Ask five different people what contributes to the success of graduate students in online higher education and you may well get five different and contradictory answers, and all five answers may be correct. Student success in online distance learning is critical to economic and social prosperity in our modern, knowledge based economy (Contact North, 2014). With so much information available to modern citizens from sources that may or may not be reputable or authoritative, it is important that graduates of our colleges and universities have the desire and the skill to think critically about what they see, read, or hear (Arum & Roksa, 2011a).
But what is critical thinking? How do we know when critical thinking is happening? How can we ensure that students in online distance learning environments have the structure that they need to develop critical thinking skills? What can instructors and designers do to ensure that their students are not just memorizing information without understanding the deeper meanings and connections to other ideas and disciplines? How can student interactions be structured so that they promote deep approaches to learning and critical discourse? These questions provoked this exploratory mixed methods investigation to examine the study buddy activity, a cooperative learning strategy for increasing academic engagement by enhancing student-student interaction in online learning.
Two theoretical constructs that seem to provide a foundation to ground efforts to improve online learning are student engagement (Axelson & Flick, 2011; Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006) and academic rigour (Arum, Roksa, & Cho, 2011; Green, 2005; Lunney, Frederickson, Spark, & McDuffie, 2008). Student engagement is the degree to which students are involved and interested in their studies and feel connected to their institutions (Axelson & Flick, 2011). This construct has been studied extensively in the last decade, most notably through Kuh’s development of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, pronounced ‘Nessie’) (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2011). Another concept, academic rigour, refers to the degree to which higher education learning experiences promote skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication (Arum & Roksa, 2011a).
Unfortunately, it seems that strategies used to increase student engagement may be at odds with strategies used to foster academic rigour. For example, Arum et al. (2011) argue that students who study alone seem to be better able to think critically and solve complex problems when compared to those who study in groups, perhaps an argument against collaborative learning. Conversely, Axelson and Flick (2011) point out that the NSSE is designed on the assumption that student participation in collaborative learning activities is an indicator of a quality learning environment. Despite this apparent contradiction, academic rigour is considered to be an important component of student engagement. Given the overlapping and sometimes counter-intuitive nature of the student success landscape with respect to student engagement and academic rigour, it is important for instructional designers, administrators, instructors, and students to seek clarity and understanding regarding what specific constructs and behaviours contribute positively to student learning in graduate-level online distance learning.
Arum, Roksa, and Velez (2008) began a longitudinal investigation in 2005 to directly measure individual students’ abilities to think critically, solve complex problems, and communicate in writing. Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment from the Council for Aid to Education (Council for Aid to Education, n.d.) Arum, Roksa, and Velez tested over 2300 incoming freshmen at 24 institutions in the fall of 2005, in the spring of 2007, and again in the spring of 2009 to determine how their skills in critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication had improved over the two-year intervals. These results were then cross-referenced with detailed student demographic data, transcripts, and supplementary surveys to give the researchers a detailed view of the factors that limited or promoted academic success in higher education.
Their findings were troubling. Reports from the study indicated that 45% of the students did not show any improvements in their ability to think critically, solve complex problems or communicate in writing over their first two years of postsecondary education and 36% showed no significant improvement over the full four years of their degree program (Arum et al., 2011). Furthermore, they found that academic success was positively related to academic rigour, but negatively related to social engagement. Increased involvement with social activities, such as studying with peers or involvement with fraternities, was found to be related to decreased performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment over the four-year period.
However, contradictory findings have been reported in other research. Anderson (2003a, 2003b) concluded that interaction increases engagement and that the source of that interaction could be with faculty, other students, or content. In contrast to the general negative effect of social engagement noted by Arum et al. (2011), it may be argued that specific well-structured learning activities that encourage social engagement can be used to scaffold critical discourse and have a positive effect on learning. Moreover, cooperative learning strategies may be useful in promoting “learner agency” (Irvine, Code, & Richards, 2013, “Agency for Learning”), which is essentially the ability of learners to choose how they will meet their learning needs. Irvine et al. argue that learner agency has become a critical component of effective, modern learning environments.
One design that seems to hold particular promise in encouraging critical thinking is the use of study buddies in online distance learning courses. The study buddy activity that formed the basis of this investigation had not been systematically analyzed before it was implemented in a graduate-level course at a western Canadian distance university. The activity was intentionally designed and facilitated to encourage engagement with remote peers within an academically rigorous atmosphere. Based on cooperative learning theory (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994; Johnson & Johnson, 2002), the study buddy strategy provides a series of structured activities that require students to work in pairs throughout a graduate-level online course (Richards, personal communication). Richards’ strategy was intended to reduce the isolation reported by many distance learners by encouraging students to engage in deeper levels of critical thinking and discourse by reviewing and critiquing each other’s coursework. It was expected that students who participated in the activity would be more academically and socially engaged in the course work than students who choose to work individually. Learner agency is promoted by the activity by providing options to students who may choose to work independently or with a partner: also by giving those who choose to work with a partner options with respect to how they will satisfy the requirements of the activity.