Collaborative Learning

Article form from:

By Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean T. MacGregor, “What Is Collaborative Learning?" in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, by Anne Goodsell, Michelle Maher, Vincent Tinto, Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor.

“Collaborative learning” is an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together. Usually, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. Collaborative learning activities vary widely, but most center on students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it.

Collaborative learning represents a significant shift away from the typical teacher-centered or lecture-centered milieu in college classrooms. In collaborative classrooms, the lecturing/ listening/note-taking process may not disappear entirely, but it lives alongside other processes that are based in students’ discussion and active work with the course material. Teachers who use collaborative learning approaches tend to think of themselves less as expert transmitters of knowledge to students, and more as expert designers of intellectual experiences for students-as coaches or mid-wives of a more emergent learning process.

Assumptions about Learning
Though collaborative learning takes on a variety of forms and is practiced by teachers of different disciplinary backgrounds and teaching traditions, the field is tied together by a number of important assumptions about learners and the learning process. Learning is an active, constructive process: to learn new information, ideas or skills, our students have to work actively with them in purposeful ways. They need to integrate this new material with what they already know-or use it to reorganize what they thought they knew. In collaborative learning situations, our students are not simply taking in new information or ideas. They are creating something new with the information and ideas.

These acts of intellectual processing- of constructing meaning or creating something new-are crucial 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 activities immerse students in challenging tasks or questions. Rather than beginning with facts and ideas and then moving to applications, collaborative learning activities frequently begin with problems, for which students must marshal pertinent facts and ideas. Instead of being distant observers of questions and answers, or problems and solutions, students become immediate practitioners. Rich contexts challenge students to practice and develop higher order reasoning and problem-solving skills.

What is Collaborative Learning?
Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education
Learners are diverse: Our students bring multiple perspectives to the classroom-diverse backgrounds, learning styles, experiences, and aspirations. As teachers, we can no longer assume a one-size-fits- all approach. When students work together on their learning in class, we get a direct and immediate sense of how they are learning, and what experiences and ideas they bring to their work. The diverse perspectives that emerge in collaborative ‘activities are clarifying but not just for us. They are illuminating for our students as well.

Learning is inherently social: as Jeff Golub points out, “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) Collaborative learning produces intellectual synergy of many minds coming to bear on a problem, and the social stimulation of mutual engagement in a common endeavor. This mutual exploration, meaning-making, and feedback often leads to better understanding on the part of students, and to the creation of new understandings for all of us.