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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 15, 2005
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Collaborative critical thinking: Conceptualizing and defining a new construct from known constructs

Orlando J. Olivares
Bridgewater State College and Aptima Inc., USA
In recent years, organisations and institutions of higher learning have adopted group/team structures to facilitate learning and goal completion. A number of methods have been used to better understand and facilitate group learning. In this paper, I explore one such method: collaborative critical thinking, heretofore, a relatively unknown construct. Considering the nascent nature of this construct, the primary goal of this research is to conceptualize and define collaborative critical thinking using the known constructs cooperative and collaborative learning, and critical thinking. As part of this process, cooperative and collaborative learning will be differentiated, and directions for future research proposed.


The classroom structure in higher education, like the structure of organisations, has changed in the past decade. Classrooms have moved to group/team structures to complete tasks; likewise, organisations have shifted jobs from individuals to teams as tasks have become more complex and organisations more 'matrixed'. Today, students and employees are expected to effectively function in groups/teams.

Academic institutions continue to use group methods like cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1991) and/or collaborative learning (Bruffee, 1995) to facilitate the learning process. In general, organisations are concerned with learning at the team level, and the transfer of learning among team members (Davis, 1992). Factors that affect team learning have been approached from a number of perspectives, for example, individual learning (Weiss, 1990), shared creation (Rawlings, 2000), and socially shared cognitions (Hinsz, Tindale, & Vollrath, 1997).

Another approach to understanding group/team learning has been to explore critical thinking within a team framework (Cohen, Freeman & Thompson, 1998; Freeman, Cohen & Thompson, 1998). This has been referred to as collaborative critical thinking (CCT)[1]. Cohen and colleagues have hypothesised that critical thinking at the individual level has corresponding analogues at the team level. Moreover, they developed a framework for understanding critical thinking at the individual level in a manner that afforded training applications and mathematical formulation for decision aiding. However, researchers have not, surprisingly enough, defined and conceptualised collaborative critical thinking. Thus, any efforts to further understand CCT, or how CCT is related to, for example, training applications, decision aiding, or knowledge construction, will be constrained by definitional and conceptual shortcomings.

Accordingly, the primary goal of the present research is to conceptualise and define CCT, thereby providing a basic platform of understanding from which to launch future research. More specifically, this paper will explore CCT in the context of three known constructs - cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and critical thinking. Cooperative learning, (sometimes called collaborative learning) has been widely researched. A recent PsycINFO keyword search for cooperative learning yielded 1455 hits; a keyword search for collaborative learning yielded 372 hits; and a keyword search for critical thinking yielded 1526 hits. Yet, a similar keyword search for collaborative critical thinking yielded 0 hits. Thus, this article will seek to understand what is unknown from what is known; that is, to use old knowledge to create new knowledge; specifically, to use what is known about cooperative learning, collaborative learning and critical thinking to help define and conceptualise CCT.

The analytic approach for understanding CCT: Reductionism

Reductionism has been considered the cutting edge of science and a strategy for entry into complex systems (Wilson, 1998). Structuralist psychology, the origins of scientific psychology, and behaviorism, all have been reductionist. Physicists, chemists, molecular biologists, as well as those who have sought to understand the basic psychological processes of reading, have relied on reductionism. The field of reading, for example, has progressed by understanding the subprocesses of reading through analytic fractionation - a reductionist approach (Stanovich, 2003). Wilson (1998) claims that
It [reductionism] is the search strategy employed to find points of entry into otherwise impenetrably complex systems. Complexity is what interests scientists in the end, not simplicity. Reductionism is the way to understand it. The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science (p.59).
The present research will use reductionism as a strategy for understanding CCT. CCT, as a new construct, is relatively suited to the reductionist approach. Moreover, CCT consists of readily identifiable component parts, or elements, and, therefore, is amenable to understanding via reductionism; that is, CCT can be logically dissected into its component parts, the component parts analysed, and then integrated. Reflecting on this process will allow for a basic understanding of how CCT can be characterised and defined, the primary goal of this paper.

