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Collaborative Learning: Group Work

What is collaborative learning?
What is the impact of collaborative learning or group work?
What are some examples of collaborative learning activities?
How can you design group work activities?
How can you manage group work?
How can you evaluate group work?
What are some general strategies to keep in mind when incorporating group work?

What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning is based on the view that knowledge is a social construct. Collaborative activities are most often based on four principles:

  • The learner or student is the primary focus of instruction.
  • Interaction and "doing" are of primary importance
  • Working in groups is an important mode of learning.
  • Structured approaches to developing solutions to real-world problems should be incorporated into learning.


Collaborative learning can occur peer-to-peer or in larger groups. Peer learning, or peer instruction, is a type of collaborative learning that involves students working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts, or find solutions to problems. This often occurs in a class session after students are introduced to course material through readings or videos before class, and/or through instructor lectures. Similar to the idea that two or three heads are better than one, many instructors have found that through peer instruction, students teach each other by addressing misunderstandings and clarifying misconceptions. For more on peer learning, visit The Official Peer Instruction Blog.

Group work or collaborative learning can take a variety of forms, such as quick, active learning activities in class or more involved group projects that span the course of a semester.

What is the impact of collaborative learning or group work?

Research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning. The benefits of collaborative learning include:

  • Development of higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills.
  • Promotion of student-faculty interaction.
  • Increase in student retention, self-esteem, and responsibility.
  • Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • Preparation for real life social and employment situations.

What are some examples of collaborative learning or group work activities?

Stump your partner

  • Students take a minute to create a challenging question based on the lecture content up to that point.
  • Students pose the question to the person sitting next to them.
  • To take this activity a step further, ask students to write down their questions and hand them in. These questions can be used to create tests or exams. They can also be reviewed to gauge student understanding.

Think-pair-share/ Write-pair-share

  • The instructor poses a question that demands analysis, evaluation, or synthesis.
  • Students take a few minutes to think through an appropriate response.
  • Students turn to a partner (or small groups) and share their responses. Take this a step further by asking students to find someone who arrived at an answer different from their own and convince their partner to change their mind.
  • Student responses are shared within larger teams or with the entire class during a follow-up discussion.

Catch-up

  • Stop at a transition point in your lecture.
  • Have students turn to a partner or work in small groups to compare notes and ask clarifying questions.
  • After a few minutes, open the floor to a few questions.

Fishbowl debate

  • Ask students to sit in groups of three.
  • Assign roles. For example, the person on left takes one position on a topic for debate, the person on right takes the opposite position, and the person in the middle takes notes and decides which side is the most convincing and provides an argument for his or her choice.
  • Debrief by calling on a few groups to summarize their discussions.

Case study

  • Create four to five case studies of similar difficulty.
  • Have students work in groups of four or five to work through and analyze their case study.
  • Provide 10-15 minutes (or adequate time to work through the cases).
  • Walk around and address any questions.
  • Call on groups randomly and ask that students share their analysis. Continue until each case study has been addressed.

Team-based learning (adapted from L.K. Michaelsen in Davis, 2009. p.215)

  • Start a course unit by giving students some tasks to complete, such as reading or lab assignments. Consider assigning these to be completed before class.
  • Check students' comprehension of the material with a quick multiple-choice quiz. Have students submit their answers.
  • Assign students to groups and have them review their answers with group members to reach consensus. Have each group submit one answered quiz.
  • Record both the individual student assessment scores and the final group assessment score (both of which are used toward each student's course grade).
  • Deliver a lecture that specially targets any misconceptions or gaps in knowledge the assessments reveal.
  • Give groups a challenging assignment, such as solving a problem or applying a theory to a real world situation.
  • For more information on this strategy at teambasedlearning.org.

Group problem solving

There are many instructional strategies that involve students working together to solve a problem, including inquiry based learning, authentic learning, and discovery learning. While they each have their own unique characteristics, they all fundamentally involve:

  • Presenting students with a problem.
  • Providing some structure or guidance toward solving the problem. Note, however, that they are all student-centered activities in which the instructor may have a very minimal role.
  • Reaching a final outcome or solution.


Problem-Based Learning is a collaborative, student-centered approach to learning in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem.

How can you design group work assignments?

First, think about the course learning outcomes and how group work might address them. Then consider how groups will be organized, how student learning and group processes will be supported, and how students will be evaluated, if at all.

Short in-class activities may take less planning, but it is still important to consider how the process will play out in a classroom situation.

