Collaborative Learning

This mini-primer provides an overview of best practices in supporting collaborative learning, in which students work in pairs or small groups to accomplish shared learning goals. 

Essential Features of Collaborative Learning

  • Intentional Design--instructors structure intentional learning activities for students
  • Co-Laboring--all students must actively engage in working together toward the stated goals
  • Meaningful Learning--students should increase their knowledge or deepen their understanding of course content

Design Considerations

The quality of the learning activity (question, task, project) determines the effectiveness of the collaborative learning. Some questions to guide the development of the learning activity are:

  • Does this activity draw out and work with pre-existing understandings (correct or not) that students bring with them?
  • Does this activity require students to apply key concepts that they are learning?
  • Will this activity stimulate peer discussion?
  • Is the activity clear? (Although some ambiguity in interpretation can generate healthy discussion.)

Forming Groups for Short In-Class Activities

  • Students simply work with the two to three nearest students. The instructor may need to encourage students to move to be near others. 
  • Instructor forms groups by using grouping strategies:
    • Counting off (For example, if you want want groups of three students, have students count off up to the number of students in class divided by three. Then, all of the 1s form a group, all of the 2s form a group, and so on.)
    • Playing card grouping (Students draw playing cards as they enter the classroom. Students can be grouped by the same suit, same number, or some combination of characteristics.)
    • Colored card matching (Students draw colored index cards as they enter the classroom and form groups by matching colors.)

Forming Sustained Groups

  • If instructor selects groups, group students so there's a mix of abilities. 
  • If students selects groups, suggest that they look beyond friends in the class and consider what skills are needed to accomplish the assigned group task.

Implementation Considerations

Short In-Class Activities

  • Introduce the task. This can be as simple as instructing students to turn to their neighbor to discuss a question or debate a topic.
  • Provide students with enough time to engage with the task.
  • Walk around, listen to your students' discussion, and answer clarifying questions as needed.
  • Debrief. Call on a few students to share a summary of their conclusions. Address any misconceptions or clarify any confusing points. Open the floor for any questions.

Longer Group Projects

  • Provide opportunities for students to develop rapport and group cohesion through icebreakers, team-building, and reflection exercises.
  • Have students establish ground rules. Students can create a contract for each member to sign; this contract can include agreed-upon penalties for those who fail to fulfill obligations.
  • Ask students to take on specific roles within the group and change the roles periodically. For example, one student can be the coordinator, another the note-taker, another the summarizer, and another the planner of next steps.
  • Provide students time to create a group work plan allowing them to plan for deadlines and divide up responsibilities.
  • Check in with groups intermittently, but encourage students to handle their own issues before coming to you for assistance.
  • Allow students to rate each others' quality and quantity of contributions. Use these evaluations when giving individual grades. Communicate clearly how peer assessment will influence individual grades.

Additional Resources

  • Collaborative Learning Techniques, Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2014. This book includes additional information about using collaborative learning, and 35 different collaborative learning techniques.
  • Evidence-Based Teaching Guide: Group Work, 2017. Wilson, Brickman, Brame. CBE Life Science Education. This is a guide for group work in the sciences.
  • My Students Don't Like Group Work, Weimer, 2012 & 2017. This blog was posted on the Faculty Focus website.
  • Calling on Groups, 2018. This is a 3:34-minute video of Dana Narder, UA Psychology Lecturer, describing how she calls on groups, and utilizes the features of collaborative-learning classrooms.
  • Reading Quizzes, 2017. This is a 4:49-minute video of Paul Blowers, UA Chemical and Environmental Engineering Professor, describing how he uses reading quizzes to support his collaborative classroom.
  • Real-Life Scenarios, 2017. This is a 4:55-minute video of Richard Harper, UA School of Government and Public Policy Adjunct Faculty, describing how he uses real-life scenarios in his criminal-justice collaborative classroom.
  • Setting the Tone, 2018. This is a 4:05-minute video of Tom Wilson, UA Honors College, describing how he sets the tone for his collaborative classrooms.
  • Technology in the Humanities, 2017. This is a 4:05-minute video of Bryan Carter, UA Africana Studies Professor, describing how he utilizes technology in his collaborative classroom.

Please contact this guide's current curator, Erin Galyen, with any questions about active-learning strategies.