The contact hypothesis and cooperative learning in a postsecondary setting

Date of Completion

January 2000


Education, Bilingual and Multicultural|Education, Curriculum and Instruction|Education, Higher




The English Language Program (ELP) was established at a northeastern state university in 1992 with a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education in response to the University's growing number of enrolled immigrants, a shortage of English as a Second Language resources, and the lines of segregation between ethnic groups. This program pairs native (English Fellow) and non-native English-speaking (English Learner) university students to address the academic discourse needed to help English Learners master course content. Cooperative learning, emphasizing peer education, interdependent cooperation, and non-superficial interaction between outgroup members, provided the theoretical framework for the ELP design. ^ Since assuming the ELP's financial support in 1995, University efforts to fund the ELP have revolved around its perceived potential for promoting cultural exchange, enhanced understanding, and equal interaction between English Fellows and Learners through shared knowledge and mutual effort. These were only assumptions, however, as cooperative learning research had not addressed these dimensions at the postsecondary level. ^ This qualitative study investigated how participants understood Fellow/Learner cooperation as (a) relationships between persons of equal status (b) and ones enhancing understanding through cultural exchange. A case study approach of six pairs was used; data gathering techniques included interviews, document review, and observation. Data analysis was informed by the theoretical frameworks of the contact hypothesis, cooperative learning, social identity theory, decategorization, and investment. ^ The research questions yielded interrelated data which underscored the role of interpersonal relationships and mutual discourse in promoting understanding and equal status between the Fellows and Learners. The emergence of an interpersonal relationship figured largely in diminishing the salience of the Fellow (helper)/Learner (helpee) distinction through the development of alternative sources of status or positive identity. Relatedly, information gleaned through interpersonal exchange allowed participants to discuss their partners in complex and individuated ways that undermined category-based biases and preconceptions. Additional findings indicated that the development of such interpersonal relationships were associated with the participants' investment in the Fellow/Learner interaction in terms of fashioning personal and professional identities—a process facilitated by the ability to identify with their outgroup partner on an interpersonal level. ^