Reduction suggests that CCT can be depicted by one of the following equations: 1) CCT = cooperative (learning) + critical thinking; or 2) CCT = collaborative (learning) + critical thinking. Since critical thinking can be considered a type of higher order-learning, CCT can be characterised as, essentially, either collaborative or cooperative critical thinking. If, however, there are no substantive differences between collaborative and cooperative learning, that is, they are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable concepts, as suggested or implied by some researchers (Bruffee, 1995; Gokhale, 1995), then CCT can just as well be 'cooperative' critical thinking. The reductive approach will provide a strategy for better understanding the nature of CCT.

The reductive process will unfold as follows. First, current conceptualisations of collaborative and cooperative learning will be examined. This analysis will provide the motivational framework for drawing distinctions between cooperative and collaborative learning. Second, cooperative and collaborative learning will be characterised, separately (ie, a component or elemental analysis); third, cooperative and collaborative learning will be compared, that is, similarities and differences will be analysed. Fourth, an analysis of critical thinking will be presented. The reductive process will culminate with a definition and characterisation of CCT.

Current conceptualisations of cooperative and collaborative learning

In the cooperative learning literature the terms cooperative and collaborative have been, for the most part, used interchangeably. The Office of Instructional Consultation at the University of California, Santa Barbara website (2004) states
[t]he terms Collaborative Learning and Cooperative Learning have become murky in popular usage, and often, distinctions are not made between the two. Collaborative Learning is the umbrella term encompassing many forms of collaborative learning from small group projects to the more specific form of group work called Cooperative Learning. Cooperative Learning is a type of Collaborative Learning developed by Johnson and Johnson in the 1960's and is still widely used today.
Consistent with the interchangeable usage of the terms, Gokhale (1995) defined collaborative learning as "an instruction method in which students at various performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal," but then cited Johnson and Johnson and the virtues of cooperative learning, to wit,
[p]roponents of collaborative learning claim that the active exchange of ideas within small groups not only increases interest among the participants but also promotes critical thinking. According to Johnson and Johnson (1986), there is persuasive evidence that cooperative teams achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who work quietly as individuals (my emphasis).
Carlsmith and Cooper (2002), in the article A persuasive example of collaborative learning, detailed the process of integrating a 12 week collaboration project within a course. Yet, the authors stated the following: "Several decades of empirical research have demonstrated that collaborative learning (CL) is an effective teaching devise in higher education (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Meyers, 1997; Slavin, 1985)" (p.132). In other words, Carlsmith and Cooper (2002), like Gokhale (1995), stated that they were conducting research on collaborative learning, but cited cooperative learning research to frame and support the effectiveness of collaborative learning.

The literature suggests that researchers use the terms cooperative learning and collaborative learning interchangeably; moreover, the cooperative learning research is cited by collaborative learning researchers as support for the effectiveness of collaborative learning, hence, the (implied) inference is that cooperative learning and collaborative learning are essentially the same constructs. There are, however, some authors who have made the distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning (Brody, 1995; Bruffee, 1995).

Bruffee (1995) asks, "Is there really any difference between the two?" To which he responds, "Cooperative learning and collaborative learning are two versions of the same thing." Bruffee continues, "And, although members of both groups may disagree among themselves about terms and methods, principles and assumptions, their long range goals are strikingly similar" (p.12). In contrast, Brody (1995) states, "We should not take the distinctions between these two orientations lightly, because the different historical roots of such practices give coherence and structure to instructional practices that can help us evaluate the congruency between our program philosophy and goals" (p.133). Both Bruffee (1995) and Brody (1995) do, however, discuss some of the differences between cooperative and collaborative learning.

Central to understanding CCT, then, is an analysis of cooperative and collaborative learning to better understand the characteristics (ie, similarities and differences) of these two constructs. Are they, indeed, two versions of the same thing, as suggested by Bruffee (1995), or are they substantively different, that is, for example, different group structures, goals, and processes? This question is addressed below, first through elemental or component analysis (of cooperative and collaborative learning), and then through a comparative analysis.

