Collaborative, or cooperative, learning is a strategy for learning material in a social setting. Unlike working individually, collaborative learning encourages members of the group to take advantage of the strengths of each group member. There are many benefits to this method of learning, including increased participation, mutual accountability and shared knowledge.
Learning collaboratively has several distinct academic advantages as well as some social advantages over working alone.
According to recent research, students who work collaboratively experience far higher levels of achievement than their peers working individually. Instead of having to solely compete with others for rewards, students are able to collaborate and see real results in their own work and that of others. Additionally, when less successful students are grouped with their more academically successful peers, they tend to work harder.
Socially, students who work in a collaborative setting see significant development as well. When placed in groups, students are exposed to different points of view, cultural differences and learning differences. These differences can lead to conflicts which students learn to navigate, improving their communication and problem solving skills.
Simply putting a bunch of students together and asking them to work together is not a good approach to group learning. Group size, shared objectives and responsibilities are all important factors to consider.
Designing group work
Some research indicates that the optimal number of students in a group setting is three but anywhere between two and five students is acceptable. Larger groups should be reserved for a forum setting where smaller groups can share information with the group as a whole:
- Cooperative Learning Classroom Research was a study performed at MIT, addressing and identifying the best ways to develop group work in classrooms.
- Models the Promote Cooperative Learning is part of a large overview of how to develop and design effective group work, presented by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
- Types of Cooperative Learning Groups is an excellent outline for different types of potential group work structures for students.
- Virginia Tech’s Learning Technologies department has some helpful tips for how to design and develop cooperative learning.
It is also helpful for a group to adopt guidelines and delegate responsibilities among the members. Guidelines allow students to remain on task. Delegating helps by not burdening any one student with too much work, and it also makes each student feel like he or she is contributing to the process:
- Cooperative Grouping is a resource for people designing group based work with a focus on research based strategies. It has been developed by the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium for helping distance learning
- Student Roles is a discussion from Carleton College’s Starting Point Guide to designing group work. It covers how to assign roles to different students, how to encourage discussion and how to get the students to keep projects organized.
- Working in Groups is a comprehensive overview published by the Derek Bok Center at Harvard University for teachers and students not used to working in groups.
Below are some resources for teachers and students to get a sense of some of the general strategies for implementing collaborative learning in the classroom
The University of Missouri provides an excellent resource of learning strategies with detailed discussions for teachers of elementary school students and all the way through high school:
- What Is Cooperative Learning is a detailed overview of the fundamentals of collaborative learning and teaching, including theories, strategies for designing group work and effective assessment tools from the ASCD, a leading curriculum development non profit.
- Collaborative Learning Strategies is a guide developed by the Rochester Institute of Technology to provide teachers with resources for how to design collaborative learning in an online setting.
- Four Collaborative Learning Strategies provides brief descriptions of four of the most popular collaborative learning approaches.
- Learning Strategies Database offers a large resources for teachers investigating effective collaborative learning strategies.
Types of group work
Group work is often broken up into three different types: informal learning groups, formal learning groups and study teams, sometimes called cooperative base groups.
Informal groups are a way to get students working together on a problem presented in a lecture large class setting. This is a useful way to encourage group discussion in a setting that might not be conducive to it. It can also help to break up the monotony of a lecture, allowing students to engage more critically with the ideas being presented.
Formal learning groups take the methods of the informal group and make them more routine. Students convene in the same group over the course of several weeks or even the term. This also creates group cohesion, making it easier to assign group projects.
Study teams are groups of students who meet regularly to assist one another with academic work as well as issues relating to life outside of school. These groups are an excellent way to develop shared accountability for the progress of peers in a setting that is not directly assessed or graded:
- Forming a Study Group
- Ground Rules for a Study Group is a helpful checklist to keep study groups on track.
- Group Study Guidelines gives students helpful tips on how to organize and direct study groups.
- Working Successfully with a Study Group provides many useful tips for study teams.
One of the most difficult parts for teachers is determining how to assess group work. There are a variety of options, including grading the group’s process, their end results or some combination of the two. Other questions include who gets graded, the group or the individual and how to set up a fair evaluation process. Below are resources discussing in greater detail the pros and cons of different assessment strategies.
- Assessing Group Work is an overview of evaluation techniques from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education.
- Evaluating Groups provides guidance for teachers on how to properly perform group evaluations, highlighting effective ways to develop a student’s own awareness in the effectiveness of group learning.
- Methods for Assessing Group Work is a detailed overview of the process, advantages and disadvantages to various group assessment methods from Waterloo University’s Centre for Teaching Excellence
- Reviewing and Evaluating Team Performance is a chapter in Open University’s Working in Groups and Teams guide.
- Whys and Hows of Assessment is a guide to assessing group work from the Carnegie Mellon’s Enhancing Education Program.
Dutch students during a group study session.
(Image by Warateens. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)