What exactly is collaborative learning?

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
November 9, 2020
Table of Contents

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 cooperative learning is usually used in K12 settings.

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

We also recommend you visit our in-depth guide to collaborative learning, which highlights how to implement effective collaborative learning strategies in a hybrid or online classroom using pedagogical technology.

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What exactly is collaborative learning?

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

Read more: Learning communities and the quest for quality

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 focusing on compiling a thesis statement before committing it to paper. This approach is probably the oldest form of collaborative learning.

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. 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. Collaborative learning represents a significant and appropriate shift from the typical teacher-centered or lecture-centered approach in classrooms toward a more student-centered approach to instruction. This means that in collaborative classrooms the lecturing/listening and 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. 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 instructors 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.

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 honors 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.

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 listen 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 mixed modalities environments

Collaborative learning focuses on training learners for the future workplace by encouraging meaningful group interactions in which students exchange ideas, contribute opinions, and critical feedback from their peers. Via such conversations, learners feel more motivated to actively engage in the learning process.

The impact of active collaborative learning on student performance is further enhanced when combined with the use of pedagogical technology. For example, instructors can create interactive study materials using several available tools where students work collaboratively to develop a deep understanding of the content before class time. Asynchronous and synchronous discussion forums can also be facilitated with technology to make sure all students can contribute their opinions regardless of geographical location and time. Teaching tools also support group assessment activities, by streamlining the entire process in which students evaluate their group members’ teamwork skills.

A good example of the enhanced benefits of technology in a collaborative learning environment includes the use case of the 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. By using FeedbackFruits Interactive Document tool,  the instructor succeeded in activating students, stimulating collaboration, and fostering knowledge sharing between students in an online context.

How to implement collaborative learning

1. Assign diverse groups

In order to maximize the benefits of collaborative learning, instructors need to pay close attention to the group formation. If left to their own devices, students tend to gather with those who are close to them or easy to work with, while students considered “unfit” will be left out. That’s why instructors must support groupings of varied strengths, weaknesses, abilities, backgrounds, and social capacities. Encouraging diversity within groups promotes a dynamic learning community where students encounter diverse opinions and perspectives, which resembles real-life workplace scenarios. The size of the group is also important.

If a group is too small, interactions and discussions may not be varied or rich enough; if too large, introverted students tend to be left out. Therefore, the optimum group size tends to be four to five.

2. Establish a deep understanding of collaborative work

Take the time to provide detailed instructions and guidance to students regarding the benefits and relevance of the collaborative activities. When students are clear about why they need to participate in the projects, and how the task completion helps them achieve the desired learning goals and develop real-life skills.

For a successful collaborative learning activity, students also need to know what they should and should not do while working together. Transparent ground rules; therefore, should be a critical part of the syllabus alongside activity description and objectives. These rules would specify the language and behaviors suitable for teamwork, such as:

  • How to voice and clarify one’s opinions; disagree constructively
  • How to build on others’ ideas and to counterargue them
  • How to receive positive and respond to negative ones from group members
  • How to react in case there are group members not contributing to the projects

To increase students’ ownership of their learning, you can even involve students in drafting the collaborative working rules.

Finally, make sure that the syllabus contains all the relevant information: activity instruction, rationale, and collaboration rules. Time should be allocated for students to carefully study the syllabus and raise questions, as well as for instructors to address the emerging queries.

3. Design authentic collaborative tasks

The ultimate goal of collaborative learning is to nurture essential skills to work effectively in groups namely communication, negotiation, feedback, and problem-solving. A task considered to be collaborative should relate closely to real-world scenarios, encourage students’ cooperation to conduct research, develop solutions to problems, raise and defend opinions, and critically reflect on others’ group contribution and that of themselves.

There are plenty of techniques and strategies that you can use to build a collaborative, authentic task. Below you can find some of the most popular ones that can be used in different course modalities.

  • Problem-based learning (PBL): Students receive an authentic problem to explore, evaluate, and come up with relevant solutions as a group. They should also be able to present their solutions by the end of the activity.
  • Team-based learning (TBL): In this approach, students study course materials, then complete a quiz individually and then in groups to consolidate their learned knowledge. This is followed by evidence-based Appeals where students provide explanations for their quiz answers; then a mini-lecture in which the instructor clarifies the misperceptions and problems. After this, students again collaborate to apply their acquired knowledge in problem-solving via an application exercise.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Students are required to critically analyze and respond to a question, then share their opinions with a partner. They are also encouraged to challenge peer’s ideas and defend their own perspectives with appropriate reasonings. After this, students proceed to share their responses within larger teams or with the entire class during a follow-up discussion.
  • Case Study: Students work in groups to analyze and come up with solutions for a real-life case study. The solutions should be summarized and presented to the instructor and the whole class via a written report or a presentation. Elements of peer review and instructor feedback are integrated throughout the activity.

For more suggestions on collaborative learning activities, you can check out the following resources: 20 Collaborative Learning Tips And Strategies For Teachers

4. Incorporate self and group assessment

Encouraging students to reflect on their group members’ performance and that of themselves promotes a sense of responsibility, ownership, and accountability during the collaborative process. This assessment component usually takes place at the end of the activity, after students conclude the group project. A successful self/ group evaluation component requires the development of a holistic rubric that allows students to provide effective feedback, and be clear about what is expected of themselves when working in groups.

For more guidance and examples on creating group evaluation rubrics, check out the resources below:

5. Find the tools to support the collaborative learning process

Instructors can save plenty of time in setting the collaborative activity, as well as enhance various aspects of the learning process with the aid of pedagogical technology. Available teaching tools can help increase engagement during the asynchronous content study phase, streamline the self/group assessment step, assign groups, and more. Therefore, instructors need to spend time evaluating and deciding on the appropriate tools to be used in their collaborative learning courses.

Examples of collaborative learning

How does collaborative learning look like in practice? In this section, you will find examples of different collaborative activities.

Team-based activity

  • Instructors create interactive study materials activities, in which the study materials are enriched with questions and discussion points for students to respond to.
  • Students consolidate their knowledge in the previous by completing a quiz, first individually and then in teams. A team-based platform can be used to facilitate this step.
  • Based on the input from the previous steps, students work together on a group project in which they need to apply the knowledge they have gained, present their solutions to their peers, and then discuss these with each other in an online discussion forum.
  • Students engage in group feedback and self-evaluation based on the collaboration skills criteria within a review tool.
  • Instructors provide students feedback on the observed collaborative process, and output of the group work.

For a full overview of how this activity design works, you can take a look at our Collaborative learning journey, which outlines step by step how to incorporate different teaching tools to implement a successful group activity.

Collaborative problem solving

  • Students work in groups to select a company in groups, prepare interview questions, and interview them to collect the necessary information to prepare a business plan.
  • Groups submit their business plan drafts to a peer review platform, where they provide feedback on other groups’ work based on a set of criteria.
  • Students present their solutions to the problem in groups and receive feedback from peers and instructors during a synchronous session.
  • Students engage in group feedback and self-evaluation based on the collaboration skills criteria. Instructors can facilitate this activity via a group evaluation platform.

Again, a detailed description of this activity flow along with relevant tools to use can be found in the Collaborative problem-solving journey.

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 who want to participate and grow.

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