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What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. According to Gerlach, "Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves (Gerlach, 1994). It is through the talk that learning occurs."

There are many approaches to collaborative learning. A set of assumptions about the learning process (Smith and MacGregor, 1992) underlies them all:

  1. Learning is an active process whereby students assimilate the information and relate this new knowledge to a framework of prior knowledge.
  2. Learning requires a challenge that opens the door for the learner to actively engage his/her peers, and to process and synthesize information rather than simply memorize and regurgitate it.
  3. Learners benefit when exposed to diverse viewpoints from people with varied backgrounds.
  4. Learning flourishes in a social environment where conversation between learners takes place. During this intellectual gymnastics, the learner creates a framework and meaning to the discourse.
  5. In the collaborative learning environment, the learners are challenged both socially and emotionally as they listen to different perspectives, and are required to articulate and defend their ideas. In so doing, the learners begin to create their own unique conceptual frameworks and not rely solely on an expert's or a text's framework. Thus, in a collaborative learning setting, learners have the opportunity to converse with peers, present and defend ideas, exchange diverse beliefs, question other conceptual frameworks, and be actively engaged.

    Collaborative learning processes can be incorporated into a typical 50-minute class in a variety of ways. Some require a thorough preparation, such as a long-term project, while others require less preparation, such as posing a question during lecture and asking students to discuss their ideas with their neighbors (see concept tests). As Smith and MacGregor state, "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." Regardless of the specific approach taken or how much of the ubiquitous lecture-based course is replaced, the goal is the same: to shift learning from a teacher-centered to a student-centered model.

    Cooper, J., and Robinson, P. (1998). "Small group instruction in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology." Journal of College Science Teaching 27:383.

    Cooper, J., Prescott, S., Cook, L., Smith, L., Mueck, R., and Cuseo, J. (1990). Cooperative learning and college instruction: Effective use of student learning teams. California State University Foundation, Long Beach, CA.

    Gerlach, J. M. (1994). "Is this collaboration?" In Bosworth, K. and Hamilton, S. J. (Eds.), Collaborative Learning: Underlying Processes and Effective Techniques, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 59.

    MacGregor, J. (1990). "Collaborative learning: Shared inquiry as a process of reform" In Svinicki, M. D. (Ed.), The changing face of college teaching, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 42.

    Smith, B. L., and MacGregor, J. T. (1992). "What is collaborative learning?" In Goodsell, A. S., Maher, M. R., and Tinto, V. (Eds.), Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education. National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, & Assessment, Syracuse University.

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