Collaborative learning

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Collaborative learning is a situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together.[1] Unlike individual learning, people engaged in collaborative learning capitalize on one another’s resources and skills (asking one another for information, evaluating one another’s ideas, monitoring one another’s work, etc.).[2][3] More specifically, collaborative learning is based on the model that knowledge can be created within a population where members actively interact by sharing experiences and take on asymmetry roles.[4] Put differently, collaborative learning refers to methodologies and environments in which learners engage in a common task where each individual depends on and is accountable to each other. These include both face-to-face conversations[5] and computer discussions (online forums, chat rooms, etc.).[6] Methods for examining collaborative learning processes include conversation analysis and statistical discourse analysis.[7]

Thus, collaborative learning is commonly illustrated when groups of students work together to search for understanding, meaning, or solutions or to create an artifact or product of their learning. Further, collaborative learning redefines traditional student-teacher relationship in the classroom which results in controversy over whether this paradigm is more beneficial than harmful.[8][9] Collaborative learning activities can include collaborative writing, group projects, joint problem solving, debates, study teams, and other activities. The approach is closely related to cooperative learning.

Theoretical Background[edit]

Collaborative learning is rooted in Lev Vygotsky’s concept of learning called zone of proximal development. Typically there are tasks learners can accomplish and tasks learners cannot accomplish. Between these two areas is the zone of proximal development, which is a category of things that a learner can learn but with the help of guidance. The zone of proximal development gives guidance as to what set of skills a learner has that are in the process of maturation. In Vygotsky’s definition of zone of proximal development, he highlighted the importance of learning through communication and interactions with other rather than just through independent work. [10] This has made way for the ideas of group learning, one of which being collaborative learning.

Collaborative learning has often been portrayed as solely a cognitive process by which adults participate as facilitators of knowledge and children as receivers. However, Indigenous communities of the Americas illustrate that collaborative learning occurs because individual participation in learning occurs on a horizontal plane where children and adults are equal.[11] Thus collaborative learning also occurs when children and adults in engage play, work, and other activities together.

Classroom Collaborative Learning[edit]

Often, collaborative learning is used as an umbrella term for a variety of approaches in education that involve joint intellectual effort by students or students and teachers by engaging individuals in interdependent learning activities.[12] Many have found this to be beneficial in helping students learn effectively and efficiently than if the students were to learn independently. Some positive results from collaborative learning activities are students are able to learn more material by engaging with one another and making sure everyone understands, students retain more information from thoughtful discussion, and students have a more positive attitude about learning and each other by working together. [13]

Encouraging collaborative learning may also help improve the learning environment in higher education as well. Kenneth Bruffee performed a theoretical analysis on the state of higher education in America. Bruffee aimed to redefine collaborative learning in academia. Simply including more interdependent activities will help the students become more engaged and thoughtful learners, but teaching them that obtaining knowledge is a communal activity itself. [14]

Research evidence[edit]

When compared to more traditional methods where students non-interactively receive information from a teacher, cooperative, problem-based learning demonstrated improvement of student engagement and retention of classroom material.[15] More than 1200 studies comparing cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts have found that cooperative learning methods improve students' time on tasks and motivation to learn, as well as students' interpersonal relationships and expectations for personal success.[16] A meta-analysis comparing small-group work to individual work in K-12 and college classrooms also found that students working in small groups achieved significantly more than students working individually, and optimal groups for learning tended to be three- to four-member teams with lower-ability students working best in mixed groups and medium-ability students doing best in homogeneous groups. For higher-ability students, group ability levels made no difference.[17] In more than 40 studies of elementary, middle, and high school English classrooms, discussion-based practices improved comprehension of the text and critical-thinking skills for students across ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.[18] Even discussions lasting as briefly as ten minutes with three participants improved perceived understanding of key story events and characters.[19]

Collaborative Learning and Technology[edit]

Technology has become an important factor in collaborative learning. Over the past ten years, the Internet has allowed for a shared space for groups to communicate. Virtual environments have been critical to allowing people to communicate long-distances but still feel like they are part of the group. Research has been conducted on how technology has helped increase the potential of collaborative learning.One study in particular conducted by Elizabeth Stacey looked at how technology affected the communication of postgraduate students studying a Master of Business Administration (MBA) using computer-mediated communication (CMC). Many of these students were able to still remotely learn even when they were not present on their university campus. The results of the study helped build an online learning environment model but since this research was conducted the Internet has grown extensively and thus new software is changing these means of communication.

Differences from Cooperative Learning[edit]

There has been a split regarding to the differences between between collaborative and cooperative learning. Some believe that collaborative learning is similar, yet distinct from cooperative learning. While both models use a division of labor, collaborative learning requires the mutual engagement of all participants and a coordinated effort to solve the problem where as cooperative learning requires individuals to take responsibility for a specific section and then coordinate their respective parts together. [20][21] Another proposed differentiation is that cooperative learning is typically used for children because it is used to understand the foundations of knowledge while collaborative learning applies to college and university students because it is used to teach non-foundations of learning. Another believed difference is that that cooperative learning is a philosophy of interaction where collaborative learning is a structure of interaction. [22]

However, many psychologists have defined cooperative learning and collaborative learning similarly. Both are group learning mechanisms for learners to obtain a set of skills or knowledge. Some notable psychologists that use this definition for both collaborative and cooperative learning are Johnson & Johnson, Slavin, Cooper and more.

