Are two heads always better than one? Differential effects of collaboration on students’ computer-supported learning in mathematics

  • Dejana Mullins
  • Nikol Rummel
  • Hans SpadaEmail author


While some studies found positive effects of collaboration on student learning in mathematics, others found none or even negative effects. This study evaluates whether the varying impact of collaboration can be explained by differences in the type of knowledge that is promoted by the instruction. If the instructional material requires students to reason with mathematical concepts, collaboration may increase students’ learning outcome as it promotes mutual elaboration. If, however, the instructional material is focused on practicing procedures, collaboration may result in task distribution and thus reduce practice opportunities necessary for procedural skill fluency. To evaluate differential influences of collaboration, we compared four conditions: individual vs. collaborative learning with conceptual instructional material, and individual vs. collaborative learning with procedural instructional material. The instruction was computer-supported and provided adaptive feedback. We analyzed the effect of the conditions on several levels: Logfiles of students’ problem-solving actions and video-recordings enabled a detailed analysis of performance and learning processes during instruction. In addition, a post-test assessed individual knowledge acquisition. We found that collaboration improved performance during the learning phase in both the conceptual and the procedural condition; however, conceptual and procedural material had a differential effect on the quality of student collaboration: Conceptual material promoted mutual elaboration; procedural material promoted task distribution and ineffective learning behaviors. Consequently, collaboration positively influenced conceptual knowledge acquisition, while no positive effect on procedural knowledge acquisition was found. We discuss limitations of our study, address methodological implications, and suggest practical implications for the school context.


Computer-supported collaborative learning Learning in mathematics Procedural and conceptual knowledge acquisition Tutored problem-solving 



This research was supported by the Virtual PhD Programm, VGK (DFG) and by the Landesstiftung Baden-Württemberg. We are grateful to the CTAT team for their support in the development of our learning environment, and to the research group of Nikolaos Avouris that we could use their tool ActivityLens to analyze our data. Many thanks go to our student research assistants Jan Koch-Weser and Martina Rau for their help with the implementation of the tutoring problems, and to our student research assistants Stephanie Haug, Marlene Herrberg, Katharina Westermann, and Michael Wiedmann for their help during data collection and data analysis. Furthermore, we want to thank Lars Holzaepfel for his advice on the development of the study material from a mathematics education perspective.


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Copyright information

© International Society of the Learning Sciences, Inc.; Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PsychologyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  2. 2.Institute of EducationRuhr-Universität BochumBochumGermany

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