Collaborative learning (also known as co-learning) is an approach to education that embraces working in groups to create knowledge.
Learning occurs through collaboration and teamwork. Each team member’s unique skills are leveraged for the good of the group. It follows a social-constructivist perspective where knowledge is co-created through negotiation and discourse.
Collaborative Learning Characteristics
1. Working Together
Students work together to achieve common goals.
For true collaboration to occur, students need to all be putting effort into the task. There needs to be mutual and coordinated engagement.
Barkley, Cross and Major (2014) note that the etymology of ‘collaborate’ is to ‘co-labor’, meaning to all put effort behind a task.
Many teachers will set a ‘group work task’, but 20% of the students will do 80% of the work, leaving others to ride on coat tails, sit around watching, or be excluded by dominant group members. If this occurs, true collaboration has not been achieved.
Following the social-constructivist approach, teachers and students construct knowledge together during a collaborative approach (McInnerney and Roberts, 2004).
There is no pre-set demand about what the correct answer may be. Rather, students must reach logical conclusions and defend their rationale for coming to their conclusions.
The social-constructivist perspective believes that through collaboration and civil discourse we come to a shared agreement on the facts of a situation.
3. Teacher as Facilitator
Following from the belief that knowledge should be co-constructed is the belief that teachers should act as facilitators rather than ultimate authorities on knowledge.
They can mediate discussion, help students to understand and practice positive group behaviors, and provide guided practice or stimulus questions to help students deepen their knowledge (McInnerney and Roberts, 2004).
However, the teacher should not enforce their own worldview on the students as the students need to come to conclusions as an independent group.
4. Intentional Group Design
Collaboration is more than just getting students into groups.
A collaborative scenario requires students to get together to achieve a common goal. They need to be intentional about their learning, not just ‘talking about things in a group’ (Barkley, Cross & Major, 2014).
5. Individual Strengths are Embraced
In the collaborative approach, individual strengths are embraced within the design of learning scenarios.
Individuals’ unique abilities and perspectives are encouraged. If a student has a unique perspective, that perspective is celebrated and included into the discussion.
According to McInnerney and Roberts (2004), this is one distinction between collaboration and cooperation. In cooperation, individual strengths are not emphasized.
6. Meaningful Learning
If students work in groups but fail to progress their knowledge, then collaborative education has not occurred (Barkley, Cross & Major, 2014).
In order for collaboration to have occurred, the task has to have helped students broaden their horizons, learn something new, and construct new knowledge through their labor.
Teachers may put students into groups, but the students are idle, intentionally subversive, or distracted. In these cases, the group scenario has not been truly collaborative.
The achievement of ‘meaningful learning‘ can be used as one (but not the only) measure of whether or not a collaborative task was truly successful.
Collaborative Learning Pros and Cons
The strengths and weaknesses of co-learning are:
Advantages of Collaborative Learning
- Enhances communication skills: Students need to communicate, negotiate and debate in order to come to shared agreement on issues. These skills are very important for workforce readiness.
- Builds cross-cultural awareness: Students work with students from other cultures and backgrounds. They can observe how students from other cultures learn and gather important insights from unfamiliar perspectives.
- Learning from Peers: When students collaborate, they learn from one another. A student will hear another student’s perspective that may broaden their own horizons. It will also sharpen their own understanding. Students can also provide checks and balances on each other’s work, allowing for instant peer feedback.
Disadvantages of Collaborative Learning
- 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.
Collaborative Learning Examples
1. Online Forums
Collaborative learning is increasingly common in online education.
It involves getting students to work together in online forums or using live collaboration software (e.g. ‘Blackboard Collaborate’) to communicate, share ideas, and contribute to a group goal.
Using forums, students will often be asked to not only post a response to a stimulus, but also post responses to one another. The responses should ideally stimulate further thinking rather than vociferous agreement with one another.
2. Table Group Work
An educator who wants to encourage co-learning should place students in table groups where they can collaborate easily and use the table as a shared space for brainstorming or sharing resources.
Table groups ensure students are facing one another while learning which facilitates interaction.
3. Using Technology in the Classroom
Communication technologies such as Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) help facilitate collaboration during learning.
Ask students to write their ideas on the IWB, save the notes and email them out to each group member.
Similarly, one group member can demonstrate an idea on the board while other students observe. Or, they can collaborate with one another (or other classes) remotely but synchronously.
4. Inter-agency Work
Co-learning also regularly occurs during inter-agency and multidisciplinary working.
When a case of child abuse occurs, for example, often social workers, educators, police and medical professionals all have to collaborate to help the child.
Each member will have their own unique input, but as a group they are stronger together.
5. Phenomenon Based Learning
Finland’s Phenomenon Based Learning approach embraces collaboration. In this approach, students do not learn via subjects (mathematics, literacy, science, history, etc.).
Rather, lessons are structured around a pheonomenon that should be studied using inquiry-based methods, group work, and collaboration that embraces each student’s unique perspectives.
This is explicitly required within Finland’s national curriculum.
Collaborative learning is a progressive 21st Century approach to education. It encourages students to develop social skills that are required for future workforces. It can also help children to learn deeply, by getting them to talk through their ideas and hear perspectives from others – which will all strengthen a student’s overall knowledge and thinking skills.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques. San Francisco: Wiley.
McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Collaborative or cooperative learning? In: Roberts, T. S. (Ed.). Online Co-learning: Theory and practice. (pp. 203 – 214). Hershey: Idea Group Publishing.
Panitz, T. (1999). Collaborative versus cooperative learning: A comparison of the two concepts which will help us understand the underlying nature of interactive learning. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED448443.pdf
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]