Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

Published: Tues., Feb. 3, 2015

When a group of two or more students work together to complete an activity, discuss a question, or collaborate on a task, we call it collaborative learning. The intended consequence of accomplishing tasks together is to help students learn the complexities of solving a problem and promote deeper learning through doing.

Group work not only helps students learn the course material better; it also provides opportunities to develop additional skills. While working in groups, students need to harness group members' strengths, address group learning needs, manage time, divide a large project into small tasks, cooperate, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and reach consensus. These are useful skills in collaborative workspaces and future careers.

What group work doesn’t do is save time for the instructor. Effective group work is carefully structured to achieve specific learning outcomes: learning outcomes and student expectations must be clearly formulated, directions must be well written, and instructor support must be available throughout the task. Subsequently, it may take more planning time to effectively design a group work task than it does to lecture. In other words, it's counter-productive to assign group work just because it’s easier to do that than give a lecture, or because you won't have to grade as much. Group work shouldn't be a shortcut for instructors. Keep in mind that the effort is worthwhile! 

Class Set-Up

The layout of your classroom space can affect group work. If you’re in a room with tables or desks that are easy to move, it’s easier to create groups that work together for a sustained duration of time. Rooms with set seating, like an auditorium, make it more difficult, but you don't need to eschew group work because of classroom limitations. There are ways for groups to work together in rigid setups: small groups of three or four can sit together in a row; larger groups (6–8) can split in two, with half of the group sitting in the front row and turning around to face the others in the second row.

While the examples of group work listed below won’t all work in every classroom, you can find one or two that will work, or adapt the assignment to work for your students’ needs. If you’re doing a quick exercise like Think-Pair-Share, it’s easy to have students turn to whoever’s sitting beside them. For more complex tasks that work with groups of three to five students, assign groups that don’t single out individuals.

More extensive group work can happen outside of class, too. This is helpful whether you’re teaching a lecture or thinking about a big end-of-semester assignment for a smaller class. Students can meet outside of class in person, or collaborate online to complete a task.

In-Class Group Work

The University of Waterloo has great resources for in-class collaborative learning. Here we’ve selected a few that you might consider using in your class:

Informal activities

There are a few less formalized (and therefore quick) activities that support collaborative learning. Try grouping students into buzz groups, dyads (for Think-Pair-Share), circle of voices, rotating trios, snowball groups/pyramids, jigsaw, or fishbowl.

Problem-based tasks

One clear task for students is to find a solution to a specific problem that can be solved in a number of ways. The problem should relate directly to the material you’re covering and, as much as possible, have a correlation to real-world problems or tasks.  For example, students in a marketing class can be asked to come up with a product pitch targeting a specific demographic.

Case studies

Like problem-based tasks, case studies are based on real-world problems. But rather than asking students to produce a tangible product, students discuss the issue at hand, find a number of possible solutions, list the merits of each, and outline their favorite solution. UNL's Center for Ethics has a robust list of case studies for teaching moral reasoning and ethical decision making, for example.

Create their own quizzes

Encourage review by assigning groups the task of writing quiz questions based on specific material. To write the quiz, students need to review what they’ve read about, pick the main ideas, and consider how they fit together. Divide the material among groups and have each group quiz the others. This gives students a chance to show what they know, and introducing a little competition will encourage students to give the task their best effort.

Challenges Related to Group Work

Because group work requires a special set of skills and often requires students to negotiate personality differences and different work styles, groups or individuals within the group may challenge the task or ask to be reassigned. While it’s important that the learning goals related to the task are achieved, it’s also important for students to learn to work effectively with one another—even in instances where there’s a personality difference. When possible, see how you can help the group work effectively together. It may be a simple case of students not having negotiation skills, or not being good at developing a plan that accurately accounts for how much time a given task will take. Rather than stepping in and restructuring groups, take a step back and assess what particular skill can help the group function more effectively. Then provide the resources students need to acquire that skill.

Additional Resources

Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups, edited by Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knights, and L. Dee Fink. 2004. See also Team-Based Learning Collaborative (TBLC).