Constructivism is a decades-old philosophy that
suggests that learners develop (or construct) their
own knowledge through examination of their
experiences, i.e., by making meaning of their own
world (e.g., Dewey, 1938; Piaget, 1970; Vygotsky,
1978). While other fields have embraced this type of
learning as more effective than traditional
objectivist methods, such as lecturing, and have
implemented educational reform to reflect this
perspective, psychology, and other social sciences,
have been much slower to accept and utilize this
form of learning (U. S. Department of Education,
2004). In fact, discovery learning, which is
sometimes misinterpreted as a constructivist method,
has been criticized as an instructional method of
the past in a recent article in the American
Psychologist (Mayer, 2004), one that did not
meet the expectations it promised.
While some interpret constructivism as pure
discovery learning, such assumptions are based on
fundamental misunderstandings of constructivist
pedagogy. Constructivism is not the same as
unguided discovery learning, i.e., as group work
with little or no guidance from the instructor.
This erroneous assumption that the two concepts are
equivalent implies that students must develop their
own knowledge without the aid of instructor-designed
activities that lead students to understand course
concepts. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Constructivist teachers do not assume that students
must “reinvent” science. Instead, they utilize
activities and discussion to draw knowledge out of
their students. As Vrasidas (2000) notes, “learners
should be provided with the tools, resources, and
support necessary to manage their own learning and
assigned tasks” (p. 9).
These two teaching methods (activities and
discussion) illustrate two basic schools of thought
within the constructivist paradigm: personal and
social constructivism. In personal constructivism,
knowledge is developed through cognitive activity
that interprets and organizes, or reorganizes,
experiences. In social constructivism, knowledge is
developed through cognitive activity that occurs
during the discussion of experiences with other
people. The social interaction is necessary for the
cognitive interpretation, organization, or
reorganization to occur. However, it must be noted
that some, but not all, group work is
constructivist. For example, cooperative learning,
whereby students divide up parts of assignments and
complete those parts on their own, is not (social)
constructivist in nature because students do not
interact together in ways to encourage cognitive
reorganization. Collaborative learning, on the
other hand, whereby students interact and build on
each other’s ideas, is constructivist in nature.
Similarly, not all learning activities are
constructivist. Mayer (2004) distinguishes between
activities that are cognitive and those that are
behavioral, and rightly so. It is important to note
that not all learning activities are constructivist
in nature. Constructivism, by definition, involves
cognitive activity that allows for an understanding
of our world. Student participation in activities
that lack cognitive engagement is not considered
constructivist in nature.
Given the large quantity of supportive research on
constructivist methods, coupled with the endorsement
of these teaching methods by the Department of
Education and the National Research Council
(e.g., National Research Council, NRC, 2000)
one can assume that constructivist teaching methods
are effective, not only in other disciplines such as
the “natural” sciences, but in social sciences as
well, as long as appropriate group and individual
activities are provided.
In this study we present evidence supporting
constructivist teaching in an online social
psychology laboratory course and describe a
constructivist teaching method for the study of
social psychological and group processes, one that
provides guidance to the students developing their
knowledge. An assessment of this method is also
addressed using instruments that evaluate content
knowledge gained by students and that evaluate
whether students have gained any "process" skills,
i.e., whether students developed any new procedures
or skills that can assist their learning.
Collaborative Online Research and Learning (CORAL)
In particular, we describe our Collaborative Online
Research and Learning (CORAL) method whereby
students from two universities, enrolled in two
different courses, form groups who work together on
semester-long projects designed to help them learn
about group processes. Teams comprised of students
from both universities complete a research proposal
on a topic pertaining to both course topics. While
engaged in the completion of the proposal, team
members observe their group's behaviors.
Throughout the semester, student teams complete
collaborative analyses that are designed to help
students learn social psychological concepts. For
example, students study Tuckman’s (1965) stages of
group development, group roles, communication
patterns, group norms, persuasion, social loafing,
social influence, in-groups and out-groups,
homogeneity bias, the self-serving bias, and
superordinate goals. Students read several relevant
articles on the topics, complete activities designed
to illustrate concepts by using their own group's
behaviors as examples, and report their team's group
processes in a collaboratively written paper. (The
actual assignment descriptions can be found at
http://coral.wcupa.edu.) Students use a
variety of technological tools to communicate
across, and within sites, to complete assignments.
This includes discussion boards, video conferencing,
file managers, online calendars, and chat rooms.
(For a more detailed description of the CORAL course
design, see Treadwell & Ashcraft, 2005.)
How is CORAL constructivist?
