Assumptions about Learning
- Learning is an active, constructive process
In collaborative learning, students have to actively work with new material in purposeful ways. Intellectually, they need to combine the new information, ideas or skills with what they already know. They then construct meaning or create something new which are important to learning.
- Learning depends on rich contexts
Recent research suggests learning is fundamentally influenced by the context and activity in which it is embedded (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989). Collaborative learning encourages students to actively be engaged in challenging tasks or questions. Instead of starting with facts and theories, then progressing to applications, learning activities are frequently designed to begin with problems. The students are tasked to research on relevant facts and ideas to solve the problems. This higher order cognitive process will strengthen the students’ thinking and stretch their learning.
- Learners are diverse
When students work together in collaborative learning, most teachers realize that students bring multiple perspectives to the activities. They come from diverse backgrounds. They have different life experiences and different learning styles. Teachers can no longer use a one-size-fits-all approach.
- Learning is inherently social
“Collaborative learning has as its main feature a structure that allows for student talk: students are supposed to talk with each other…and it is in this talking that much of the learning occurs.” (Golub, 1988) Students may feel that they can relate to one another more easily than to a teacher at times. They tend to think that they are all “in the same boat” and just nice to work with someone who has something in common with them. This mutual exploration and meaning-making often leads to better understanding for the students as “two heads are better than one”.
Collaborative Learning Approaches
Personally I find the following four approaches helpful:
- Communal writing
Students are divided into groups of three or four. Their common task is to compose one group solution for each question in a given time. Most groups will appoint an informal leader in assigning the team roles (e.g. researcher, content editor, recorder) so that each member can contribute his/her strength to the writing process. A group grade is given to emphasize the importance of learning and working together as a group.
- Feedback Activity
Most students appreciate the opportunity to ask questions to clarify learning materials. Before the start of each lesson and during the breaks, I would typically walk around the class for individuals or groups to ask questions and spontaneously have a discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems with them.
- Peer Teaching
The process of students teaching their fellow students using their own lingo and level of understanding can be heart-warming. In some tutorial sessions when I assigned questions to individual students to present their answers in class, I observed that the stronger students would quickly review their module notes and work out their answers, while the weaker ones would be taught by their fellow course mates in their own languages using their own illustrations before presenting the correct answers in class. This creates an atmosphere of anticipation for the strong students in being openly affirmed, as well as the weak students anxiously learning from others to avoid giving out the wrong solutions.
These are structured role-playing situations that simulate real experiences. One of my most enjoyable teaching experiences was having students work in teams to research on the human resource systems of a real-life company in any part of the world. In addition, students were asked to play the roles of the stakeholders in a challenging situation or an unfolding drama of a selected system, which they have researched through a skit or a video. As students take on the values and act the part of a stakeholder, they usually get emotionally invested in the situation. To “outdo” one another, the more prepared students were often creative in injecting humour into their acting and never fail to bring lots of laughter and teasing into the learning.
Rewards and challenges
Collaborative learning can be rewarding. It provides a learning environment in which students can master the subject matter even if the teacher does not participate in the discussion. Students can also develop skills building on other’s ideas which increases motivation (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006).
However, getting students to participate in group activities is hard work. When students are new to one another at the start of a course, they may prefer to be passive observers rather than active learners. Working in groups can either slow down or force someone to catch up faster than he/she would like to. Some may slow down in order to help a weaker member, and the whole group ends up falling behind. Some may copy when they have difficulty catching up. For those who are ahead, they may end up waiting for others and start talking among themselves or chat online. There is also an issue of personality clashes.
Collaborative learning requires a good balance between the process of student learning and content coverage. Group activities have to be relevant and applicable to the content. The importance of content and time allocation also requires a lot of thinking in order to develop a viable teaching plan.
Brown, J.S., A. Collins, and P. Duguid. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher. 18 (1), 1989.
Butt, A., (2014). Student Views on the Use of a Flipped Classroom Approach: Evidence from Australia. Business Education & Accreditation, Vol. 6, No. 1. Smith, B.L., and J. MacGregor. (1992). Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education. University Park, PA: National Center on Postsecondary teaching, Learning, and Assessment (NCTLA). 9-22
Golub, J. (Ed). Focus on Collaborative Learning. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1988.
Jongsma, K.S. (1990). Collaborative Learning. The Reading Teacher, Questions & Answers, Jan 1990.
McKeachie, W.J., & Svinicki, K. (2006). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Article contributor: Lim Meng Lee