Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning fosters student learning because it is active, it values the diverse learning preferences that students bring to the classroom, and it acknowledges that learning is a social process that occurs in relationship with others. Effective collaborative learning requires intentionality; it is more than simply asking students to work in groups.

To produce a good outcome with collaborative learning, it is important to teach students to work effectively in groups, to have a clearly defined outcome and/or product, to monitor students’ interactions, and to structure activities that require the involvement of the whole group. When successful, incorporating group work into the classroom offers the opportunity to engage with more challenging and ambitious projects. Moreover, it can provide students with essential collaborative skills that are valued in the workplace.

Collaborative learning does re-frame student roles. It requires students to be actively involved in their learning and committed to the other members of their group. As a faculty member, there are a number of things you can do to facilitate learning in student group activities. One issue you will have to consider is whether or not to assign individual or group grades. If you choose to assign a group grade, then it is recommended that you include a group evaluation to illustrate the quality and level of contributions of each group member.

Experts suggest you assign groups to ensure that teams include multiple perspectives and skills. Many faculty members use such characteristics as gender, ethnicity, background in the subject, technological expertise, comfort in making public presentations, or interest in a topic as their criteria for establishing groups.

See the links below for more information on collaborative learning.

Reframing Student Roles in Collaborative Learning
  • Student roles shift from a more individually-oriented approach to a more team-oriented approach in collaborative learning. For example,
  • From listener, observer, and note-taker to active problem-solver, contributor, and discussant.
  • From low or moderate expectations for class preparation to high expectations for class preparation.
  • From a ‘private’ presence in the classroom (e.g., keeping a low profile, staying off the radar screen) to a ‘public’ one that involves associated risks related to active participation in classroom/group activities and the learning process.
  • From attendance dictated by personal choice to attendance expected as part of community standards.
  • From competition against peers to collaboration with peers.
  • From responsibilities and self-definition associated with learning independently to those associated with learning interdependently.
    From seeing faculty members and texts as sole sources of authority and knowledge to seeing themselves, their peers, and the classroom community as additional sources of authority and knowledge.
Tips for Facilitating Learning in Student Group Activities

Groups can be used in a variety of ways. You might construct a major group assignment that results in a formal presentation, paper, website, or other product. Alternatively, you can effectively use groups in the classroom to facilitate active learning and discussion. Whatever your choices, the following suggestions will help you generate ideas for using groups effectively:

  • Provide guidelines on what is expected of students working in groups.
  • Assign, ideally, no more than 4-5 members per group.
  • Provide time in class, especially for major group assignments, for students to meet so that they can share their expectations and goals with each other, learn about each others’ strengths and challenges, and exchange contact information.
  • Encourage students to formalize their group goals, expectations, and possible sanctions in a group contract. This provides a starting place should you find yourself with a group that is not functioning well or in a situation where one person is not contributing.
  • Ask students to assign members of their groups to different roles, such as Recorder, Facilitator, Reporter, and Summarizer. Remind students to exchange these roles from class to class so that they experience participation in different ways.
  • Monitor activity when using groups in the classroom. You might circulate around the classroom to answer questions, clarify an assignment, or simply listen in on students’ ideas.
  • Include strategies for making group work public. For example, you might ask each group to turn in a copy of their notes, post their notes on Blackboard or a wiki, verbally share highlights from their discussions, etc.
  • The group, not any individual member, should own the product. This encourages everyone to assume responsibility for the final work product.
  • Have groups write potential test questions and answers as homework, then submit their one chosen question. Grade these, and use some on your exam. Have groups post their questions on Blackboard as study questions.
  • Ask groups to give you a progress report on how things are going. This often works best as part of the assignment guidelines (e.g., feedback gets turned in during a stage of the final product) or as part of your ongoing course assessment(s).
  • Using group folders, which can contain information to pass along to the group, their work submissions to you, your feedback on their work, and group participation records (if using, maintained by the group) can help provide structure and organization.
  • Consider using Group Evaluations to give members a chance to assess their own contributions as well as those of each group member.
Group Contract Assignment

Based on your topic preferences, you have been assigned to a particular study group. As a group, you will first create a Group Contract to develop a shared understanding for successfully completing the collaborative project.

The purpose of a Group Contract is to help you develop team cohesiveness and prevent negative conflict by discussing each group member’s expectations; it is also a resource for you in the event conflict does arise. The contract must be typed and signed by each member of the group. In addition to making sure that I have a copy, I encourage each of you to keep a copy of the signed contract.

Your Group Contract should cover the following points:

  • How will you work to create a positive group experience and how you will work to avoid the pitfalls of “problem groups” from your past?
  • What goals do you have as a team?
  • How will you establish governance, that is, what rules do you want to create for how the team will operate?
  • By what methods will communication be maintained across group members? For example, how often will you meet? Where will you meet? How will you coordinate your schedules efforts across team members? Consider how you can use technology(ies) to your advantage.
  • How do you plan to share the work for and contribute to the assignment, e.g., what will be the responsibilities of various team members?
  • How will you deal with conflicts and/or problems that may emerge in your group? It is important to discuss the group’s expectations and the consequences of not participating or being involved in the group process now so that your contract can address this effectively.
  • How will you determine if or when I should be consulted if the group is having problems?
  • What else? Include any other points needed to ensure that you start off on the right foot.
Group Evaluation

As you know, part of your final grade is based upon your participation in and contribution to your study groups. To help me determine your grade and assign these points, I ask that you provide information that evaluates the performance of your study group members and yourself. Keep in mind that the information you provide here is confidential, as only I will see this evaluation. Please think about what you have learned about working effectively in groups. Consider the following five criteria as you rate yourself and your group members:

  1. Effort/Active Participation: Following through on assignments and being accountable to group members
  2. Contribution: Improving quality of work, being creative, bringing unique skills and abilities that aid in the quality of the final product, and providing leadership
  3. Supported Group Process: Eliciting and valuing input of others, making room for quiet members or not overshadowing others, mediating arguments and relieving tension, lending a positive attitude, and other maintenance roles that enhance group social climate
  4. Communication: Checking in with group before missing a meeting, clarifying expectations, keeping communication channels open, facilitating others’ participation, and speaking/listening effectively
  5. Attendance: Attending group meetings, afternoon phase work, and seminar group work

**(download .doc files of group evaluation sheets: example 1 or example 2)

Using each of the above criteria, provide a rating for yourself and each of your group members. Use the rating scale below. In the last column I ask that you recommend a grade, for example, A, B-, C+, D, F, etc.

(terrible) (outstanding)

NameEffort/Active ParticipationContributionSupported Group ProcessCommunicationAttendance Grade
Group Member 1:
Group Member 2:
Group Member 3:
Group Member 4:

In addition, please write a separate paragraph about yourself and each group member that explains your reasons for the ratings above. Be sure to use the criteria above and to provide specific information, positive and negative, that will provide evidence for and support your ratings.

Explanation and Justification of Self-Rating:

Explanation and Justification of Self-Rating:

Explanation and Justification of Self-Rating:

Example Peer Review of a Research Paper

Click here to view and download a sample peer review sheet that you can adapt to use in your courses.

Additional Ideas for Faculty

You might also ask about their learning from one another based on their group experience. Some example questions include:

  • Give one specific example of something you learned from the group that you probably would not have learned on your own.
  • Give one specific example of something the other group members learned from you that they probably would not have learned without you.
  • Suggest one specific, practical change the group could make that would help improve everyone’s learning.

NEW RESOURCE! As part of Mason’s strategic plan, we are committed to designing learning spaces that support collaborative learning. Check out Mason’s Learning Environments website for more information.