"working in a group of two or more to achieve a common goal, while respecting each individual’s contribution to the whole” (McInnerney & Robert, 2004, p. 205).
Collaborative learning is a type of active learning that encompasses terms such as cooperative learning, team-based learning, group learning and peer learning (Davidson, Major & Michaelsen, 2014). The common thread is that students (as peers) engage in activities where they can learn together and learn from each other, often under the guidance of a teacher or senior peer to provide instructional scaffolding (Siefert & Sutton, 2009). Collaborative learning activities can involve groups ranging from dyads (pairs) and triads to large groups that encompass the entire class or cohort.
Collaborative learning is an approach that can be planned and used to enhance student engagement by incorporating the social aspects of active learning. By using face to face or synchronous class time for collaborative learning in blended and online learning times then you have the basis for an effective ‘flipped classroom’ approach (Hamden et al., 2013; Lage & Platt, 2000).
The relative effectiveness of collaborative learning compared to non-collaborative classroom learning on learning outcomes as well as student self-esteem and attitude toward learning, has been clearly established in meta-studies by Johnson, Johnson & Smith (2006). A meta-study by Springer, Stanne & Donovan (1999) showed similar results in STEM subjects with an added positive impact on student persistence (retention). Kuh et al (2007) showed positive impact of collaborative learning on student success through enhanced student engagement and learning outcomes.
The theory underpinning collaborative learning is that of constructivism, where each student learns by integrating new understanding from their experiences and ideas, to build upon their existing knowledge (Piaget, 1971). Where groups of students can come together to share experiences, ideas, and understandings, toward reaching a learning goal or to solve a problem, then this is termed social constructivism (Vygotsky & Cole, 1978; McMahon, 1997).
Relevant to online learning, connectivism, related to constructivism, is an innovative theory that focuses on helping learners make deeper connections with content through connections with each other via technology. For online learners, collaborative learning techniques have been shown to improve student learning outcomes and experiences (Yusifzada, 2021; Mitra, 2021; Barkley, Cross & Major, 2014, p. 29), while reducing isolation by creating peer to peer relationships (Stoytcheva, 2021).
What can it look like?
"Group learning is about getting people to work together well, in carefully set up learning environments" (Race, 2014, p. 197).
Collaborative learning can be implemented in large groups, small groups, and teams.
Team-based learning is distinguished from small group learning in that a student team works on a given project or problem that may span one to many classes during a teaching period. Such teams are often formally convened by the teacher, based on strengths and abilities rather than friendships as is seen in informal or impromptu groups (Johnson, et al., 2014).
Large group activities are most often led by a teacher and can be used to break up didactic content delivery with learning activities that consolidate and test knowledge as it is developed. A large group may be a large lecture (or ‘lectorial’) of a hundred or more students. Modern large classrooms increasingly incorporate flexible seating arrangements that can facilitate small (variable size) breakout group activities. Where large groups are convened online, the use of online breakout rooms can be a most effective mode for facilitation of group activities.
Small group activities can occur in any space where a manageable number of cooperative groups can be implemented with appropriate supportive resources, space, and technology. Informal cooperative learning groups are often ad-hoc groupings of two to four students convened to address a question raised by the teacher.
From a student experience perspective, collaborative learning activities that are well-designed and adequately supported can provide opportunities for students to reach learning outcomes while building ‘softer’ skills that are highly valued by employers of graduates. These so-called ‘soft’ skills or attributes include, but are not limited to, abilities to work in teams toward common goals, communicate with new people, listen to others critically, value skills that others bring to teamwork, ideate, and create solutions to problems, critically review teamwork effectiveness, manage interpersonal difficulties, and develop leadership potential (Race, 2014).
From an active teaching perspective, facilitation of collaborative learning can require a sound understanding of complex group dynamics, potential issues, and management approaches to minimise or take advantage of them. Managing effective team learning means providing appropriately timed inputs (interventions) to scaffold learning beyond what groups or individuals can accomplish on their own (Vygotsky & Cole, 1978). It also means ensuring that individuals and groups have an intellectually and emotionally ‘safe’ place to learn.
Tips to make collaborative learning work
Starting with collaborative learning can be a challenge for both teachers and students, so there are some basic tips that will facilitate the process:
Examples of collaborative learning activities and approaches
Many of the following activities and approaches have multiple resource sites that explain variations on how they might be implemented. Rather than providing a lengthy description of each technique, these links go to relevant university example sites.
Balan, P., Clark, M., & Restall, G. (2015). Preparing students for Flipped or Team-Based Learning methods, Education + Training, 57(6), 639-657.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
Davidson, N., Major, C. H. & Michaelsen, L. K. (2014). Small-Group Learning in Higher Education–Cooperative, Collaborative, Problem-Based, and Team-Based Learning: An Introduction by the Guest Editors, Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3,4), 1-6.
Hamden, N., et al. (2013). A Review of Flipped Learning www.flippedlearning.org
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R.T ., & Smith, K. A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Interaction.
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25, 85-118.
Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J., Bridges, B., & Hayek, J.C. (2007). Piecing together the student success puzzle: Research, propositions, and recommendations (ASHE Higher Education Report, No. 32). Jossey-Bass.
Lage, M. J., & Platt, G. J. (2000) The internet and the inverted Classroom. Journal of Economic Education, 31, 11.
McInnerney, J., & Robert, T. S. (2004). Collaborative or cooperative learning? In T. S. Roberts (Ed.), Online collaborative learning: Theory and practice (pp. 203-214). Information Science Publishing.
McMahon, M. (1997). Social Constructivism and the World Wide Web - A Paradigm for Learning.Paper presented at the ASCILITE conference. Perth, Australia, (18) (PDF) Social constructivism.
Mitra, S. (2021). Does collaborative learning improve student outcomes for underrepresented students?: Evidence from an online bottleneck business course. Journal of Education for Business, 1-7.
Piaget, J., (1971). Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge. Grossman.
Race, P. (2014). Making learning happen: A guide for post-compulsory education. Sage.
Seifert, K., & Sutton, R. (2009). Educational Psychology: Second Edition. Global Text Project, pp. 33–37.
Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 96(1), 21-51.
Stoytcheva, M. (2021). Developing a sense of belonging in a collaborative distance learning course: Breaking isolation in online learning. In AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 2333, No. 1, p. 050010). AIP Publishing LLC.
Yusifzada, D. (2021). The effects of structured collaborative learning on the learning outcomes of the university students (Master's thesis, University of Twente).
Vygotsky, L. S., & Cole, M., (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press.