Collaborative learning occurs when learners work together to achieve an educational objective. This learning approach applies to classroom settings as well as workplace environments and training programs.
Laal and Laal (2012) offer a succinct definition:
“Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product” (p. 491).
This type of learning is benefits students because it encourages learning from peers, active learning, and the development of soft skills for students such as teamwork and communication skills.
Collaborative Learning Examples
1. Online Forums
In an era where education increasingly occurs in online environments, teachers have had to come up with ways to encourage online collaboration. This often takes the form of wikis or online forums.
For example, a teacher might ask students to collaborate through a discussion board or live collaboration software (e.g. ‘Blackboard Collaborate’) to share ideas and work together on a shared project.
2. Table Group Work
It’s often easy to see how much a teacher values collaborative learning by looking at the classroom layout.
An educator who wants to encourage collaborative learning would likely place students in table groups where they face one another to encourage conversation and can use the table as a space for sharing group resources, as with this image:
Unfortunately, table groups tend to be phased out as students get older and teachers turn away from collaborative to individual learning.
3. Using Technology in The Classroom
Communication technologies such as Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) help teachers to implement collaborative learning scenarios.
Educational technologies that support collaboration include interactive whiteboards where students can each go up to the board and contribute their ideas, clickers where students can ‘vote’ on quizzes provided by the teacher, and group wikis where students upload their ideas onto a shared discussion board.
4. Phenomenon-Based Learning
Finland’s Phenomenon Based Learning approach embraces collaboration. In this approach, lessons are often structured around working together to investigate phenomena.
Unlike traditional classrooms, students in phenomenon-based learning classrooms do not learn via subjects (mathematics, literacy, science, history, etc.).
Instead, lessons are structured around phenomena that should be studied using inquiry-based methods, group work, and collaboration.
5. Project-Based Learning in STEM Classes
STEM programs regularly involve collaborative project-based learning scenarios. This is, partly, because science and technology lends itself very well to experimentation.
There are many ways to conduct a class like this. Usually, the first step is for the students to learn the relevant concepts and principles.
Then they can form small teams of 2-5 and get started. Of course, the instructor will lay out some basic ground rules and provide each team with the exact same type and quantity of materials.
At the end, each group’s bridge will be put the test to see which team constructed the strongest bridge.
6. Problem-Based Learning
Medical schools are the masters of collaborative learning. This makes sense, as doctors often work in teams with other medical professionals such as radiologists, anesthesiologists, and physical therapists to devise treatment regimens for patients.
Medical school students should become well-versed in working collaboratively before practicing as a professional.
Instead of their course instructor describing a condition and then outlining the treatment options, students form teams and work on the problem together.
Each team is presented with a case file of an actual clinical problem. The students read and discuss the facts of the case, which will inevitably reveal gaps in the team’s knowledge base.
The team allocates tasks among the group, and they meet on a regular basis to share notes and engage in thorough discussions. An experienced medical professional serves as a tutor to provide guidance, but very minimal advice.
7. Working in Pairs
Math can be a challenging subject for many students. Instead of a teacher just writing equations on a board for students to sit quietly at their desks and solve, it is much more effective to use problem-based activities.
In the above video, students are tasked with calculating crop yields on a farm. It’s a concrete problem that younger students can conceptualize more easily than just solving problems.
First, the students work independently, then they form pairs. Students get to select their partner, which adds an interesting learning dynamic that is needed in collaborative learning.
One young student comments that she chooses a partner that is serious about the task, as some of her “closest friends, they talk about other stuff.”
This highlights one of the key benefits to collaborative learning that simply does not exist when working alone.
8. Multiplayer Game-Based Learning (e.g. Minecraft)
Any time a teacher can incorporate technology into instruction, it’s good thing. When they can incorporate a game-based platform like Minecraft, that is a really good thing. As soon as the students hear the words “game” and “Minecraft,” interest will skyrocket.