Cultural examples[edit]

Cultural variations[edit]

There also exists cultural variations in ways of collaborative learning. Research in this area has mainly focused on children in indigenous Mayan communities of the Americas or in San Pedro, Guatemala and European American middle-class communities.

Generally, researchers have found that children in indigenous Mayan communities such as San Pedro typically learn through keenly observing and actively contributing to the mature activities of their community.[23] This type of learning is characterized by the learner’s collaborative participation through multi-modal communication verbal and non-verbal and observations.[23] They are highly engaged within their community through focused observation.[24] Mayan parents believe that children learn best by observing and so an attentive child is seen as one who is trying to learn.[24] It has also been found that these children are extremely competent and independent in self-maintenance at an early age and tend to receive little pressure from their parents.[24]

Research has found that even when Indigenous Mayan children are in a classroom setting, the cultural orientation of indigenous learners shows that observation is a preferred strategy of learning.[25] Thus children and adults in a classroom setting adopt cultural practice and organize learning collaboratively.[25] This is in contrast to the European-American classroom model, which allocates control to teachers/adults allowing them to control classroom activities.[26]

Within the European American middle-class communities, children typically do not learn through collaborative learning methods. In the classroom, these children generally learn by engaging in initiation-reply-evaluation sequences.[23] This sequence starts with the teacher initiating an exchange, usually by asking a question. The student then replies, with the teacher evaluating the student’s answer.[27] This way of learning fits with European-American middle-class cultural goals of autonomy and independence that are dominant in parenting styles within European-American middle-class culture.[23]

An article featured on Edutopia suggests reforming this educational practice in favor of facilitating collaborative learning. To start, teachers configure K-12 classroom geography to encourage face-to-face communication and eye contact, where students are allowed to take equally distributed initiative, with teachers acting as guides. In the process, students lead discussions and work independently with teacher oversight and help when asked, rather than explicit direction.[28]

Examples from Indigenous communities in the Americas[edit]

Although learning happens in a variety of ways in indigenous communities, collaborative learning is one of the main methods used in indigenous learning styles instead of using European-American approaches to learning. These methods include learning in a horizontal plane where children and adults share contribution in ideas and activities.

For example, Mayan people of San Pedro use collaboration in order to build upon one another's ideas and activities. Mayan mothers do not act as teachers when completing a task with their children, but instead collaborate with children through play and other activities.[29] People of this Mayan community use the shared endeavors method more than European-Americans who tend to use the transmit-and-test model more often.[29] The shared endeavors model is when people go off of others ideas[clarification needed] and learn from them, while the transmit-and-test model is what is used in most American schools when a teacher gives students information and then tests the students on the information.[29] The shared endeavors model is a form of collaborative learning because everyone learns from one another and are able to hear and share others' ideas.

In Nocutzepo, Mexico, indigenous heritage families form collective units where it is generally agreed that children and youth engage in adult cooperative household or community economic practices such as food preparation, child care, participating in markets, agriculture, animal herding, and construction to name a few. During planting and harvesting season, entire families are out in the fields together where children usually pitch into the activity with smaller tasks alongside adults, but are always observant when it comes to activities done by adults, such as driving a tractor or handling an axe. These children learn through imitation, observation, listening, pitching in, and doing activities in a social and cultural context.[29] When children begin to participate in the daily family/community activities, they form a sense of belonging, especially when they collaborate with adults establishing a more mature integration with their family and community.

Indigenous people of the Americas utilize collaborative learning through their emphasis on role sharing and responsibility sharing within their communities. The Mayan community of San Pedro, Guatemala utilizes flexible leadership that allows children to have an active role in their learning.[30] Children and adults work as cohesive groups when tackling new projects.[30] Collaborative learning is prevalent in Indigenous communities due to the integration of children in the daily lives of the adults.[31] Age is not a determining factor in whether or not individuals are incorporated into collaborative efforts and learning that occurs in indigenous communities.

Participation of learner is a key component to collaborative learning as it functions as the method by which the learning process occurs. Thus collaborative learning occurs when children and adults in communities switch between “knowledge performers” and “observing helpers”.[32] For example, when parents in an indigenous Mazahua community where assigned the task of organizing children to build a roof over a market stand in such a way that they would learn to do it themselves, parents and children both collaborated on a horizontal structure. Switching between knowledge performer and observing helper, adults and children completed the task peacefully, without assigned roles of educator/student and illustrated that children still took initiative even when adults were still performing.[32]

Adults and children in indigenous communities of the Americas participate in a horizontal organizational structure; therefore when they work together with one another they are reciprocals of each other.[33] This horizontal structure allows for flexible leadership, which is one of the key aspects of collaborative learning. The indigenous communities of the Americas are unique in their collaborative learning because they do not discriminate upon age, instead Indigenous communities of the Americas encourage active participation and flexible leadership roles, regardless of age. Children and adults regularly interchange their roles within their community. In addition, Indigenous communities consider observation to be a part of the collaborative learning process.[32]