Cooperative learning

The American Heritage dictionary defines cooperative as, "engaged in joint economic activity"; Merriam Webster Online defines cooperative as, "marked by a willingness and ability to work with others." A more nuanced interpretation, however, suggests that the term cooperative connotes some sort of payoff; that is, the joint effort will realise gains for all (ie, economic activity). Indeed, the cooperative learning literature suggests that the way students interact with each other is a key determinant of who learns and what is learned. Johnson and Johnson (1991) suggest that social skill development is a key element of cooperative learning. Specifically, cooperative learning theory suggests that when students work cooperatively, that is, "with a vested interest in each other's learning as well as their own," they learn more (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998). Johnson et al. (1998) defined cooperative learning as an instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximise their own and each other's learning. Central, then, to cooperative learning is the development of social skills whereby group members learn to work together so that each member and all members of the group are successful. Slavin (1991) argues that concern for the success of each and every member of the group is what distinguishes cooperative learning from other group processes.

Cooperative learning is a social process grounded by structured group work, and is concerned with promoting both social and academic outcomes; that is, students learn new social skills and how to work together in order to achieve academic goals. These goals are realised through the imposition of structure and control by the teacher. The teacher holds students accountable for learning, collectively. In doing so, the teacher acts like a manager or director who uses instructional strategies to engender social skills, positive interdependence, cooperation, and accountability (Brody, 1995). In sum, cooperative learning, although outcome-based, can be considered an inward looking, individual centered group process, where the primary goal of the group process is for each and every member of the group to learn.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative is defined by The American Heritage dictionary as, "to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor"; Merriam Webster Online defines collaborative exactly the same way: "to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor." In sum, these definitions suggest that collaborative connotes a social-intellectual endeavor. Indeed, the collaborative learning literature suggests that collaborative learning is, first and foremost, a social-intellectual exercise concerned with the creation of new knowledge, whereby a problem or task is posed and a solution or solutions sought (Brody, 1995; Bruffee, 1995). Collaborative learning is grounded in social constructivism (Bruner, 1996; Dewey, 1916; Piaget, 1973; Vygotsky, 1978), and is concerned with creating new knowledge. Toward this end, the teacher serves as a facilitator (Ornstein & Hunkins, 1998) or guide (Dewey, 1916) to the social process of discovery.

Accordingly, collaborative learning is concerned with cultivating students' independence, an atmosphere of dissent, a lack of group structure, and a free exchange of ideas. In collaborative learning the group will seek to answer a question or generate solutions to a problem; however, there is no concurrent goal that each and every member of the group will learn from the experience. Collaborative learning can be considered an outward looking, unstructured group process where the primary goal of the group is to generate, through creative interaction, a best solution or solutions, that is, knowledge construction (Brody, 1995).

Cooperative and collaborative learning: A comparative analysis

The foregoing analysis suggests that cooperative and collaborative learning, although both small group processes, are substantively different processes with different goals. Brody (1995) notes that, "Cooperative and collaborative learning both define learning through joint intellectual effort, but each embodies rich traditions that derive from different epistemological frameworks" (p.134). Cooperative learning is a very structured process characterised by a high degree of individual accountability, positive member interdependence and social skill development. Positive interdependence is central to the development of a cooperative learning environment and, subsequently, to the commitment of success of each and every member of the group. This is the heart of cooperative learning (Johnson et al., 1998).

Collaborative learning does not share the elements of cooperative learning, nor does it share the common goal of cooperative learning. Collaborative learning is an unstructured, small group process that cultivates independence, free thinking, and dissent. The goal of the collaborative learning process is to have group members think about and solve abstract problems, problems that may have no specific answers, or multiple solutions. In short, the goal of collaborative learning is to create new knowledge through a social context. Although group members are expected to work together, there is no commitment to group members that each will learn and be successful as a result of the process. Collaborative learning is, fundamentally, an intellectual process within a laissez-faire social framework.