The CORAL model can be described as constructivist
for a number of reasons. First, there is no
lecturing in the CORAL courses. Instead, students
use both their in-class time and out-of-class time
to read assigned articles, understand assignments,
interact with their fellow teammates, and complete
assignments as teams. Thus, there is a movement away
from the objectivist (lecturing), and
teacher-centered mode of teaching to one that is
more constructivist, and learner-centered, i.e., an
approach that allows students to develop their own
knowledge. As Vrasidas (2000) notes, “In a
constructivist course, the learners have a lot of
control over their own learning and are given the
opportunity to negotiate content, assignments,
procedures, and deadlines.” (p. 9). This is
certainly true of our CORAL courses. Students
determine research proposal topics and design as
long as topics are relevant to course subject
matter. This means that not all students in a CORAL
course will learn the same thing because different
teams will choose different topics for their
research proposal. This is also characteristic of a
constructivist teaching pedagogy: Constructivist
teachers do not assume that all students need to
learn the same material (Vrasidas, 2000).
Student teams also have much to say about their
team’s deadlines for papers and decide how best to
complete assignments. For example, teams determine
whether they should discuss matters over chat rooms,
discussion boards, or video conferencing. This too
is constructivist. Vrasidas (2000) notes learners
should be provided with the tools needed to manage
their own learning and to complete assignments, and
instructors essentially become facilitators, helping
students to develop their own knowledge. CORAL does
this: students are given assignment guidelines,
resources, and tools such as discussion boards, chat
rooms, file managers, and video conferencing so that
they can learn. CORAL professors are present to
answer questions and make suggestions that assist
students in their learning. Student assignments are
designed specifically with the objective of helping
students understand course concepts by examining
their own experiences in a team setting, applying
social psychological concepts from their readings,
along with applying social psychological terminology
to team organization and development. As a result
students embrace constructivist teaching/learning in
a simulated real life team setting.
Finally, our approach is social constructivist in
nature as a result of assignments being completed
collaboratively. To meet this standard, students
learn that interaction is essential to complete
assignments successfully and that social interaction
is the hallmark of social constructivism. Learning
takes place, according to this approach, because
students discuss material and assignments
collaboratively, thus bringing about cognitive
changes (i.e., learning).
Additionally, we employ the use of project guides.
These are students who have previously taken a CORAL
course and who serve as peer mentors to those
students who are currently enrolled in the CORAL
course (Treadwell, Ashcraft, Teeter & Ritchie,
2006). These project guides help students to
understand course assignments, the collaborative
process, group processes, and technology. They
serve as a buffer between the students and the
professors and gradually socialize students to
understand that learning is based on ‘social
interaction’ in task completion. They also serve to
move students away from the teacher-centered model
to a collaborative learning student-centered model.
This does not come easily to most students but the
influence peer mentors (project guides) have on
their peers should not be underestimated.
A project guide structures the learning experience
just enough to make sure that students get clear
guidance and parameters within which to achieve the
learning objectives, yet the learning experience
should be open and free enough to allow for the
learners to discover, enjoy, interact, and arrive at
their own socially verified version of truth.
The interactions students have with project guides
are social constructivist in nature as is the idea
of the professor being a facilitator rather than a
lecturer. Thus, the course is student-oriented,
rather than teacher-oriented.
Participants consisted of 181 students enrolled in a
200 level social psychology laboratory course, a 300
level social psychology course, or a 400 level
social psychology seminar. The same instructors
offered the courses and data were collected over
eight semesters (four years). Participation was
voluntary inasmuch as the students were free to
enroll in other sections offered in their
departments using more traditional methods. Students
signed a consent form to participate in the research
completed during the course.
Course Content Pre- and Post-tests.
To assess students’ learning of subject matter, four ten-
question, multiple choice tests assessing knowledge
of topics covered during the courses were
administered at the beginning and end of each
semester. The four topics covered in the tests
related to development of (a) research proposals,
(b) American Psychological Association (APA) writing
style, (c) group processes (e.g., group norms,
communication patterns, group roles, Tuckman’s,
1965, stages), and (d) social psychological concepts
(e.g., in-groups and out-groups, social loafing,
superordinate goals, attributions, persuasion,
Students also self-reported their perceptions of
knowledge gained in the four targeted areas of (a)
research methodology, (b) APA writing style, (c)
group processes, and (d) social psychology and in
their development of "process" skills (skills that
were involved in the learning process, such as
interpersonal, time management, and negotiation
skills). This was measured using a seven-point
Likert scale ranging from "very much disagree" to
"very much agree" that was administered at the end
of the semester. Students indicated how much they
agreed or disagreed on the topics (see Student
Perception Scale in Appendix).
