David Palfreyman

  • Teamwork or overdependence: formal and informal collaboration among students

    David Palfreyman, Susan Jones
    Zayed University, Dubai

    Session 3d

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 10.10-11.10

    Research seminar

    In this research seminar we will present for discussion preliminary findings from a research project on student collaboration both within and outside the formal framework of university courses.

    Student collaboration in any university has two faces: formalized groupwork/teamwork, and informal collaboration. Each of these can vary in its quality, so that "student collaboration" may include effective or ineffective groupwork projects, ad hoc peer assistance, informal study groups and simple copying/cheating.

    Collaborative learning is often proposed as an effective teaching and learning approach (Lizzio and Wilson, 2006; Delucchi, 2006; Hancock, 2004; Summers et al., 2005), and teamwork skills are seen as contributing to employability and lifelong learning (Government of Ontario, 2007; University of Melbourne, 2007). Recently there has been increasing focus on the processes of collaborative learning (Kumpulainen and Kaartinen, 2003) and on the contexts within which collaborative learning is promoted (Strom and Strom, 2002). There is another body of literature on various kinds of cheating/copying (Williams, 2001; Eisenberg, 2004; Hutton, 2006), often with reference to students' cultural background (Robinson & Kuin, 1999; Selsky, 2000; Lupton and Chapman, 2002). Barrett and Cox (2005) investigated student and staff perceptions, and point out that the distinction is often unclear between collaboration and collusion. Students are encouraged to collaborate, but only up to a point, and only in certain ways and contexts.

    In our context (Zayed University, Dubai) the cultural dimension is particularly interesting because the teachers at the University are mainly Western, while the students are Gulf Arab women from a fairly traditional educational background, for whom mutual help (or at least the appearance of it) is a core cultural value. However we know from debates in wider forums that similar issues are of relevance in universities worldwide.

    Our research project is investigating the following questions:

    1. What experiences have students had with formal group work in the university?
    2. What are their perceptions of the benefits, drawbacks and legitimacy of this approach to learning?
    3. What kinds of informal collaboration do students practice with other students?
    4. What are their attitudes to such informal collaboration?

    We categorize collaboration on two dimensions, to form four types: teacher-initiated in class (e.g. group discussion), teacher-initiated outside class (e.g. group assignments), student-initiated in class (e.g. asking one's neighbour a question) and student-initiated out of class (e.g. informal study groups).

    The first stage of the research involved interviewing a sample of 21 students from a range of specializations, using a semi-structured format to elicit their perceptions of the collaborative experiences that they have had during their university career. At the time of submitting this abstract, the transcribed interviews are being analyzed, in order to ascertain students' attitudes to collaboration with other students, and the constructs which they use to interpret collaborative experiences. Examples of constructs emerging from the interviews are 'personal responsibility' and 'networks of mutual help'.

    The next stage of the research (to be completed by June 2007) involves preparing an online survey based on constructs and perceptions discovered in the interviews, and gaining responses to this survey from 200-300 students in different departments in our university. We will then analyze the responses in order to identify overall trends in the sample, as well as correlations, for example between students' responses to formal and to informal collaboration, and between these and the students' level and specialization.

    In the seminar we will share data and conclusions from the research to date, and we hope to gain the perspectives of those from other university contexts, and to stimulate discussion about, among other things, how staff and students can be made more aware of the issues involved, and how collaborative work can be made more effective.


    • Barrett, R., & Cox, A. L. (2005). "At least they're learning something": the hazy line between collaboration and collusion. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(2), 107-122.
    • Delucchi, M. (2006). The Efficacy Of Collaborative Learning Groups In An Undergraduate Statistics Course. College Teaching, 54(2), 244-248.
    • Eisenberg, J. (2004). To cheat or not to cheat: effects of moral perspective and situational variables on students' attitudes. Journal of Moral Education, 33(2), 163-178.
    • Government of Ontario. (2007). Employability Skills. fromhttp://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/career/employab.html
    • Hancock, D. (2004). Cooperative learning and peer orientation effects on motivation and achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 97, 159-166.
    • Hutton, P. A. (2006). Understanding Student Cheating And What Educators Can Do About It. College Teaching, 54(1), 171-176.
    • Kumpulainen, K., & Kaartinen, S. (2003). The interpersonal dynamics of collaborative reasoning in peer interactive dyads. Journal of Experimental Education, 71(4), 333-370.
    • Lizzio, A., & Wilson, K. (2006). Enhancing the effectiveness of self-managed learning groups: understanding students' choices and concerns. Studies in Higher Education, 31(6), 689-703.
    • Lupton, R. A., & Chapman, K. J. (2002). Russian and American college students' attitudes, perceptions and tendencies towards cheating. Educational Research, 44(1), 17-27.
    • Robinson, V. M. J., & Kuin, L. M. (1999). The explanation of practice: why Chinese students copy assignments. Qualitative Studies In Education, 12(2), 193-210.
    • Selsky, J. W. (2000). "Even we are sheeps": cultural displacement in a Turkish classroom. Journal of Management Inquiry, 9(4), 362-373.
    • Strom, P. S., & Strom, R. D. (2002). Overcoming limitations of cooperative learning among community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26, 315-331.
    • Summers, J. J., Beretvas, S. N., Svinicki, M. D., & Gorin, J. S. (2005). Evaluating Collaborative Learning and Community. Journal of Experimental Education, 73(3), 165-188.
    • University of Melbourne. (2007). Employability skills. fromhttp://www.services.unimelb.edu.au/careers/student/applications/employability.html#teamwork
    • Williams, S. (2001). How do I know if they're cheating? Teacher strategies in an information age. The Curriculum Journal, 12(2), 225-239.