Bruffee (1995) identifies two basic differences between cooperative learning and collaborative learning: 1) cooperative learning imposes much more structure on group members than collaborative learning, and 2) cooperative learning is concerned with the use and development of foundational knowledge (ie, knowledge that is widely accepted, eg, the earth is round); while collaborative learning is concerned with the use and development of nonfoundational knowledge (eg, What is the best way to deal with terrorism?). Accordingly, cooperative learning places tremendous authority in the teacher: the teacher structures group exercises and ensures that students work associatively, that they learn a variety of social skills, and that every student contributes equitably to an assignment (Bruffee, 1995; Matthews, Cooper, Davidson & Hawkes, 1995). In contrast, collaborative learning places the governance of the students in the hands of the students. The teacher does not evaluate group processes nor should the teacher attempt to influence group processes. Hence, student accountability surrenders to student dissent and the correctness of solutions is fungible.

Just as the terms cooperative and collaborative connote different meanings, the literature suggests that cooperative and collaborative learning are different group processes with different characteristics and goals. Moreover, the differences between the dictionary definitions of cooperative and collaborative are consistent with the conceptual distinctions between cooperative and collaborative learning. Although there are similarities between cooperative and collaborative learning (e.g., both are group processes concerned with learning), just as there similarities between a cat and a dog, I would argue that they are not two versions of the same thing: they have different epistemological frameworks, different characteristics, and different goals (see Table 1).

Table 1: Differences between cooperative and collaborative learning

CharacteristicCooperative learningCollaborative learning
KnowledgefoundationalNon-foundational; a social artifact
Epistemological orientationstructured instructionsocial construction
Processachievement-orientedcourse of action
Group structurehigh/positive interdependencelow/laissez faire/ individualistic
Teacher's rolemicro manager, hands-on/directormoderator/ facilitator/ guide
Student's/ participant's rolecooperative/ agreeabledissident/ independent
Goalsdevelop social skills and learning for all membersknowledge construction through conversation; concern for problem solving

The cooperative-collaborative learning distinction provides a starting point for conceptualising collaborative critical thinking. As noted, the term collaborative connotes a different meaning than the term cooperative. Now, it is appropriate to discuss critical thinking and its meaning; subsequent to this analysis, the construct collaborative critical thinking will be articulated.

Critical thinking (CT)

Although CT appears to be extensively researched, there is no standard definition. One way to define CT is as purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as the explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based (American Philosophical Association, 1990, p.3, Delphi Study). Another way to define CT is
(1) attitudes of inquiry that involve an ability to recognise the existence of problems and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in support of what is asserted to be true; (2) knowledge of the nature of valid inferences, abstractions, and generalisations in which the weight or accuracy of different kinds of evidence are logically determined; and (3) skills in employing and applying the above attitudes and knowledge (Watson & Glaser, 1994, p. 9).
Given that a standard definition of CT is lacking, it is not surprising to find different taxonomical structures to assess CT. Watson and Glaser (1994), for example, suggest that CT can be adequately measured using 5 dimensions: 1) inference, 2) recognition of assumptions, 3) deduction, 4) interpretation, and 5) evaluation of arguments. The American Philosophical Association's Critical Thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction Delphi Study (1990), suggests that CT has two components: 1) six CT skills and 2) two affective dispositions of CT. The six CT skills are interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation. These six skills are similar to Watson and Glaser's 5 dimensions of critical thinking. Interestingly, Watson and Glaser provide an attitudinal component in their definition, yet they do not explicitly measure this component of CT. The Delphi Study suggests an affective component, which is not affect per se but rather a personality or attitudinal variable that may predispose one to think critically (eg, open mindedness, diligence), but does not explicitly provide for this component in their definition.

Considering that there have been multiple definitions offered for critical thinking, as well as different conceptual structures or taxonomies, it is not surprising that there "has been little to no empirical support for these theorised taxonomies" (Edman, Bart, Robey & Silverman, 2000, p.17). Edman et al. (2000) have suggested that the Delphi Study's CT subscales may be better represented by three scales, 1) an analytic aspect of CT, 2) a metacognitive aspect, and 3) a communicative aspect. Also, Loo and Thorpe (1999) found little support for the underlying five subtests structure of the short form of The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal.

