4faculty logo
4faculty logo

Collaborative Learning


In collaborative learning, students learn cooperatively rather than competitively. Actively engaging in cooperative learning activities, they work together, often seeking solutions to significant problems. Working in heterogeneous groups, each group member is often responsible for a specific task.

People collaborating to complete a puzzle

Researchers find many benefits for this process, including:

  • Better mastery of skills
  • Better academic performance
  • Greater student retention
  • Allows assignment of more challenging tasks without making the workload unreasonable
  • Provides weaker students with extensive one-on-one tutoring 
  • Provides stronger students with the deeper understanding that comes only from teaching material (cognitive rehearsal)
  • Leads to the generation of more and better questions
  • Jigsaw is an ideal structure for laboratory and design projects
  • Increases students’ persistence in the completion of assignments and the likelihood of successful completion of assignments
  • Helps students wean themselves away from considering teachers the sole sources of knowledge and understanding
  • Promotes learning goals rather than performance goals
  • Promotes a pattern of mastery attribution rather than a helpless attribution pattern. 


Establishing a Cooperative Climate

Although an increasing number of students are familiar with group work, it is a new and unfamiliar process for many others. Therefore it is important to introduce the process of collaborative learning carefully, to create a climate that encourages active student participation and effective cooperation among peers. This is best done at the beginning of the semester, preferably on the first day of class.

Student Interviews and Introductions

At the first class meeting, students are a little shy and apprehensive about starting a new class. A good way to put them more at ease while introducing the idea of collaborative learning is to tell them that their first assignment is to get to know one of their neighbors, a student sitting next to them. Their tasks are to interview each other and then introduce their interview partner to the class. Tell them how much time they will have to complete their task; ten minutes should be adequate. Late students can work in a group of three or else prepare to introduce themselves.

Ask the class to help you generate a list of things you might want to know about each other.

  • Put the name first, and let the students add things like major, where they live, career goals, etc.
  • Students may pass on any question they don’t want to answer except their name.
  • If the students don’t mention these, you may include something about favorite food, hobbies, favorite book or film, something that could create some common ground and shared interests.
  • Students learn from this first activity that they are going to be learning together with their fellow students, rather than in isolation, or competing against them.

Classroom Management Technique: Bringing the Group Together

Once people start participating and talking to each other, the noise level can get pretty high. While there are several ways of getting the groups’ attention, the most effective method will be the one the group chooses consensually. If the group has chosen the method, they are much more likely to follow it. The following three options can work well.

Visual Cue: Lights

Briefly turn the lights off to signal closing time for the discussions. This is often a popular method, but remember to ask if anyone has a problem with it since agreement is important here. Some people really object to this, and overriding a student’s concerns in the beginning makes it much harder to effectively teach them later.

Sound Cue: Clapping Hands

This can work if they are listening. If the class agrees to use this signal, try it a few times. If it doesn’t work, have them choose an alternative technique.

Visual Cue: Raise One Hand

The idea is as the hand goes up the mouth closes. The teacher starts, and as students see, they do the same thing until gradually the whole class is quiet. If you can get agreement, this actually works the best, but again only if the students agree.

Preparing the Groups

It helps to also circulate to each group and give them warning signals. Usually a one or two minute warning to "come to a stopping place" works well. Since not every student will entirely finish a task to their satisfaction, the words "stopping place" make it acceptable for them to determine what constitutes closure for their activity.

Large Group Introductions

After the students have concluded their interviews, they put their chairs in a circle so that everyone can see each other while they do their introductions. If time becomes short, students may give their partner’s name and one " fascinating fact’ about them. This can be a good time to take attendance and to learn how to pronounce students’ names as well.

Large Group Processing

Ask the students what the class activities have told them so far about the values and principles of the class, or more simply,

  • "What do you think your teacher's ideas are about teaching and learning based on your experiences so far?"

  • "What does it mean to sit sometimes in a circle rather with the desks all facing the front of the room?"

