Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Social Software related reviews

I just received the latest copy of the Review of Educational Research. This very prestigious journal published by the American Educational Research Association, publishes only very detailed (and usually long) reviews and meta-analysis articles. The latest issue has two articles related to social issues in education as well as anther Meta-analysis from Montreal’s Concordia University group, which I briefly review below. This journal does release full text online for free but seems to delay online publication. The current edition online is the Oct 2008 78(3), but expect full text of the following articles soon.

The first article  Sources of self-efficacy in school: Critical review of the literature and future directions by Usher, E., & Pajare, reviews the work on self-efficacy beginning from the ground-breaking work of Alberta Bandura from the 1980’s. Self-efficacy has been shown to be related to perseverance, degree of anxiety students feel, effort put forth and the choices learners make. Of particular interest is the sources of self-efficacy. Understanding how people increase their self efficacy helps us to create environments and interventions to assist this development. Not surprisingly the largest source is mastery (if I successfully mastered or accomplished something before, I am more likely to believe I can do it again).  But the second and third sources are socially bound. Social persuasion from supportive comments (“you can do it!!)  of teachers, coaches and peers, increases our sense that we really can do it. We also gain self-efficacy as we observe others accomplishing a similar goal “if he can do, so can I”. The final source is psychological indexes “I get real anxious when I think about math topics”.

The two social sources of self efficacy are most interesting in a distance education (DE) world, as the amount, extend and function of social interaction varies considerably in DE contexts. Not only does the technology mediate the interactions (for better and for worse) but the instructional design and especially the use or collaborative and cooperative work is especially relevant and contentious in distance contexts. Dalgaard’s notions of transparency – being able to perceive the presence of others and their activities must be a critical variable when designing interventions that will increase self-efficacy – with resultant increase in positive learning characteristics.

The second article Social comparison in the classroom. by Dijkstra et al. reviews the work (125 papers) on social comparison theory first articulated in 1954 by Leon Festinger ( of cognitive dissonance fame). Social comparison theory argues that in the often competitive environment of the classroom, students compare themselves with other (and usually higher achieving) students. This comparison has both positive and negative results encouraging self-evaluation, striving for better performance and (perhaps negatively) by comparing ourselves with lower performing peers (downward comparison) to enhance one’s perception of self. The article also notes the negative consequences of intense social comparison, that can do much to further diminish the self-efficacy of less able performers.

Again it seems obvious that without transparency, learners in distance learning contexts can not compare their performance with others, possibly resulting in anxiety and less opportunity for effective self-evaluation, self-enhancement and self-improvement. The individualized nature of some forms of distance education however may be useful for both high and low achievers who may find such comparisons either depressing or ego inflating to the degree that performance and or motivation is impaired.

The final article is not directly related to social interaction, but is briefly reviewed here because it is very interesting and its Canadian! Abrami and his colleagues managed to find 117 studies with comparison groups in which interventions were used as dependent variables in studies designed to assess the development of critical thinking (CT) skills. Critical thinking is a term found in the outcomes of almost every university course, but only rarely do instructors focus on interventions to stimulate, much less measure the concept. Of course the article needs to begin with a section on what is CT, since the topic is “complex and controversial notion that is difficult to define and subsequently, to study” p. 1103.

The results of meta-analysis showed that indeed instructional interventions do improve students’ CT skills. CT skills are taught in a variety of ways including some where CT is the subject of study, others where it is a bi-product of disciplinary study and various combinations.  Abrami et al found that  the mixed method where CT skills are taught as an independent track within a specific subject matter course proved most effective. They also found that results improved when particular pedagogical factors including teacher training, collaboration among students and explicit emphasis on CT as an outcome were components of the educational intervention.

Unusual for an educational meta-analysis, the authors did not whine about the lack of true randomly assigned studies, illustrating that either critical thinking has attracted much interest, the recent increase in funding for comparison studies is working, or the author’s are tired of complaining about what is not there! The authors conclude the article by wisely noting that increases in CT in classrooms does not guarantee that these skills are taken forward into real life, creating citizens who are better able to make decisions in our complex world. This becomes the frontier of educational research – going beyond the classroom to where learning really matters.


Abrami, P., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M., Tamin, R., et al. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134

Dijkstra, P., Kuyper, H., van der Wert, G., Buunk, A., & van der Zee, Y. (2008). Social comparison in the classroom. Review of Educational Research, 87(4), 828-879

Usher, E., & Pajares, F. (2008). Sources of self-efficacy in school: Critical review of the literature and future directions. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 751-796

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Nickel Chris Nickel
    February 16, 2009    

    Thanks for the reviews. I had not thought about the social sources of self-efficacy in regards to distance education. I tmakes sense that social presence would play a large role.

    The Critical thinking article also looks very interesting, particularly in light of the emphasis on promoting critical thinking within higher education. I haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, but will do so very soon.

    Thanks again for your informative post!

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