Pre- and Post-test Learning Questionnaires
Dependent samples t-tests were used to see if
posttest scores were higher than the pretest scores
in the four content areas. The results of the
t-tests were significant in all areas (p <.001).
Results are summarized in Table 1. Table 2 compares
the pre- and post-test means for the four content
areas (APA writing style, research methodology,
social psychology, and group processes).
Table 1. T-test Results for Pre-Posttest Learning
179 -8.744 0.001
Students’ Perceptions of Learning
Students also self-reported their perceptions of
knowledge gained during the course of the semester
in the four targeted areas using a seven-point
Likert scale administered at the end of the
semester, (see Appendix). Results are listed in
Table 3 and indicate that students believed that
they learned “a lot” in the four content areas.
Results also indicated that students perceived that
they improved on a number of "process" skills. For
example, students believed they improved their
social skills and time management skills, skills
that can assist them in other collaborative learning
Table 2. Pre- and Post-test Means and Standard
Deviations for the Four Content Areas
N Mean Standard Deviation
Research Proposal Pre
Research Proposal Post
180 8.222 1.73
APA Style Pre
Group Processes Pre
168 5.779 1.78
Table 3. Means and Standard Deviations for
Students’ Perceptions of Learning
N Mean* Standard
I learned a lot about:
How to write a research
How to collaborate
How to use
technology &nbs; 63
I improved my:
This course was beneficial to my
I was responsible for my own
learning in this course.
I learned a lot in this course.
Results of the study indicate that CORAL’s social
constructivist teaching method is an effective
strategy for student learning.
of student content knowledge indicated a
statistically significant increase in knowledge of
course content in all four of the targeted areas,
i.e., students learned about APA writing style,
research methods, group processes, and social
with the use of the CORAL pedagogy. Their test
scores on these topics increased from the beginning
of the semester to the end of the semester. In fact,
the greatest gains in student knowledge were in the
areas of group processes and social psychology. The
two areas represent a simulated view of the
workplace where students have to rely on each other
to complete assigned tasks. Thus, through their
collaborative energy and observations of how their
team worked, they learned how the constructivist
model works. Furthermore, students agreed through
self-report that they learned a significant amount
of course material through their participation in
the CORAL courses. For example, students indicated
that they learned “a lot” about Tuckman’s (1965)
stages, superordinate goals, in-groups and
out-groups, etc. In other words, students were able
to develop their own knowledge about group processes
through interactions with team members, examination
of their own behaviors, and discussion of their own
In summary, results indicate that social
psychological topics can be taught successfully in a
social constructivist manner, provided that
appropriate levels of guidance are supplied to
students, as is the case in CORAL. Experiencing
social psychological phenomena first-hand and
allowing students to construct their own knowledge
through metacognitive processes not only permits
students to learn course content, but also
encourages the development of life skills, including
for example, time-management, critical thinking,
negotiation and communication skills. Constructivist
learning has been assessed as preferable to other
traditional forms of teaching and learning and this
study supports the former findings. We are also
convinced that broadening the constructivist
teaching methodology to other social science courses
would be beneficial for students.
The learning environment should also be designed to
support and challenge the learner's thinking by
providing appropriate guidance, i.e., learning
activities. We advocate giving team members
ownership of the assignments (tasks) so they can
create solutions allowing them to move forward in
answering problems they encounter and become
increasingly responsible for their own learning. The
critical goal is for project guides and facilitators
to support the learner in becoming an effective
thinker. This is achieved by assuming multiple
roles, such as consultant, tutor, and coach. A
constructivist learning environment is thus an
intervention where activities (tasks) are used to
provide team members (learners) with an opportunity
to discover and collaboratively construct meaning as
unfolds. Team members are respected as
unique individuals, project guides serve as peer
mentor(s), and instructors take on the role of
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Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a
three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning?
The case for guided methods of instruction.
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National Research Council. (2000). How people
learn: Brain, mind, experience and school.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Piaget, J. (1970). Genetic epistemology. New
York: Columbia University Press.
Treadwell, T., & Ashcraft, D. (2005). Pedagogy for
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Treadwell, T., Ashcraft, D., Teeter, T, & Ritchie,
K. (2006) Peer mentor roles in a collaborative
online research and learning (CORAL) course.
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Student Perception Scale
Name (first &
On a scale of 1 to 7 indicate how much you
agree/disagree with the following statements.
Very Much Disagree
Very much Agree
I learned a lot about:
In-Groups and Out Groups.
How to Write a Research Proposal.
How to Collaborate.
How to use Technology.
I improved my:
Very Much Disagree
Very much Agree
This course was beneficial to my professional development.
I was responsible for my own learning in this course.
learned a lot in this course.