Thus, attempts to understand CT have been limited by an acceptable and agreed upon definition of the construct as well as an empirically supported conceptual framework. Moreover, attempts to understand collaborative critical thinking through CT is reasonable, but this approach will be constrained by the limitations inherent to the definitions and conceptualisations of CT. Also, CT, like intelligence, has been defined, conceptualised, and measured at the individual level. Nonetheless, the explication of cooperative and collaborative learning, as well as critical thinking, provides a reasonable, evidence-based starting point for defining and conceptualising collaborative critical thinking.

Collaborative critical thinking (CCT): Putting it all together

Borrowing on what is known about cooperative and collaborative learning, and critical thinking, collaborative critical thinking could be coarsely defined as a relatively unstructured social process that results in judgments being made or problems solved through the process of conversation and through the use of evidence, inference, interpretation, logic, and reflection. Thus, collaborative critical thinking can be thought of as critical thinking at the group level; that is, critical thinking that takes place within a social context, whereby group members have a common goal and work toward this goal, but not necessarily in a harmonious, cooperative way. Perhaps more often than not, this process takes place in the context of incomplete knowledge, time pressure, and general uncertainty.

Collaborative critical thinking is not cooperative critical thinking. It is not characterised by the group structure, member interdependence, or promotive interaction that characterises cooperative learning. And, by extension, CCT is not concerned with inducing or ensuring that group members acquire critical thinking skills and social skills as would cooperative critical thinking. Rather, CCT is concerned with inducing group level critical thinking so that good judgments may be rendered and/or solutions acquired. In short, CCT is an unstructured, small group process that seeks to cultivate independence, free thinking, and dissent in order to generate critical thinking.

Conclusion and directions for future research

In this article, collaborative critical thinking has been defined and characterised by borrowing from what is known about the related concepts of cooperative and collaborative learning and critical thinking. The articulation of collaborative critical thinking has been constrained by what is known about cooperative and collaborative learning, and to a greater extent, critical thinking. Although there is an extensive literature on cooperative and collaborative learning, confusion still exists about their differences and similarities. It was necessary to clearly differentiate these two concepts in order to better understand what is meant by collaborative, as opposed to cooperative, critical thinking. More problematic perhaps is the concept critical thinking. Critical thinking has been defined a number of different ways. Not surprisingly, its conceptual structure, that is, the dimensions of critical thinking, has not been empirically validated. In addition to the problematic psychometric properties of critical thinking, critical thinking has been measured and studied at the individual level, not the group level. Considering the limitations of the present research, ideas for future research are provided next. Researchers, for example, may want to explore: different approaches for understanding CCT, as well as the basic nature of CCT; how group structure and individual differences may affect CCT; and the taxonomical structure of critical thinking.

Approaches for understanding CCT

In this paper, the nature of CCT was determined using reductionism. Yet, it is possible that different characterisations of CCT may be realised through different approaches, for example, Gestaltism (Kohler, 1929). Gestaltism, as a form of psychological holism, would suggest that CCT is an irreducible whole, that it is different from its component parts, and, therefore, cannot be studied using reductionist methods. Kurt Lewin's work in social dynamics, a variant of Gestalt psychology, suggested that components of a group interacted and affected one another (Deutsch, 1954). Gestalt holism, therefore, would provide a framework for understanding critical thinking at the group level.

Another approach to understanding CCT is emergentism, a form of nonreductionism (Sawyer, 2002). Emergentists, for example, would suggest the components of CCT may combine to produce emergent effects that do not have any of the properties of the component parts. Thus, by combining the components of CCT something new is created. Emergentism is opposed to associationism and, therefore, would argue against the additive model that was used in this study of CCT. Future research should consider different approaches to understanding CCT and how theses approaches may result in different, or similar, characterisations of the construct.

