BOOK REVIEW: Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major (Jossey-Bass, 2005)

The purpose of Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty is to encourage college instructors to experiment with collaborative learning methods and to provide a resource for implementing collaborative teaching strategies. This handbook consists of three parts: 1) introduction and review of the literature, 2) practical suggestions for implementing collaborative learning, and 3) short descriptions of 30 collaborative learning techniques (CoLTs).

Authors Barkley, Cross, and Major make a strong case for collaborative learning and cite numerous studies that emphasize the effectiveness of learning in a social context. One, for example, is a study by Barbara J. Millis and Philip G. Cottell that concluded “. . . research consistently shows that structured small-group work that builds on positive interdependence and individual student accountability raises student achievement.”

Practical suggestions for instructors begin with strategies for orienting students to interactive learning.  Eleven possibilities for social icebreakers and introducing students to course content offer a range of options.  For example in “Future Employer,” a technique for introducing course content, students generate a list of skills they believe a future employer will desire, and their responses serve as the basis for a discussion of learning goals for the class.

The authors address common questions about collaborative learning techniques.  For example, educators interested in collaborative learning often ask, “What are the best ways to form groups?” In answer to that question, the authors offer an explanation and discussion of formal and informal groups. They conclude that it is usually best for instructors to assign group membership, outlining ten methods for selecting group members, such as “Learning Style” and “Student Sign-Up.”

Throughout the book, information is organized and presented in clear, easy-to-read tables.  As an example, Exhibit 3.1, Forming Groups within Various Classroom Settings, offers ideas for including collaborative activities in specific types of classrooms, including lecture halls and laboratories. Exhibit 7.1 describes and briefly outlines the primary purpose of six CoLTs for improving class discussion.

The authors explain in detail 30 specific CoLTs for engaging students in collaborative learning. Collaborative strategies for discussion, reciprocal teaching, problem solving, using graphic information organizers, and focusing on writing are included. Immediately beneath the title of each CoLT is a brief table outlining group size, time on task, duration of groups, and online transferability.  An overview of each CoLT includes eight sections: Description and Purpose, Preparation, Procedure, Examples, Online Implementation, Variations and Extensions, Observations and Advice, and Key Resources.

As a writing instructor, I can easily determine that a CoLT called “Collaborative Writing” is likely to work for an end-of-term essay assignment. Reading through the overview, I see that in this collaborative learning technique, students begin by forming pairs or triads and brainstorming ideas for research.  Student teams then organize ideas and create an outline or map before dividing the project into sections and assigning individuals to write initial drafts.  As they collaborate on their paper, students discuss issues of voice, content, and style.  When they combine individual sections into one cohesive document, they then revise and edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. As a final step, students submit their paper for assessment and evaluation. As the instructor, my role is to facilitate students’ progress through these steps and be prepared to address any concerns that arise.

I teach reading, writing, and study skills classes in which I integrate collaborative learning techniques on a daily basis.  This book has affirmed my practice and inspired me to delve further into collaborative learning pedagogy.  Any instructor, at any level, in any discipline, who is curious about collaborative learning, will find this book helpful.

Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)

–Reviewed by Teresa Ward, Faculty, English, Butte College, CA

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