This can be a good starting place to talk about active learning, students taking responsibility for their learning from peers, and other such ideas that are important to your teaching philosophy and style. It can also be a time for students who are skeptical about this process to begin to question their own ideas about teaching and learning as they hear what their peers think of the experience.


Declaration of Independence cartoon imageBefore any small group activities begin, it is important to create a safe and positive classroom environment so that the students can engage in thoughtful and analytical discussions.

In these discussions they will hear divergent and challenging points of view, and they will need to develop a deeper understanding of various perspectives. This will not happen by itself, so the semester should begin with the students actively collaborating to establish a safe and stimulating climate for discussions.

The first step is to set ground rules consensually. These rules are generally fairly simple, and most groups come up with the same things about respect, honesty, allowing people to finish their thoughts, criticizing the idea and not the person, and respecting confidentiality. It is tempting to just pass out a list of these rules and go over them, but there is a much stronger commitment to ground rules if the group generates them.

The students begin thinking about ground rules by drawing from their own experience, or writing about a friend with whom they are comfortable talking. A good way to start is to ask students:

"What does that person do to make you feel comfortable and to stimulate your thinking?"

Then remind them that:

"Our goal is to recreate these kinds of conversations here in the classroom."

Students then write for about five to ten minutes on this topic, and in small groups they come up with three "agreements." This stresses the cooperative nature of these ground rules. Each group then reads their agreements to the larger group, and together they create a class "constitution". The process of forming these agreements is important. Even though it takes time in the beginning, when the process is done:

  • The level of active participation increases

  • The involvement students have with the discussion topics increases

  • The attention/respect they give each other and the teacher are all much stronger.


Group Size

Four to six is a good size for a group. If a group gets any larger than that, a few vocal people will take over, and the quieter people will not be as involved as they could be. According to Drs. David W. and Roger R. Johnson, co-directors of the University of Minnesota’s Cooperative Learning Center, smaller groups are the most successful ones. In fact, they recommend starting with dyads for many collaborative learning activities and increasing group size only as projects increase in difficulty.


Individual Preparation

While it may seem paradoxical to begin a discussion of group composition with the individual, an effective group is composed of well-prepared individuals, much like a good symphony orchestra or a basketball team. Therefore, a good way to build effective groups is to start with individual preparation.

One of the reasons that students do not participate in small or large group discussions is that they are afraid their ideas will be ridiculed. Unlike highly verbal students who will speak up frequently and spontaneously, other students may feel unprepared to contribute any ideas on a topic until they have thought about it for a while. Having them write about a topic before they come to the group ensures that they will engage in the learning process and not just sit on the sidelines. It also gives them notes to refer to and, if necessary, to read from when they begin their group activities.

There are several ways to prepare students:


Using a form adapted from Learning though Discussion, students do a critical summary or evaluation for the assigned reading. This form can be adapted for several levels. The third level contains all stages of Bloom’s taxonomy so the students are practicing their critical thinking skills as they prepare. The students prepare a discussion outline before class and refer to it during their group work.


Students begin the activity by free writing or clustering in response to a teacher-directed prompt. This ensures that every student is involved in the process. The teacher circulates to verify that students are doing the task and to answer any questions.

  • Students know whether or not they must share their writing. That way they can use private writing to explore an idea more deeply.
  • They also begin to see that writing can be a useful personal act, not just a chore to please a teacher.
  • Students may mark sections they want the teacher to look at or comment on.

Small Group Composition

Most research suggests that heterogeneously mixed groups work the best, ones that contain students with mixed levels of ability, different genders or ethnicity, etc. It seems that the ideal is a group that has enough difference to stimulate it and enough goodwill and desire to work cooperatively. Since the work on ground rules and classroom climate has addressed cooperation, let us look at how to structure diverse groups.

DYADS: Using dyads, groups of two, can be good way to start a small group activity. This technique can work in two ways:

  • To start a small group process or
  • To encourage participation during a lecture by giving students a chance to process the information and to stay focused on the material.

