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Collaborative Learning

“Collaborative learning,” “cooperative learning,” and “group learning” are terms that refer to an instructional approach in which students work together to accomplish a common learning goal. Collaboration can be as simple as a two-minute, in-class exercise involving pairs of students or entail more complex, term-length projects in or outside of class.

Collaborative group models tend to adhere to a few principles. Projects are selected and designed to be worked on in teams of about three to six students. Within these groups, students are individually accountable for contributing to the work and meeting the objectives of the unit of study. The interdependence and cooperation that is necessary in these groups will promote interpersonal and cooperative skill building in the students.

What are the benefits of collaborative learning?

Student collaboration in learning promotes active engagement with materials and teaches critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills that are required in many jobs. It can also overcome student resistance to class participation and have positive effects on students’ interactions outside of class. Finally, there is a substantial body of literature that suggests that students learn best when they perceive themselves to be part of a “learning community,” in a position of mutual responsibility to their fellow classmates.

How can collaborative learning be evaluated?

There are many ways to evaluate collaborative learning. One way is to break the grades into different portions. For example, a portion of each student’s grade could be the average of grades earned by all members of the group for the group learning activities. Another portion could reflect each student’s participation and contributions as assessed by other group members. Finally, a portion of each student’s grade could be an individual assessment of the collaborative learning activity.

What are some common difficulties with group work?

Students may have busy schedules that make it difficult to get together outside of class. This can be addressed by providing in-class time for group work, using any number of online collaborative tools (e-mail, CourseWeb discussion boards, Skype, Google Hangouts, or the increasingly popular GoogleDocs). Another issue may be fairly evaluating individual work. Some students may feel that they do the majority of the work while others don’t do their share. This can be addressed requiring students to identify their individual contributions (highlighted or initialed text, or a written statement explaining their input). It is also possible to require peer evaluations, which can supplement (not replace) instructor grading. Finally, some students may simply dislike group work. It is therefore worth having a discussion with the class about the goals of the course, and the specific ways in which a given group activity helps the students meet those goals.


The following recommendations may support effective group work:

  • Provide groups with adequate descriptions of assignments, processes, evaluations, and objectives.
  • Break projects into specific and sequential tasks
  • Assign presentations for groups to share their findings with the class
  • Provide students with incentives to work as a team
  • Hold students individually accountable for contributing and mastering the content
  • Organize groups early in the course and let them remain together for the duration of the course
  • Set team size by considering pedagogical objectives
  • Provide students with guidelines for effective interaction and contribution in the group setting.
  • Ask members of groups to formulate their own expectations for group members.
  • Identify and encourage group roles, which may include…
    • Group manager
    • Recorder
    • Timekeeper
    • Reader
    • Reporter
    • Editor
    • Reflector (observes and remarks upon group dynamics)