This thesis began with a description of the dual challenges of increasing levels of student engagement and also promoting academic rigour in higher education. A significant complication faced by those attempting to address both of those issues is that Arum and Roksa (2011a) found that students who are more socially engaged tend to show less improvement over two and four years in their ability to think critically than those who are not. This investigation was designed to explore the characteristics of a structured study buddy activity as a possible strategy for instructional designers and faculty to include in their courses to increase both student engagement and academic rigour.
Biggs et al. (2001) describe the idea of a student’s approach to learning, which was a key foundational idea in this investigation. They argue that students will either take a deep or a surface approach to their learning depending on various factors such as their own academic history and willingness to engage, the instructor’s design and facilitation practices and the structure of the task itself. A surface approach is described as using low-level cognitive skills for tasks that require high-level cognitive skills. Students using high-level cognitive skills for tasks that require them characterize a deep approach.
Results of the quantitative and qualitative analyses indicated that participants in the study buddy activity were very socially engaged with their partner as a result of the activity and that the activity helped participants to deepen their approach to learning. While there was no significant difference detected in the quantitative analysis with respect to students’ approach to learning (participants in this study typically used deep approaches, even those who did not participate in the study buddy activity), the qualitative findings showed that participants in the study buddy activity engaged in skills that required greater levels of cognitive effort. For example, many students in the course reported consulting recommended readings and searching for alternative views in published literature, but those who participated in the study buddy activity also reported having conversations with their study buddy partners about the course content and working to help each other understand the material in greater depth. This combination of social engagement and academic rigour is evidence that cooperative learning activities like the study buddy activity have a positive influence on student achievement.
Participants were divided on whether the study buddy activity should be mandatory or voluntary, but a clear majority of participants indicated they would participate in a similar activity again and would recommend the activity for students in other graduate-level courses. One of the most significant barriers to participation in the activity was the reticence with which many students approach group activities, usually based on past experiences that ended poorly.
Finally, those who participated in the study buddy activity were clear that the activity and the connection that they developed with their partner was a significant source of emotional and social support despite the oft-cited loneliness of studying in an online setting. This feeling of being supported led to the development of a trusting and respectful context in which the partners could ask questions about course content and receive constructive and sometimes corrective feedback about their ideas.