Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Balancing Individualistic and Cooperative Activities May Be a Recipe for Student Success

April 7, 2021
Instructional Communication

Cooperation is often prized in workplaces, yet students can feel competitive toward one another in the classroom. Particular classroom behavior, such as that required for successful group projects, can foster the opportunity to learn about collaboration. When are students motivated to work with one another? How does a classroom environment that’s collaborative, individualistic, or competitive affect students’ perceptions of the classroom? In a new article published in NCA’s Communication Education, Nhung C. Vu, John F. Hooker, and Cheri J. Simonds examine how social interdependence in the classroom affects students’ feelings toward their instructor and class content, as well as perceptions of classroom climate, their motivation, and their communication apprehension. 

Social Interdependence Theory

In the article, the authors define social interdependence as “the degree to which individuals perceive their success as being affected by other individuals’ actions.” In particular, this article looks at the classroom as a site of structural interdependence, meaning that the classroom environment shapes relationships among individuals. In particular, Vu, Hooker, and Simonds focus on two factors that affect structural interdependence, goal interdependence and reward interdependence, which can be further broken down into positive and negative types. 

Positive goal interdependence means that an individual achieving their goal is dependent on other people achieving their goals as well. In contrast, negative goal interdependence means that for one person to achieve their goals, others must not (to some degree). Positive reward interdependence means that group members receive the same awards when their goal is achieved. Negative reward interdependence means that when one person receives a reward, others do not. In this study, the authors consider grades as a form of reward in order to understand how goal and reward interdependence work together. 

The study considers how different types of classroom environment, characterized by goal and reward interdependence, can affect student outcomes. Cooperative structure refers to structures that foster collaboration. For example, when students work in groups, they must do so with the understanding that their group’s grade or evaluation is dependent on all members of the group mastering class materials. This can encourage collaborative behavior, such as support for group members who may be having trouble. 

In contrast, a competitive structure is characterized by competition between students, such as attempting to complete a task faster or with greater accuracy than one’s classmates. In these types of classrooms, students may be ranked by grades and may even be aware of where they rank. 

Finally, individualistic structure refers to environments where people work independently and are evaluated individually. For example, students may work independently to master a particular skill and may work with their teacher on improving that skill, rather than working with other students. 

The Study

The authors surveyed 206 students about social interdependence by assigning participants to a hypothetical classroom scenario (competitive, individualistic, or cooperative) that included descriptions of the course structure, grading procedures, and expected interpersonal interactions. These descriptions incorporated elements of goal and reward interdependence. For example, the cooperative structure described the grading for the class as follows, “Group members are responsible for preparing each other for exams; however, each will complete their exam individually. The scores of all group members are then averaged, and each member will receive the group average as their final score for the exam.” After reading the assigned scenario, the students filled out a survey about their anticipated feelings in such a classroom. 

Students with the individualistic classroom scenario were most likely to report high perceptions of affective learning or the feeling that the course would allow them to develop a positive relationship with the instructor and toward course content. Students exposed to the cooperative scenario were less likely to report affective learning than students assigned to the individualistic scenario, but students in the competitive scenario reported the lowest level of anticipated affective learning. 

Similarly, students assigned to the individualistic classroom scenario were more likely to report higher motivation or feelings that they would be interested in or look forward to the course. As with affective learning, participants in the cooperative scenario reported higher motivation than those in the competitive scenario, but lower motivation than those in the individualistic scenario. 

The study also assessed how each scenario affected classroom communication apprehension (CCA) or students’ concerns about speaking during class, leading class discussions, and similar issues. The competitive classroom elicited the most concern about CCA; the cooperative and individualistic classrooms drew about the same levels of concern. 

Finally, the authors examined how students evaluated the classroom climate of each scenario. In this study, classroom climate referred to how students perceive the communication dynamics of the classroom, such as whether the instructor seems approachable or empathetic toward students’ problems. Students in both the cooperative and individualistic scenarios rated classroom climate more favorably than students assigned to the competitive scenario. 

Conclusion and Implications

Students who read the individualistic scenario predicted that they would learn more working on their own than in groups; those students were also more motivated than students in the other scenarios. Students who read either the individualistic or cooperative scenario were more likely to report that the classroom environment was favorable. In contrast, students who read the competitive scenario were the most likely to report concerns with class participation and discussion. 

Vu, Hooker, and Simonds argue that this research has practical implications for instructors. First, they suggest that instructors consider individual assignments when appropriate and balance individual requirements with group work. Second, they argue that “instructors should recognize the value of mixing individual and cooperative work to reduce CCA and promote a positive classroom climate.” Finally, while some instructors may believe that competition can be useful, the authors caution that competition can lower students’ motivation and affective learning. In addition, competition may also increase the perception that the classroom climate is unfavorable and contribute to concerns about speaking or participating in class. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Nhung C. Vu, John F. Hooker & Cheri J. Simonds (2020): Cooperative, competitive, or individualistic? Exploring the role of social interdependence in the classroom, Communication Education, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2020.1851733

About the author (s)

Nhung C. Vu

Penn State

Doctoral Student, Department of Communication Arts and Sciences

Nhung C. Vu

John F. Hooker

Illinois State University

, Associate Professor and Co-Director of Communication as Critical Inquiry, School of Communication,

John F. Hooker

Cheri J. Simonds

Illinois State University

Professor, School of Communication

Cheri J. Simonds