alone, and how many students report that their instructors have high expectations. Measurable outcomes of academically rigourous learning experiences include critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills (Arum & Roksa, 2011b).

Cooperative learning: instructional methods that involve organizing students into dyads or small groups which must then rely on each other to learn the prescribed material (Slavin, 2011). Cooperative learning activities are structured so that the success of each student is dependent upon and promotes the success of the other students (Slavin, 1980).

Critical thinking: the ultimate goal of higher education, which is characterized by students’ ability and willingness to reason well, solve complex problems, draw inferences from evidence, and question tacit assumptions. Critical thinking has been called “cautious intelligence” and “reflective skepticism” (Brookfield, 1987, p. 21).

Deep learning approach: an approach to learning where the student uses appropriate and meaningful cognitive strategies to understand, extend, and apply their knowledge (Biggs, Kember, & Leung, 2001, p. 21).

Interaction: one of the defining traits of educational contexts. Described as “reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another” (Wagner, 1994, p. 8).

Online distance learning: subset of distance learning where instructors and learners are separated geographically, and sometimes temporally, and significant learning outcomes are met primarily using asynchronous, Internet-based tools. Online distance learning can include blended learning environments where significant learning outcomes are also met in a face-to-face environment.

Surface learning approach: an approach to learning where the student is mostly concerned with doing as little work as possible to complete the requirements of the task. This approach is characterized by the use of low-level cognitive strategies such as rote memorization of facts, when higher level strategies such as synthesis of disparate ideas are required for the task (Biggs & Tang, 2007).