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. Similar to the idea that two or three heads are better than one, educational researchers have found that through peer instruction, students teach each other by addressing misunderstandings and clarifying misconceptions.
Why use collaborative learning?
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.
Considerations for using collaborative learning
- Introduce group or peer work early in the semester to set clear student expectations.
- Establish ground rules for participation and contributions.
- Plan for each stage of group work.
- Carefully explain to your students how groups or peer discussion will operate and how students will be graded.
- Help students develop the skills they need to succeed, such as using team-building exercises or introducing self-reflection techniques.
- Consider using written contracts.
- Incorporate self -assessment and peer assessment for group members to evaluate their own and others' contributions.
Getting started with collaborative learning
Shorter in-class collaborative learning activities generally involve a three-step process. This process can be as short as five minutes, but can be longer, depending on the task at hand.
- 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.
For 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 divide up their 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 student's 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.