Collaborative learning: ready, steady, go!

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. Today we’ll focus on a constant feature of the learning process: collaborative learning. I’ve put together a “starter kit” combining ideas and resources about designing, facilitating and assessing group work. It is a rather long read but you can bookmark it as a reference for when you are planning collaborative activities in your courses. You will find some references to technology, but I believe that the fundamental mechanisms of the process are the same, regardless of the environment. I hope you find it useful and look forward to your comments and ideas!


Collaborative learning can be defined as the instructional use of small groups to promote students working together to maximise their own and each other’s learning. It is quite versatile and it ranges from informal, ad hoc group work to a more formalised method whereby students work together for a longer period on a more complex project. The instructor plays a facilitator role, supporting and guiding the students in their work. While this does imply taking a step back, this role requires at least a similar amount of workload as regular teaching, especially because the instructor needs to be prepared for various scenarios as well as be committed to helping the students reach the learning goals.

Designing, planning and facilitating collaborative activities

The first step is designing the task. This has to be closely linked to the learning objectives of the course (the “constructive alignment” principle). If you feel that group work can help students achieve one or more objectives, then you need to think what sort of task would work best: short and simple or longer and more complex. You also have to decide when is the best moment in the course for such an activity.

Once the task is designed, the next step is thinking about how you will create the groups. You can read more on arranging students in groups here and on the advantages of flexible grouping here. There are a few things you may want to consider:

  • Will you create the groups or let students choose who they want to work with?

  • Do you want to have the same groups working on different tasks or use a flexible grouping strategy, always changing group composition?

  • What criteria do you keep in mind when creating a group?

Next, after the students are split into groups, it’s time to  discuss the nature of the group work and encourage them to plan their group work thoroughly. Especially long-term collaborative activities require good planning. Here are some questions to structure this process:

  • What are the specific tasks that need to be fulfilled in order to achieve the common goal? How can the workload be best distributed?

  • What are the specific resources that are required to complete the task? What skills, talents, interests, experience and knowledge can the individual group members contribute to the collaborative work?

  • Based on these findings, students can then assign different roles and tasks within the group (e.g. facilitator/leader, note taker, time keeper, editor,...)

  • Setting up a generous timeline that is regularly revised will help students to stay on track and keep an eye on the progress.

  • How do students want to work together as regards writing as a team?

  • What ways of communication do students identify appropriate for the group work to be successful?

  • What specific problems can occur in group work and how can they be overcome?

  • Students may want to manifest what they agreed on in the beginning by way of a teamwork contract/ group charter.

After all the planning is done, it’s now time to actually conduct the group work task. Your role as a learning facilitator entails closely monitoring the progress of each group and being ready to offer support and guidance as necessary. For cooperative learning, establishing a continuous feedback loop between student groups and instructor is essential; moreover, beside focusing on the content of the task, your role often extends to “troubleshooting” in relation to group dynamic issues.

Assessment, de-briefing and reflection

Having students work together adds an extra level of complexity to the assessment and grading process, as you need to find the right- and fair- balance between the joint output and the individual contributions. The key is to be as transparent as possible, ideally by drafting rubrics with the assessment criteria spelled out for both the individual and the group performance. Moreover, for group work assignments you could use peer assessment: you can ask members of one group to assess each other’s performance (which also gives you an insight unto the group dynamic) or you can ask each group to assess another group’s output. Check out the various methods for assessing group work, developed by the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo.

Last but not least, after a group work task, it is crucial to dedicate some moments for de-briefing: discussing what went right and what could be improved, providing the students with feedback and allowing them to express their opinions. Self-reflection exercises are also a useful way for the students to internalize the outcomes of the learning process; they can reflect both on the content of the task but also on the group dynamic and their role and performance as a group member.

How about technology?

The core of the collaborative work does not change, irrespective of the environment where it takes place. Technology, however, can support students by providing a space where they can collaborate, exchange, and reflect on their learning. Collaborative writing (e.g. Google Docs, wiki, etc) and project management tools (e.g. MS Planner) are just some examples of how technology can play a role in enhancing the efficacy of the entire process, especially when students have to continue work outside class and/or some of the group members are physically not present (or everyone is learning remotely as is the case today).

Students often choose to use their own channels for collaboration and communication. While this has the benefit of familiarity, it also has some drawbacks such as lack of accountability, no obligation to follow university rules, etc. Whatever tools are used, one of the greatest benefits is that they can capture the process and not only the outcome of collaborative work, thus providing both students and instructors with a more comprehensive picture of the learning experience.

10 useful resources