[This article draws on information from Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major. Copyright (2005, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).  This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.]

“Sometimes I feel like a partner in an unholy alliance…I pretend to teach, and my students pretend to learn.” This observation, shared with me one day in 1993 by Indiana University historian David Pace, still makes me smile because it so accurately captured how I felt about my teaching at the time. In fact, I remember thinking David’s comment was an understatement: in my course, the students sitting in front of me weren’t even *pretending* to learn. Too young to retire, I began a search for solutions. One solution that turned out to be particularly effective was adding collaborative learning to my repertoire of pedagogical strategies.

Collaborative learning refers to learning activities expressly designed for and carried out through pairs or small interactive groups. Its effectiveness as a pedagogical approach is well documented: there is more research on learning in small groups than on any other instructional method, including lecturing. A search in ERIC (the Educational Research Index) on 5-23-08 produced 17,246 entries in response to the key words “group work.”  In Pascarella and Terenzini’s monumental synthesis of research conducted in the 1990s on how college affects students, they comment on the “broad spectrum” of research on collaborative learning and state that, “the weight of evidence from this research is reasonably consistent in suggesting that collaborative learning approaches can significantly enhance learning” (2005, p. 103). For example, they describe a study by Karabenick and Collins-Eaglin (1996) that used data from over 1,000 students in 57 classes and found that the greater the class emphasis on collaborative learning and the lower the emphasis on grades, the more likely students were to use higher-order learning strategies of elaboration, comprehension monitoring, and critical thinking (p. 180).

There are many reasons why collaborative learning is so effective, but perhaps the most compelling is based in cognitive science. The predominant conclusion from over a half-century of research is that teachers cannot simply transfer their knowledge to students. Learning is a process, not a product. Students must build their own minds through an active, involved process in which they take an idea or a concept or a problem solution and make it their own by assimilating it into their own understandings. The advantages of collaborative learning for actively engaging students are clear when compared with more traditional methods – such as lecture and large-group discussions – in which only a few students typically can, or do, participate.

Even if you predominantly lecture, there are many ways you can incorporate some level of collaborative learning to better engage students. For example, most teachers start their courses by going over the syllabus – an activity that is boring for students and teacher alike. You can make this task more engaging by forming groups of 4-6 students, asking them to generate and write down questions about the course, then passing out the syllabus to find answers and to note any information the syllabus provided about which they had not thought to ask. Close with a whole-class discussion based on their unanswered questions and discoveries about the course. Additional ways to start the academic term with collaborative activities range from simple social icebreakers (such as having students interview each other) to engaging them immediately in the content (such as assembling an inventory of 5-15 interesting true/false statements related to the discipline or course and asking students in pairs or small groups to mark statements true or false, then asking them to report out as you tally responses and use this as a basis for your presentation or a whole-class discussion).

Many of us like to intersperse lectures with a whole-class discussion, but getting all (or even most) students to participate can be very challenging. If students have been sitting passively and listening, many are content to continue sitting passively and listening, letting a few others contribute comments. Good discussion requires students to speak up and say what they truly think or feel – a risk many students are reluctant to take. One of the simplest solutions is called Think-Pair-Share. In this technique, the instructor poses a question and asks students to think individually for a few minutes, then pair with a partner to discuss and compare their responses, and finally share with the entire class. This is a particularly effective technique as a warm-up for a whole class discussion. The think component gives students the opportunity to reflect on the prompt and collect and organize their thoughts. The pair and share components allow students to compare and contrast their ideas with a peer and rehearse their response first in a low-risk situation before going public with the whole class.

Of course shifting the focus to students and having the classroom vibrate with lively, energetic small-group work is attractive, but educationally meaningless if students are not achieving intended instructional goals. Furthermore, one student cannot do all the work – thus creating a mini-version of a traditional classroom. “Collaborative” means to “co-labor” – all members of the group must participate actively in working together toward the stated objectives. If collaborative learning techniques are to be successful, thoughtful consideration must be given to the host of factors involved, including structuring the learning task so that it will best serve your instructional goals, making decisions on size and membership of groups, deciding how to orient students to their new roles, ensuring individual accountability, and so forth. This is why my co-authors and I wrote our book – to offer faculty a compendium of strategies and techniques drawn from theory and good practice literature to help ensure their efforts at incorporating ‘group work’ work.

Group work done well helps faculty and students alike. Sharing responsibility with students takes some of the pressure off the teacher by removing them from the traditional authoritarian role that in many ways places them in an antagonistic relationship with students. Students who take on an active role in the classroom learn more deeply and remember what they learned longer. For collaborative learning to be effective, though, faculty need to put in the effort in advance to craft good tasks and then implement them in a way that demands excellence. Fortunately, there is a wealth of practical information available to guide teachers who are new to collaborative learning and to offer additional ideas to teachers who are experienced with collaborative learning. Building upon our collective knowledge and experience, we can use collaborative learning to better engage our students and to create a healthy – if not holy! – teacher/student alliance.

Barkley, E., Cross, P., & Major, C. (2005). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Pascarella, E.T. and Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How College Affects Students, Volume 2. A Third Decade of Research.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Elizabeth Barkley, Professor, Music History and Literature, Foothill College, Los Altos, CA

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