Have students begin by "talking to their neighbor" about a specific topic. Form a group of three if there are an odd number of students. This will:

  • Encourage even quiet people to participate
  • Reduce isolation and alienation in classroom
  • Develop a positive classroom climate.

EXPANDED DYADS: Dyads can build into groups of four and/or six. Again this gives a student who is not used to participating in class another safe step to further involvement. Over the course of a semester, with careful guidance and encouragement from the teacher, and increasingly from the other students, a quiet student can move from writing individually to:

  • Speaking in dyads
  • Speaking in a small group
  • Speaking to a large group.

Since public speaking is many peoples’ greatest fear, this progress is not insignificant.

Ideas for Dividing Groups


A simple way to divide groups is by counting. For six groups, count from one to six. This effectively gets people to interact with people other than the ones they sit by every session.


Professor Barbara Galvin sometimes divides groups by birth order, oldest children, middle and youngest. This is a good way of establishing common ground among students from diverse backgrounds.


Another way to create interest groups is by having students identify a favorite food, music, sport, etc. and form groups based on these associations.


If students are working on a controversial topic, have them line up according to where they "stand" on the issue. For example, people who strongly support gun control would stand on the right side of the room and people who strongly oppose it would stand on the left. Those in the middle have to figure where in the middle of a line they belong. The teacher now has several options.

  • Form a group with representative from both ends and the middle.
  • Take the strongest "pros" and have them argue the "anti" case and do the same for the "antis". The middles can be the judges or form their own groups to form a compromise position that takes both sides into account.


  • Place the students into small groups.
  • Divide the task to be learned into segments, ensuring that there is one segment for each group member.
  • Participants from each group who have the same segment combine into groups and study together.
  • They then return to their original groups and teach their segment to their group members.


Each group takes responsibility for a different segment and then presents their information to the class as a whole.

To make the process largely participation, students cannot lecture to the class, but must find a way to teach their peers that is interactive. Students brainstorm about effective learning strategies they have experienced in this class and in other classes as well. This will be more challenging for the students but can be rewarding as well since students will be motivated to think deeply about their subject as they devise teaching strategies. They may also come up with some very creative approaches.

If you have any teacher’s guide or manuals with appropriate suggestions, you may provide these as a resource for your students as well. It can help to make a map on the board showing where each group goes. Expect a little confusion and milling about and "direct traffic" accordingly.

Group Tasks

A group can work on any skill that an individual student can. Here it is useful for the teacher to consider his or her educational objectives and then imagine how they might be achieved through group work. Sample group tasks could be:

  • Brainstorming
  • Peer reviews
  • Problem solving
  • Working on individual aspects of a larger project
  • Summarizing information
  • Applying concepts from the class to their experiences or examples provided by the instructor
  • Analyzing a passage from the text.

Group Roles

A good way to keep students involved, focused, and on task is to assign roles for group members. Some typical roles are: recorder, facilitator, and presenter. Other roles may arise from the group’s current task such as: timekeeper or a "devil’s advocate."


Notes the names of the participants and their roles, writes down the main ideas of the group, fills out the groups’ report form, and turns it in at the end of the class.


Keeps track of the group’s task. He or she makes sure that they follow the key steps to fulfill it and that everyone contributes to the group effort.


Presents group's findings to the larger group or the class as a whole. He or she may also respond to questions from the larger group.


Helps the group set deadlines for their subtasks and to keep track of those deadlines.

Devil’s Advocate:

Looks for flaws in arguments and raises counterarguments and possible objections to ideas presented by group members. This can be a useful role in a peer-editing group, especially when students are reluctant to criticize each other’s work. It is much less threatening to give and to receive important feedback when the constructive critique is part of a role. It also helps to make this role an optional one. The person whose work is being reviewed may ask for a "devil’s advocate" to provide some useful feedback.

Active Participant:

Has no specifically defined task, but must actively contribute to the group process, make suggestions, raise questions, offer ideas, etc.

Students may choose their roles when they get into their groups. It is important for students to change roles each time so that each group member has a chance to practice different skills.