Collaborative learning can also be incorporated into university settings. For example, the Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo, Mexico, has a system that incorporates elders, such as grandparents to act as tutors and as a resource for students to discuss information and knowledge regarding their own language and culture. The elders give their recommendation at the end of a semester in the decision of passing or failing a student, based on his/her behavior in the community and how well he/she is learning Maya. The system is called IKNAL, a maya word that implies companionship in the learning and doing process which involves several members of the community.[34]


  • Collaborative networked learning – According to Findley (1987) "Collaborative Networked Learning (CNL) is that learning which occurs via electronic dialogue between self-directed co-learners and learners and experts. Learners share a common purpose, depend upon each other and are accountable to each other for their success. CNL occurs in interactive groups in which participants actively communicate and negotiation meaning with one another within a contextual framework which may be facilitated by an online coach, mentor or group leader."[35][36]
  • Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a relatively new educational paradigm within collaborative learning which uses technology in a learning environment to help mediate and support group interactions in a collaborative learning context.[4][6] CSCL systems use technology to control and monitor interactions, to regulate tasks, rules, and roles, and to mediate the acquisition of new knowledge.[37]
  • Learning management system In this context, collaborative learning refers to a collection of tools which learners can use to assist, or be assisted by others. Such tools include Virtual Classrooms (i.e. geographically distributed classrooms linked by audio-visual network connections), chat, discussion threads, application sharing (e.g. a colleague projects spreadsheet on another colleague’s screen across a network link for the purpose of collaboration), among many others.[citation needed]
  • Collaborative learning development Enables developers of learning systems to work as a network. Specifically relevant to e-learning where developers can share and build knowledge into courses in a collaborative environment. Knowledge of a single subject can be pulled together from remote locations using software systems.[citation needed]
  • Collaborative learning in virtual worlds Virtual worlds by their nature provide an excellent opportunity for collaborative learning. At first learning in virtual worlds was restricted to classroom meetings and lectures, similar to their counterparts in real life. Now collaborative learning is evolving as companies starting to take advantage of unique features offered by virtual world spaces - such as ability to record and map the flow of ideas,[38] use 3D models and virtual worlds mind mapping tools.
  • Collaborative learning in thesis circles in higher education is another example of people learning together. In a thesis circle, a number of students work together with at least one professor or lecturer, to collaboratively coach and supervise individual work on final (e.g. undergraduate or MSc) projects. Students switch frequently between their role as co-supervisor of other students and their own thesis work (incl. receiving feedback from other students).[citation needed]
  • Collaborative learning can lead to student success by deepening the understanding of a given topic. An example highlighted in Edutopia’s Schools That Work series is The College Preparatory School in Oakland, CA. In this setting students utilized daily class worksheets and periodic group tests designed to be more challenging than individual homework or exams, and students quickly learn how they are able to solve problems as a group that they might not have struggled with on their own. Essentially, Collaborative Learning at The College Preparatory School aims to actively engage students with material and each other to maximize knowledge retention.[39]
  • Collaborative learning in a composition classroom can unite students when assigned open-tasks. Kenneth Bruffee introduced the learning method, Classroom Consensus Group, in which the instructor allocates groups of three to five (three being ideal) students and assigns a problem to be solved or question to be answered. There are two directions the nonfoundational task can be presented: as an indistinct, no right answer that generates discussion or propose an answer and request questions and a process of how the answer came to be. Once the task is assigned, the instructor backs off in order to resist the urge to intervene in students' conversation. The goal is to remove focus of the instructor's authority. The instructor must keep time to ensure the students are centered on analogizing, generalizing, and bridging their comprehension with others. Following group discussion, the instructor is to evaluate, not judge, the students' work. Ideas should be presented to the entire class thus allowing the small groups to come together as a whole. It is then that the answers can be compared, gaps can be filled, and authority is not on one individual.[40]
  • Collaborative scripts structure collaborative learning by creating roles and mediating interactions while allowing for flexibility in dialogue and activities.[41][42] Collaborative scripts are used in nearly all cases of collaborative learning some of which are more suited for face-to-face collaborative learning—usually, more flexible—and others for computer-supported collaborative learning—typically, more constraining.[41][42] Additionally, there are two broad types of scripts: macro-scripts and micro-scripts. Macro-scripts aim at creating situations within which desired interactions will occur. Micro-scripts emphasize activities of individual learners.[41]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Chiu, M. M. (2000). Group problem solving processes: Social interactions and individual actions. for the Theory of Social Behavior, 30, 1, 27-50.600-631.
  3. ^ Chiu, M. M. (2008).Flowing toward correct contributions during groups' mathematics problem solving: A statistical discourse analysis. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17 (3), 415 - 463.
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  5. ^ Chiu, M. M. (2008). Effects of argumentation on group micro-creativity. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33, 383 – 402.
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