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What exactly is collaborative learning?

Keo Mokgojoa
November 9, 2020

Collaborative learning, which generally refers to students working together in an attempt to create knowledge and achieve shared learning goals, has been identified by scholars as an especially promising instructional approach to higher education. This instructional approach possesses effective student outcomes such as increased academic achievement, improved abilities in transferring information from one setting to another and the ability to generate new ideas. Although collaborative learning is commonly used in the higher education setting, there is often confusion with this term with the related but quite distinct learning method,  cooperative learning term. Notably, collaborative learning is typically employed in colleges and universities whereas co - operative learning is usually used in K12 settings.

This article's goals is to hence clarify misconceptions such as this as well explain exactly what is meant by the term ‘collaborative learning’, the educational benefits of such an approach and how FeedbackFruits toolsuite aids in collaborative learning environments.

What exactly is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning is an umbrella term used to refer to a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by either students or both students and teachers together [1] . Usually this joint intellectual effort involves students working together in groups of two or more people, mutually searching for understanding, solutions or meaning [1].

Specifically, this joint intellectual effort could for instance include the problem - centered instructional approach. This collaborative learning strategy gives students direct experiential encounters with real world problems. In this way students get immersed in complex problems that they need to analyze and work through together [1]. This collaborative learning strategy develops problem solving abilities, understanding of complex relationships as well as  decision making abilities.

Another widely used collaborative learning approach includes peer writing. Peer writing involves students working in small groups at every stage of the writing process. Many writing groups initially begin with brainstorming tasks such as formulating ideas, clarifying their positions, testing arguments or focus on compiling a thesis statement before committing it to paper. This approach is probably the oldest form of collaborative learning [1].

Lastly, discussion groups and seminars refer to a broad array of teaching approaches. In college settings we usually think of discussions as processes that encourage students to engage in dialogue with teachers and with  each other [1]. These dialogues can be both formal and informal.  The general structure encompasses open - ended discussion which usually puts the onus on the teacher to pose questions and naturally allow the students to build a conversation and raise arguments in the context of the topic at hand.

Having pointed out the different collaborative learning approaches, it becomes evident that collaborative learning activities vary widely. The most common characteristic centers on students' exploration or application of the course material rather than simply the teacher's presentation or explanation of it [1]. Collaborative learning represents a significant and appropriate shift away from the typical teacher-centered or lecture-centered approach in classrooms towards a more student-centered approach to instruction. Meaning that in collaborative classrooms the lecturing/listening, note-taking process may not disappear entirely but lives alongside other processes that are based on students’ discussion and active engagement and learning of the course material [1]. Teachers implementing this teaching approach usually tend to think of themselves as expert designers of intellectual experiences for students, or coaches of a more emergent learning process.

Why should teachers incorporate collaborative learning strategies in the classrooms?

While teachers use collaborative learning because they believe it helps students learn more effectively, they also believe that collaborative learning promotes a larger educational agenda. This educational agenda includes equipping students with key competencies or soft skills that will prepare students for the real working environment and they include increased student engagement, collaboration with teammates, teamwork as well as civic responsibility.

1 - Increase student engagement

Calls to involve students more actively in their learning are coming from virtually every corner of higher education policy making. By its nature, collaborative learning is both socially and intellectually involved [2]. It invites students to build closer connections with other students, their faculty, their courses and their learning. It improves the ability to think critically, and encourages students to participate in providing an answer, explaining their point of view and justifying their opinion [3]. In these contexts, students turn to active agents in the learning process and collaborate in the formation of their own knowledge. This formation of their own knowledge includes students delving deeper into the subject matter and building new associations from previous knowledge resulting in higher order learning [3].

2 - Collaboration and teamwork

In collaborative teaching situations, students inevitably encounter differences and must get  accustomed to recognizing these differences as well as working through them. Acumen such as building the capacity for tolerating or resolving differences; building agreement that honours all the voices in a group; and caring for others, are fundamental when working in a community or collaborative real - world, working environment . Moreover, collaborative working environments aid in the cultivation of teamwork, community building and leadership skills which are key in creating an environment of positive interdependence, which is an additional benefit when working in a team (Arcas et al, 2013).

3 - Civic Responsibility

If democracy is to endure in any meaningful way, our educational system needs to foster habits of participation in and responsibility to the larger community. Collaborative learning encourages students to acquire an active voice in expressing their ideas and values as well as acquiring a  sensitive ear to listening to the voices and perspectives of others. Dialogue, deliberation and consensus-building, from differences that teammates might possess, are fundamental  threads in the fabric of collaborative learning environments, the workplace and in general civic life [2].

The importance of collaborative learning approaches in online learning environments

Holistically, collaborative learning approaches train learners for the 21st century workplace by aiding in the sharing of ideas and in the expression of learners' opinions.  The impact of active collaborative learning on student performance is further enhanced when combined with use of technology[2].  When students use technologies they are more collaborative in their learning processes as the use of technology in a collaborative learning environment aids in effective communication. As students are already embracing digital communication in their everyday lives, they are accustomed to understanding a vast array of subjects and expressing that information in a concise manner[2].  For example the skill of summarizing complex problems into 140 characters means a student is able to capture the fundamentals of the content which is a key competency or life beyond the classroom [3].

A great example of the enhanced benefits of technology in a collaborative learning environment includes the Use Case for IE Business School. In this collaborative environment the aim was to improve students programming skills as well as their  knowledge of the fundamentals of programming in an online environment. Through Interactive Document the teacher succeeded in activating students, stimulating collaboration as well as fostering knowledge sharing between students in an online context.

How the FeedbackFruits tool suite aids in collaborative learning

1 - Comprehension

Comprehension of Document helps students to better grasp the structure of the study material through collaborative and active learning strategies. This is made possible as teachers for instance could present students with a real world case study. Students get immersed in complex problems that  need analysis and that they need to work through it together. This is possible by providing their own perspectives and reading the perspectives of their peers. Viewing annotations from peers can foster collaborative learning and encourage students to evaluate their own annotations. This aids in development of problem solving abilities and the deeper understanding of fundamental concepts.

2 - Interactive Video, Interactive Document, Interactive Audio and Discussion

This tool suite from FeedbackFruits could aid in collaborative learning environments. By teachers presenting a video, audio or question in these tools this could stimulate students to think critically, and encourages students to participate in providing an answer, explaining their point of view and justifying their opinion  about a certain topic. When students' perspectives differ this further enhances an open discussion that enables students to naturally build a discussion and raise arguments about the content at hand. These collaborative annotations engage students in critical reading, critical thinking, writing, and collaboration all in one activity. Annotating helps to build a better understanding of the study material. When students annotate, they are forced to evaluate what the content is saying, creating a clear conceptualization.

Closing remarks

In the most authentic ways, the collaborative learning process models what is meant to promote the larger educational agenda and softer skills that students will require after their educational journey has ended. Learning collaboratively truly demands responsibility, patience and persistence but the result of this could be fostering a community of active and critical students that want to participate and grow.


[1] Leigh Smith, B., & MacGregor, J. (2009). Learning communities and the quest for quality. Quality Assurance in Education, 17(2), 118-139. Source

[2] Loes, C. N., & Pascarella, E. T. (2017). Collaborative learning and critical thinking: Testing the link. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 726-753. Source

[3] Blasco-Arcas, L., Hernandez-Ortega, B. I., & Jimenez-Martinez, J. (2014). Collaborating online: The roles of interactivity and personalization. The Service Industries Journal, 34(8), 677-698. Source

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