Teacher's Role

The teacher plays several roles in this process: designer, facilitator, and coordinator. It is important to determine what the students need to learn and to direct group activity towards that point.

The Designer thinks about educational objectives, the skills students need to develop, or the knowledge they need to absorb. He or she then selects an appropriate group model or activity that will engage students while helping them to meet these goals.

A designer may:

  • Design projects for the students
  • Create questions, problems or tasks for them to work on

The Coordinator makes sure the groups run effectively so they can stay on task and achieve their educational goal. As a coordinator, the teacher may:

  • Break students into groups
  • Direct traffic, help them find their groups
  • Guide them in choosing roles
  • Check in with each group to ensure they do this
  • Pass out report sheets
  • Act as a timekeeper, giving the students "time"for each step
  • Check in with each group at the beginning or end of a step
  • Announce when they should be heading into the next phase.

The Facilitator/Coach circulates among groups to help them to stay on task by listening and observing group process. When appropriate, he or she will intervene to guide the group as well. As a facilitator, the teacher thinks about educational objectives, the skills students need to develop, or the knowledge they need to absorb. A facilitator may:

  • Model process when appropriate
  • Ask questions
  • Review progress
  • Suggest next step of task
  • Ask them what they think the next step should be
  • Ask for counter-arguments or alternative ways of approaching the task
  • Remind them of the skills they already have that they can apply to this task
  • Direct the large group presentation of small group findings.


Reporting emphasizes students’ accountability and lets the teacher know how well the group has understood their task. Based on this information the teacher can then devise ways to build on the strengths of the small group’s work and provide effective strategies to address the weaknesses uncovered.

Large Group Presentation: The presenter gives a summary of the group's ideas or results of their discussions. If time is short, each group may present one key insight they have developed. If there is more time, other class members may comment on each group’s presentation, ask clarifying questions, pose alternate ideas, etc.

If the group is working on a specific problem or task, the presenter presents their results with perhaps some information on how they arrived at theses results and why they believe them to be valid. Class members may then comment and critique the results. The class may have previously established a criterion to apply to group results and can use this during the large group discussion.

It is sometimes a good idea to hear one key point from each group in turn, since a well-prepared group may cover all of the points the other groups do.

Report Sheet - The Group Discussion Outline: The recorder of each group keeps a record of the group’s process and results. He or she also notes who participated and which roles they assumed. The sheet can be designed to emphasize the method students are practicing, skills etc.


There are certain challenges when it comes to the role of assessment in group work. Many students can be apprehensive about this since they are used to being graded on an individual basis. While research will undoubtedly continue to develop in this area, there are several approaches to assessment that can be effective.

Learning Labs: One possibility is to use groups as "learning labs" where skills are practiced collaboratively but then later assessed individually. Often group work develops and refines skills that can be evaluated through older models of assessment such a quizzes, examinations, etc. Students who have their writing critiqued by a peer-editing group must take those comments, revise their work and submit it for an individual grade. Students who work in a Math study group would still take exams individually.

If the teacher assigns points or grades for class participation, group work can be part of that grade. The report forms may provide a record of student participation.

Group Projects: If the group is working on a project such as a report or presentation, Drs. David Johnson and Roger Johnson recommend assigning specific segments of the task to individual group members. That way a student would receive both an individual and a group grade.

Establishing Consensual Criteria: Discussing criteria with the class and setting standards consensually can also help to alleviate student concerns, establish a tone of fairness, and help students to internalize appropriate standards for their work. Establishing consensual criteria does not mean that the teacher accepts frivolous notions or lowers his or her expectations in anyway.

Rather, the teacher as facilitator, asks students to determine what makes a good thesis statement, data base design or oral report. He or she may provide examples of previous student work for the class to analyze.

It is best to begin with extreme examples such as an excellent piece of work and an extremely poor one. Once criteria is established from those two, then the teacher can bring in middle range ones to help the class define the full range of possible grades.


Close this Window