Group structure and individual differences

The foregoing analysis suggests that CCT is a relatively unstructured social process whereby group members share information as well as engage in critical discussion of data, interpretations of data, plans, and perspectives. Sharing information and critical discussion of data, however, does not necessarily happen automatically. One way to facilitate information sharing and critical discussion is to structure groups. Ellis, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Porter, West, and Moon (2003), for example, found that certain team structures (paired) were beneficial for the acquisition of knowledge, whereas others were more detrimental (divisionally or functionally structured). However, just as cooperative learning may undermine collaborative learning (Brody, 1995), it is also possible that imposing structure may actually undermine, not facilitate, the free flow of ideas and the constructive controversy needed for critical thinking to take place (Tjosvold & Deemer, 1980).

One possible way around this quandary is to find a common ground between cooperative and collaborative processes. A possible solution would be to move from a collaborative critical thinking group to a collaborative critical thinking team. Just as cooperative learning is considered a type of collaborative learning, a team is considered a type of group. A group is a collection of two or more people who interact with one another and share some interrelated goals (Spector, 1996). A team is a type of group that has three specific properties: 1) the actions of individuals must be interdependent and coordinated; 2) each member must have a particular, specified role; and 3) there must be common goals and objectives (Baker, 1991). The characteristics of a team are similar to the elements of cooperative learning; while group characteristics are more consistent with the notion of collaboration. Hence, by moving from a group structure to a team structure, information would be collectively shared, by definition, and the shared experiences would create new knowledge (Ellis, et. al., 2003). Whether critical thinking would be induced by moving to a team structure is an empirical question. The more general empirical question is 'what type of group structure best facilitates or engenders critical thinking?'

Individual differences introduce a new level of complexity to group structure. Ellis et al. (2003) found that not only did group structure affect team learning, but that teams composed of members who were high in agreeableness had lower levels of knowledge and skill acquisition. It was suggested that when team members are highly agreeable, shared information is not critically evaluated and conflicting information may be dismissed. Future research should explore the role of individual differences and collaborative critical thinking, particularly the variable agreeableness. Researchers also may want to consider whether the devil's advocate positively affects collaborative critical thinking.

Critical thinking

Examining group structure and individual differences, and how they may affect critical thinking, may be a bit premature because the construct critical thinking has yet to be clearly defined, and the dimensions of critical thinking have yet to be empirically validated. It is unknown, for example, whether critical thinking has an 'affective' component as suggested by the American Philosophical Association (1990), a personality or attitude component, as suggested by Watson & Glaser (1994), or a communication skill component, as suggested by Edman et al. (2000), or some combination of the three. Once the taxonomical structure of critical thinking has been empirically validated, then critical thinking at the group level can be more effectively explored. If, for example, there is an individual difference variable that predisposes one to think critically, how would this predisposition be affected by group structure? Would imposing group structure stifle the predisposition? How would highly agreeable team members affect the predisposition to think critically?

Some preliminary guidance has been provided regarding the nature and definition of CCT, as well as directions for future research. The analytic approach to understanding CCT, reductionism, is just one approach. Two other approaches have been suggested - Gestaltism and emergentism. Perhaps other approaches will provide new insights into the nature of CCT. Other logical areas for future research are group structure, individual differences, and the taxonomical structure of critical thinking. It is hoped that future researchers will consider the ideas presented here as a platform for further discovery.


Aspects of this work were funded by the Office of Naval Research & OSD contract #N00014-02-C-0343. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Navy, OSD, or the Department of Defense.


  1. In this paper, it is assumed that critical thinking is a type of higher-order learning (see, Bloom, 1956; Kindsvatter, Wilen, & Ishler, 1992).


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Author: Dr Orlando Olivares is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with Aptima, Inc. [http://www.aptima.com/People/Olivares.html], a Human-Centered Engineering Company in Woburn, MA and an Associate Professor of I/O Psychology at Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, MA USA Email: oolivares@bridgew.edu

Please cite as: Olivares, O. J. (2005). Collaborative critical thinking: Conceptualizing and defining a new construct from known constructs. Issues In Educational Research, 15(1), 86-100. http://www.iier.org.au/iier15/olivares.html

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