A Social Constructivist Perspective on Higher Learning


In Australia, the newly articulated national curriculum requires teachers of science, mathematics and technology to engage their students in conceptually and linguistically rich educative relationships with both the teacher and peers. This image of learning constrasts markedly with that of the student as a passive recipient absorping pre-formed knowledge transmitted by the expert teacher.

Underpinning the dynamic view of learning is a new theory of knowing: social constructivism, which portrays the learner as an active conceptualiser within a socially interactive learning environment. Social constructivism is an epistemology, or way of knowing, in which learners collaborate reflectively to co-construct new understandings, especially in the context of mutual inquiry grounded in their personal experience.

Central to this collaboration is the development of students’ communicative competence, that is, the ability to engage in open and critical discourse with both the teacher and peers. This discourse is characterised by an empathic orientation to constructing reciprocal understanding, and a critical attitude towards examining underlying assumptions.

Given the rising popularity of social constructivism as a referent for reforming the professsional practices of science, mathematics and technology teachers, we believe that it is very important for teachers (i.e., our own students) to experience first-hand what it means to become reflective and collaborative learners.

The COLLES has been designed to enable us (and like-minded university teachers) to monitor the extent to which we are able to exploit the interactive capacity of the World Wide Web for engaging students in dynamic learning practices.

Structure of the COLLES

The COLLES comprises an economical 24 statements grouped into six scales, each of which helps us address a key question about the quality of the on-line learning environment:

Relevance How relevant is on-line learning to students’ professional practices?
Reflection Does on-line learning stimulate students’ critical reflective thinking?
Interactivity To what extent do students engage on-line in rich educative dialogue?
Tutor Support How well do tutors enable students to participate in on-line learning?
Peer Support Is sensitive and encouraging support provided on-line by fellow students?
Interpretation Do students and tutors make good sense of each other’s on-line communications?

Three Forms of the COLLES

There are three forms of the COLLES: (i) a preferred form, (ii) an actual form, and (iii) a combined preferred and actual form.

Which form of the COLLES to administer depends largely on timing and purpose. Typically, we administer the preferred form early in the teaching semester, after allowing a couple of weeks to pass while students become familiar with our on-line learning requirements. Then, in the final week of semester, we administer the combined form (preferred and actual).


The COLLES contains a five-point Likert-type response scale — Almost Never (1), Seldom (2), Sometimes (3), Often (4), Almost Always (5) – with scores shown in parentheses.

Possible Analyses

Here we pose some sample questions that COLLES data may help in answering. Following each question, we suggest which forms of the COLLES can be used for generating suitable analyses. It is important to note that we recommend using the COLLES data in conjunction with qualitative data to ensure that multiple perspectives generate rich interpretations of the complexity of the learning environment in any (virtual) classroom.

Across the whole class, what is the initial student profile in relation to beliefs about reflective thinking and learning from other students?

Examine results of the initial preferred form of the COLLES.

Across the semester, have there been any changes in students’ beliefs about their own learning practices? Importantly, have students become more (or less) accepting of collaborative and reflective ways of knowing?

Compare results on the initial and final preferred forms of the COLLES.

To what extent are students satisfied with the learning environment at the end of the course?

Compare results of the final form of the (combined) preferred and actual forms of the COLLES.

More information

For more information, see these papers about COLLES.

Example: COLLES (Actual)

Example: COLLES (Preferred)

Example: COLLES (Actual and Preferred)

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