Designing for Student Success through Interdependent Learning

How can faculty design courses to maximize student success? Designing for success means engaging in intentional course design, leveraging tools and pedagogical strategies to support the success of all students—and especially those who are more likely to face challenges. One way to design for success is to enable interdependent learning.

What is interdependent learning?

Interdependent learning requires connecting with others and cannot be achieved alone. This is in contrast to independent learning, where the student works individually and is independently motivated.

Why is interdependent learning important?

Interdependent learners often come from cultures where individuals are motivated by others’ high expectations and which place great value in collaboration, including collaborative research. Following the footsteps of accomplished individuals, following rules, and appreciating others’ opinions are norms in many interdependent cultures.

Interdependent learning can benefit most learners, but it can be especially useful for first-generation college students. First-generation students often feel discomfort in traditional college environments, experiencing a disadvantageous cultural mismatch between their own norms and the norms of university culture. This may affect students’ performance by influencing their perception of the setting and the construal of tasks expected of them in that setting. Hence, they may find tasks more difficult and may perform poorly in comparison to their counterparts with one or more parents who have college experience.

How to include interdependent learning in course design?

Interdependent learning opportunities need to be purposefully built into course design so that they appear to be organic to the learning process. Faculty should carefully analyze course learning objectives to determine which can be met using interdependent learning opportunities. Instructors encourage interdependent learning by having students work collaboratively in groups, conduct collaborative research, and engage in opportunities to appreciate the opinions and contributions of others.

Merely putting students in groups will not automatically result in interdependent learning. Faculty need to consciously scaffold interdependent learning in groups by setting up transparent, well-articulated tasks and participation expectations, as well as providing rubrics to define assessment criteria.

Some design questions to consider

Where in your course design might you enable interdependent learning? How will you make sure students understand the interdependent nature of a learning activity? What steps will you take to ensure both individual and group accountability in learners? In what ways can you communicate that interdependent learning does not reinforce dependence on others?


  • DeBraak, L. (2008). Independent and Interdependent remedial/developmental student learners. NADE Digest, 4(1), 11-18.
  • Stephens, N.M., Fryberg, S.A., Markus, H.R., Johnson, C.S. & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178-1197.

Devshikha Bose
Instructional Design Consultant
Center for Teaching and Learning
Boise State University