Assistant Director, General Education
Faculty Member, Center for Teaching and Learning
We believe that students often learn better together. Collaborative learning is where learners work together toward a common goal. This means that they are responsible for each other’s learning, and their contributions lead to the success of the group. Collaborative learning activities create the environment for other effective learning practices to occur, including active learning, contextualized learning, and greater overall engagement.
To fully understand the benefits of collaborative learning, we must make some assumptions about learning (from Smith and MacGregor paper “What Is Collaborative Learning?”):
- Learning is an active, constructive process
- Learning depends on rich contexts
- Learners are diverse
- Learning is social
With consideration of these assumptions, there are many potential benefits of having students learning together. Among them are:
- Greater accountability on the learner as they actively interact with the material
- Greater interaction among students and between faculty and students
- More thorough understanding of the content
- Deeper engagement with the learning material and, therefore, higher level thinking skills
- Development of interpersonal skills
- Ultimately, there is no chance to be bored!
Here is a list of a multitude of other benefits.
Relationship with active learning
Collaborative learning can create many opportunities for active learning to occur. You will also find that many active learning techniques are collaborative in nature. However, it is important to make the distinction that not all collaborative learning techniques are active, and not all active learning techniques are collaborative.
There is a variety of possible techniques that you can use. It is up to you to judge the appropriateness of each one and to tailor it to your needs, based on your specific learning outcomes and the learning styles of your students.
Think-pair-share. One obvious way for students to learn together through interaction is through the think-pair-share technique. This type of activity allows students the chances to process material individually, then in pairs (or small groups) and then as a class. Since this technique allows students space to first think on their own, and then to share ideas in the lower-risk situation of a small group before speaking to the whole class, you may see improvement in both the quality of the large class discussion, as well as in individual students’ comfort to participate. When prompting students, pose a question or task that requires reflection, analysis, or some higher order thinking.
This technique can be used for multiple purposes, including
- introducing new content
- deeper exploration
For further information, check out this page from Stanford Teaching Commons on think-pair-share.
Snowballing (Pyramiding). Slightly similar to think-pair-share, snowballing involves progressing from small groups to larger groups, but also with a progression in complexity of the task. First, individuals are given a simple task (such as making a list). Then, they get into pairs to do something slightly more complex (such as categorizing information). Finally, in even larger groups, they work together to use even higher order thinking skills , such as analysis or synthesis of information.
Inversely, you could start with having the large group brainstorm the list, then break into smaller groups to categorize items on the list, and then individually do the analysis.
For more information, check out this resource from University College Dublin on snowballing and other methods for small and large group teaching.
Structured controversy. This technique resembles a debate on a small scale and can be used as a way for students to learn deeply and look at different perspectives of an issue. They work in groups of four (two pairs). Each pair takes one side of an issue to research. Back in the group, they advocate and defend their position, with all four members talking to learn all sides of the issue. Then the pairs reverse position and defend the other side. Lastly, they work together to produce a group report.
For more information, see this great resource from UC Berkeley on structured controversy and other techniques for group work.
Role of educational technology in collaborative learning
Through the availability of educational technology, we are now able to have students collaborate more easily and effectively than ever before! And, collaboration is not bound to class meetings or on-campus courses. Educational technology has enhanced the implementation of collaborative learning by
- Improving the implementation of techniques.
- Creating new possibilities. Making it possible to carry out certain techniques online, where it would have been impossible to do at an earlier time.
For example, making use of an online collaboration tool in a campus classroom setting allows students to be more organized with their thoughts and allows the instructors to check in on their progress with less intrusion. Here is one great example of how a professor improved the quality of student interaction in his class using an online collaborative document.
For an asynchronous online learning situation, in which students are not all in the same place at the same time, you could use technology to make collaborate learning possible where you otherwise would not be able to. Take “think-pair-share,” for instance. Using an online shared document could allow students write ideas on their own (think), look at what someone else has written (pair) and then share with the class as a whole (share).
Many instructors wonder about the size of student groups. Although the group size depends on the learning outcomes and can be small or large, the core idea is that there is something to be gained from the interaction among members. That being said, as rule of thumb, you probably want to have groups of 4 or 5 students, unless you’re employing a technique like snowballing where a large group (10 or more) is part of the experience.
- Deliberate group assignments: Assigning groups is valuable because you, as the instructor, are aware of each student’s ability and how well they work with each other.
- Random group assignments: If the task at hand does not require such a deliberate group makeup, then you could create groups by having the class number off (1, 2, 3, 4—1s are in a group, 2s are in a group, etc.). Or, you could hand out pieces of paper with numbers, shapes, or words on them. You don’t have to assign groups, of course, but by having a method to assign the groups, it appears to the student that you have a plan and that the collaborative activity isn’t simply an invitation for the students to talk about what they did over the weekend.
If collaborative learning is new to you, just give it a try and see what you discover (both about your students and yourself). You and your students know what be the key to figuring out which methods work best for the topic, the task, and the chemistry of the people involved.
Here is another overview of collaborative learning.
This is a non-exhaustive list of benefits of collaborative learning: 44 Benefits of Collaborative Learning.
This is an issue from Stanford’s teaching newsletter, dedicated to small group work. Though it is from 1999, it’s still very relevant!
Looking for more ideas for implementation? Here is an index of learning activities, many of which are collaborative and active.