How will you introduce the activity? How much time is required? How will you debrief as a group? For in-class collaborative activities, focus on asking effective questions that engage students in the types of learning you are trying to encourage.

For more involved projects that take place over a longer period of time and for which students will be graded, plan each stage of the group work.

How will groups be formed? Allowing students to form their own groups will likely result in uneven groupings. If possible, arrange groups by skills and/or backgrounds. For example, ask students to rate their comfort/ability level on a number of skills (research, background knowledge of course topics, work experience, etc.) and try to arrange groups that include “experts” in different areas. Another possibility is to do a preliminary assessment; and then based on the results, purposefully create groups that blend abilities.

How will you ensure that students are productive? Set aside time early in the semester to allow for icebreakers and team-building activities. Consider using class time for group work to eliminate students having to coordinate meeting times outside of class. Much of the group work can be done collaboratively online, again, lessening the difficulty of coordination. See more on how to manage groups in the next question.

What technology might assist the group work? If technology use is required (e.g. wikis), you will need to incorporate learning activities around the use of the technology. At the beginning, do a low stakes activity that helps students become familiar with the technology. If other types of technology can facilitate the group work processes, guide students in its use.

What can the students do? Choose assignment topics or tasks that are related to the real world, and can be connected to students’ lives. For example, have students try to analyze and solve a current local or international problem. Have students complete tasks that involve using and developing skills that they will likely use in their future professional lives, such as writing a proposal or collaborating online. Here are some other considerations for creating effective group work activities:

        • Break a larger assignment into smaller pieces and set multiple deadlines to ensure that students work toward reaching milestones throughout the process rather than pulling it all together at the last minute.
        • Incorporate peer review at each milestone to encourage self-awareness and to ensure ongoing feedback.
        • Tie in-class activities and lectures to the group assignment. For example, in class sessions, provide clues that assist students in their group projects.
        • Be sure to explain how students will be evaluated and use a rubric to communicate these expectations. See more on how to evaluate group work.

How can you manage group work?

Managing shorter in-class collaborative learning activities


This generally involves a 3-step process:

        • Introduce the task. This can be as simple as instructing students to turn to their neighbor to discuss or debate a topic.
        • Provide students with enough time to engage with the task. Walk around and address any 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 questions.


This process can be as short at 5 minutes, but can be longer depending on the task at hand.

Managing larger group work projects


Here are some strategies to help ensure productive group dynamics:

        • Provide opportunities for students to develop rapport and group cohesion through icebreakers, team-building, and reflection exercises.
        • Give students time to create a group work plan allowing them to plan for deadlines, and divvy up responsibilities.
        • 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.
        • Assign roles to members of each 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.
        • Allow students to rate each other’s quality and quantity of contributions. Use these evaluations when giving individual grades, but do not let it weigh heavily on a students’ final grade. Communicate clearly how peer assessment will influence grades.
        • Check in with groups intermittently, but encourage students to handle their own issues before coming to you for assistance.

How can you evaluate group work?

Student group work can result in the production of:

        • wikis
        • proposals
        • reports of case studies
        • in-class or video presentations
        • posters


Here are some ways to provide feedback on group productivity throughout the process as well as on the group product.

        • Evaluate students on both their contributions to group processes as well as the final product.
        • Create a detailed explanation of what your expectations are.
        • Provide scores for individuals as well as groups.
        • Use rubrics. Consider asking students for feedback and including some of their ideas to the rubric.
        • Incorporate peer and self-assessment at various milestones. This is a good way to check in on the assignment progress as well as the group dynamics.
        • Communicate clearly to students at the beginning how you will calculate their grades.

What are some general strategies to keep in mind when incorporating group work?

  • Introduce group work early in the semester to set clear student expectations.
  • Plan for each stage of group work.
  • Carefully explain to your students how groups will operate and how students will be graded.
  • Help students develop the skills they need to succeed in doing group activities, such as using team-building exercises or introducing self-reflection techniques.
  • Establish ground rules for participation and contributions.
  • Consider using written contracts.
  • Incorporate self and peer assessments for group members to evaluate their own and others' contributions.

References

Barkely, E.F., Cross, K.P. & Howell Major, C. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bruffee, K.A. (1998). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed). (pp. 190-221). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R.M., Felder, G.N. & Dietz, E.J. (1998). A longitudinal study of engineering student performance and retention. V. Comparisons with traditionally-taught students. Journal of Engineering Education, 87(4), 469-480.

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B. & Fink, L.D. (Eds.) (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.