What are the characteristics of productive collaborative design? Exploring shared epistemic agency

By Elaine Regan - March 2011


Damşa, C. I., Kirschner, P. A., Andriessen, J. E. B., Erkens, G., & Sins P. H. M. (2010). Shared epistemic agency: An empirical study of an emergent construct. The Journal of the Learning Sciences19(2), 143–186.


The characteristics of shared epistemic agency—knowledge (epistemic) and process (regulative) related dimensions—were observed in two groups of university students that collaborated in a product design assignment. By looking at how each group approached the task, ISE professionals can reflect on the design of and support of productive collaborative learning.

Bringing individuals together in groups for a task or pooling group knowledge, though necessary, may not be sufficient for productive collaboration. Epistemic agency is thought to be essential to support collective efforts of knowledge advancement. Epistemic agency "is a process that sustains the creation and improvement of ideas via collective contributions in which students take cognitive responsibility for their learning." Capacity enabling and knowledge-driven activities are required to complete authentic collaborative projects that the authors believe are associated with agency. Understanding this concept is essential so that participants are in charge of their own learning and so educators can support learners in productive, collaborative learning scenarios. Epistemic learning includes student activities directly related to generating and developing ideas that are intentional, goal-directed, and sustained. This challenges students to go beyond their individual efforts and to collaborate with other students with the specific purpose of advancing the knowledge of the whole group. The authors see epistemic agency as an emerging, recursive, and gradual process rather than as a trait.

The authors question what enables groups to collaboratively engage in design product development by investigating shared epistemic agency in a qualitative case study involving 7 out of the 32 Dutch university students registered in the Educational and Instructional Design course. An empirically founded description and operationalization of the idea of shared epistemic agency is presented based on two groups (A and B) who have completed an extended collaborative design assignment.

Research literature identifies characteristics and actions of the learning process that the authors have categorised as indicators of epistemic agency for the purposes of the analysis; these are divided into knowledge-related and process-related activities. The four types of knowledge related activities are searching information, sharing ideas, structuring ideas, and producing ideas, and all four centre on participation. Process-related ideas can be projective (such as goal-setting or planning), regulative (such as monitoring collaborative efforts), and relational (such as negotiating) in steering and organising the process of knowledge production.

Shared epistemic agency was observed in knowledge (epistemic) and process (regulative) related dimensions as two groups of university students collaborated in a product design assignment. Group A illustrated four main action categories of epistemic agency: creating awareness, attempting to alleviate the lack of knowledge, creating shared understanding, and generating collaborative actions. Group B differed by focusing on a division of labour and illustrated regulatory actions but tended to solve/reflect as individuals. How each group approached the task illustrates the characteristics of agency in educational settings and demonstrates that, in collaborative design scenarios, some groups need guidance and support. How can collaboration/epistemic agency be supported by pedagogical and technological means in groups involved in design product development?