Saturday, March 1, 2014

Collaborative learning as a form of active learning

The active learning classrooms have reinvigorated the ongoing discussion about students working in groups.  How can/should groups be formed?  What leads to students working together effectively?  How can collaboration be encouraged?  One post alone cannot offer sufficient answers to all of these questions, so consider this the start of a longer, always-in-progress, response.

According to Weimer (2002), " every other instructional method, good group learning experiences do not happen automatically" (p.88).  Planning is needed.  I firmly believe that students collaborating with one another has great potential, but group members working together effectively has been a work-in-progress for me for years.  At one point, I decided to stop guessing and to start asking students, informally, what it was about group work that created barriers to effective collaboration, and most student feedback I have received thus far seems to converge on a few points:
  • Meeting with group members outside of scheduled class time is often a challenge.
  • Fear that lack of effort/poor quality work by one or more group members will negatively impact the grade.
  • The work is sometimes - or frequently - unevenly distributed across group members.
There is no doubt that points two and three are intertwined, and the first point might sometimes play a supporting role there too. While its contents are not overly surprising, the list does offer some good news.  If students perceive these sorts of items to be barriers, then addressing one or more of these concerns may help to increase the level and/or quality of student collaboration.

Also worth pointing out is the fact that the active learning classrooms have the potential to help out here.  The students are, by default, organized into pods of up to six students in the active learning rooms, and each pod is equipped with a computer and large widescreen monitor for activities that ask the groups to refer to artifacts (e.g., documents, images, web resources) and/or produce something (e.g., problem solving steps, description, blog post, evidence that supports a claim).  Allocating class time for the group to plan, discuss, and accomplish tasks will help to eliminate or reduce the need for students to meet with group members outside of class.  The physical setup of an active learning room lends itself better to students collaborating with another vs. the layout of a traditional lecture hall or a classroom with fixed tables.

A handful of our active learning instructors teach hybrid (blended) classes with some scheduled class meetings replaced with online activities and/or content, and this presents a second option for alleviating the first concern: (1) group members are, technically speaking, available, and (2) the active learning classroom is open for students to meet in their groups during those scheduled class times that have been replaced with online material.  Groups wouldn't be required to meet in the classroom during that time, but they also wouldn't be able to say that no one could meet outside of class either.

So what can be done to address the concerns over grades and the uneven distribution of work?  Individual accountability is the suggestion from both Kagan (1995) and Weimer (2002).  Both reiterate the important fact that students' course grades are intended to reflect individual progress towards meeting the course objectives.  There are various ways to allow for individual accountability.  For one, each group member can be asked to submit individual materials that will then provide a foundation for the group's assignment - either each person submits an individual attempt of an identical task or the tasks that make up the larger group assignment are divided up across group members and each individual must submit the assigned component (in addition to the group submitting the end product).  As long as the individual's work is incorporated into the grade, then this will help to minimize the impact of any free loaders.

Even Horton (2012), in E-Learning by Design, highlights the need to fairly evaluate individuals in team learning environments: "Decide how to determine whether the team accomplished its objective and how much each member contributed" (p.499).  I have to admit that I wasn't expecting a lengthy discussion of team learning in a text focused on e-learning, but it is great when best practices translate across modes of instruction!


Horton, W. (2012). E-learning by design (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Kagan, S. (1995). Group grades miss the mark. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 6(1), 6-8.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA:      Jossey-Bass.

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