Teachers in Ireland use an educational edition of Minecraft to engage students in collaborative learning activities. The activities help students develop technological skills while at the same time learning about history.
Some of the activities allow students to design and build their own ships and settlements. They can also engage in archeological reconstructions or create storyboards for their own digital Viking sagas.
Watch the above video to see how excited the students get and how pleased the teachers and principal are at the program’s effectiveness.
9. Service Learning Projects
Service learning projects are projects where students go out into their communities and work on projects to help support and improve their communities.
For example, students in an Environmental Sciences course might form small groups and work in the community to set up Urban Farming projects.
Like stem projects, service learning lends itself well to collaboration because it often takes many people to come together to get community projects completed!
10. Inter-Agency Work
Collaborative learning also regularly occurs during inter-agency and multidisciplinary work in the workforce.
For example, in the case of a complex medical condition, doctors of various specialties, as well as nurses and mental health professionals may come together to collaborate on a potential solution for their patient.
This sort of inter-agency workplace collaboration is increasingly common and explains why teachers strongly encourage groupwork in schools.
Collaborative Learning Benefits
There are numerous advantages of collaborative learning, including:
- Communication Skills: students express their views and discuss ideas regarding tasks, timelines, and objectives. This enhances their listening and communication skills.
- Conflict Resolution Skills: when students encounter conflicts and differences in opinions, they learn how to handle those disagreements in a constructive manner.
- Leadership Skills: working in groups presents leadership opportunities. Students will learn to allocate tasks and resources and develop other project management skills.
- Deep Learning: because collaborative learning increases student engagement, educational material is processed at a much deeper level than working alone or in a teacher-centered environment.
- Independence: students develop self-discipline and learn that they are responsible for learning outcomes.
- Teamwork: students learn the value of working with others and the importance of being cooperative and flexible.
Collaborative Learning Weaknesses
- Introverts Struggle: Introverted students often prefer to pause, carefully reflect and internally process information. These students may struggle in a social situation where they have to speak up and be vulnerable.
- Group Work Skills Training Required: Students cannot simply be thrown into groups and expected to work well together. Teachers need to teach positive interdependence, how to deal with people with different learning styles, and how to be inclusive of all voices.
- Assessment Inequities: Assessment is always difficult with group work. Some students may believe others have been lazy or undeserving of the group’s high grade, while at other times students feel that others in the group are bringing their grades down.
Collaboration Vs. Cooperation
Collaborative learning and cooperative learning are often used interchangeably, but there are some small differences between the two.
According to Barkley, Cross & Major (2014) the key distinction is that cooperative tasks are more structured and collaborative tasks are less structured. They state:
“Collaborative and cooperative learning [are] positioned on a continuum from most structured (cooperative) to least structured (collaborative)” (pp. 5 – 6).
So, we can distinguish them something like this:
- Cooperative learning: Structured learning situations where there is a clear and distinct task. Group roles and procedures are often set out in advance.
- Collaborative learning: Unstructured learning situations where learners work together to learn, create, and develop new knowledge or products. Procedures and group roles are negotiated in the process.
For most people, this difference is evident but not necessarily impactful, and the two terms continue to be used interchangeably.
Collaborative learning places students in groups so they can work together on various educational activities.
Those activities can include using software to design Viking ships and create stories, or solve mathematical equations to estimate crop yields for a hypothetical farm.
There are many benefits to collaborative learning because students must get along, work towards a common goal, and share responsibility for their own development.
Other benefits include understanding leadership and building basic skills related to project management, such as allocating tasks and resources, and being self-disciplined.
Arvaja, M., & Häkkinen, P. (2010). Social aspects of collaborative learning. In P. Peterson, E. Baker, & B. McGaw (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (3rd ed.). (pp. 685-690). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-044894-7.00624-2
Laal, M., & Laal, M. (2012). Collaborative learning: What is it? Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 31, 491-495. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.12.092
Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lyman, F. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. In A. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming digest (pp. 109-113). University of Maryland College of Education.