Collaborative learning is a situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together. 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.  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. 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.  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.  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.

Collaborative Learning is a relationship among learners that requires positive interdependence (a sense of sink or swim together), individual accountability (each of us has to contribute and learn), interpersonal skills (communication, trust, leadership, decision making, and conflict resolution), face-to-face promotive interaction, and processing (reflecting on how well the team is functioning and how to function even better).

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

What is collaborative learning?

There are many approaches to collaborative learning:

  1. Learning is an active process whereby learners 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.

Four Collaborative Learning Strategies

THINK-PAIR-SHARE: (1) The instructor poses a question, preferable one demanding analysis, evaluation, or synthesis, and gives students about a minute to think through an appropriate response. This “think-time” can be spent writing, also. (2) Students then turn to a partner and share their responses. (3) During the third step, student responses can be shared within a four-person learning team, within a larger group, or with an entire class during a follow-up discussion. The caliber of discussion is enhanced by this technique, and all students have an opportunity to learn by reflection and by verbalization.

THREE-STEP INTERVIEW: Common as an ice-breaker or a team-building exercise, this structure can also be used also to share information such as hypotheses or reactions to a film or article. (1) Students form dyads; one student interviews the other. (2) Students switch roles. (3) The dyad links with a second dyad. This four-member learning team then discusses the information or insights gleaned from the initial paired interviews.

SIMPLE JIGSAW: The faculty member divides an assignment or topic into four parts with all students from each LEARNING TEAM volunteering to become “experts” on one of the parts. EXPERT TEAMS then work together to master their fourth of the material and also to discover the best way to help others learn it. All experts then reassemble in their home LEARNING TEAMS where they teach the other group members.

NUMBERED HEADS TOGETHER: Members of learning teams, usually composed of four individuals, count off: 1, 2, 3, or 4. The instructor poses a question, usually factual in nature, but requiring some higher order thinking skills. Students discuss the question, making certain that every group member knows the agreed upon answer. The instructor calls a specific number and the team members originally designated that number during the count off respond as group spokespersons. Because no one knows which number the teacher will call, all team members have a vested interest in understanding the appropriate response

Collaborative Learning Structures and Techniques

  • Three-step Interview
  • Roundtable
  • Focused Listing
  • Structured Problem-solving
  • Paired Annotations
  • Structured Learning Team Group Roles
  • Send-A-Problem
  • Value Line
  • Uncommon Commonalities
  • Team Expectations
  • Double Entry Journal
  • Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning

Three-step Interview

Three-step interviews can be used as an ice breaker for team members to get to know one another or can be used to get to know concepts in depth, by assigning roles to students.

  • Faculty assigns roles or students can “play” themselves. Faculty may also give interview questions or information that should be “found.”
  • A interviews B for the specified number of minutes, listening attentively and asking probing questions.
  • At a signal, students reverse roles and B interviews A for the same number of minutes.
  • At another signal, each pair turns to another pair, forming a group of four. Each member of the group introduces his or her partner, highlighting the most interesting points.


Roundtable structures can be used to brainstorm ideas and to generate a large number of responses to a single question or a group of questions.

  • Faculty poses question.
  • One piece of paper and pen per group.
  • First student writes one response, and says it out loud.
  • First student passes paper to the left, second student writes response, etc.
  • Continues around group until time elapses.
  • Students may say “pass” at any time.
  • Group stops when time is called.

The key here is the question or the problem you’ve asked the students to consider. It has to be one that has the potential for a number of different “right” answers. Relate the question to the course unit, but keep it simple so every student can have some input.

Once time is called, determine what you want to have the students do with the lists…they may want to discuss the multitude of answers or solutions or they may want to share the lists with the entire class.

Focused Listing

Focused listing can be used as a brainstorming technique or as a technique to generate descriptions and definitions for concepts. Focused listing asks the students to generate words to define or describe something. Once students have completed this activity, you can use these lists to facilitate group and class discussion.

Example: Ask students to list 5-7 words or phrases that describe or define what a motivated student does. From there, you might ask students to get together in small groups to discuss the lists, or to select the one that they can all agree on. Combine this technique with a number of the other techniques and you can have a powerful cooperative learning structure.

Structured Problem-solving

Structured problem-solving can be used in conjunction with several other cooperative learning structures.

  • Have the participants brainstorm or select a problem for them to consider.
  • Assign numbers to members of each group (or use playing cards). Have each member of the group be a different number or suit.
  • Discuss task as group.
  • Each participant should be prepared to respond. Each member of the group needs to understand the response well enough to give the response with no help from the other members of the group.
  • Ask an individual from each group to respond. Call on the individual by number (or suit).

One Minute Papers

Ask students to comment on the following questions. Give them one minute and time them. This activity focuses them on the content and can also provide feedback to you as a teacher.

  • What was the most important or useful thing you learned today?
  • What two important questions do you still have; what remains unclear?
  • What would you like to know more about?

You can use these one minute papers to begin the next day’s discussion, to facilitate discussion within a group, or to provide you with feedback on where the student is in his or her understanding of the material.

Paired Annotations

Students pair up to review/learn same article, chapter or content area and exchange double-entry journals (see below) for reading and reflection. Students discuss key points and look for divergent and convergent thinking and ideas. Together students prepare a composite annotation that summarizes the article, chapter, or concept.

Structured Learning Team Group Roles

When putting together groups, you may want to consider assigning (or having students select) their roles for the group. Students may also rotate group roles depending on the activity.

Potential group roles and their functions include:

  • Leader – The leader is responsible for keeping the group on the assigned task at hand. S/he also makes sure that all members of the group have an opportunity to participate, learn and have the respect of their team members. The leader may also want to check to make sure that all of the group members have mastered the learning points of a group exercise.
  • Recorder – The recorder picks and maintains the group files and folders on a daily basis and keeps records of all group activities including the material contributed by each group member. The recorder writes out the solutions to problems for the group to use as notes or to submit to the instructor. The recorder may also prepare presentation materials when the group makes oral presentations to the class.
  • Reporter – The reporter gives oral responses to the class about the group’s activities or conclusions.
  • Monitor – The monitor is responsible for making sure that the group’s work area is left the way it was found and acts as a timekeeper for timed activities.
  • Wildcard (in groups of five) – The wildcard acts as an assistant to the group leader and assumes the role of any member that may be missing.


Send-A-Problem can be used as a way to get groups to discuss and review material, or potential solutions to problems related to content information.

  1. Each member of a group generates a problem and writes it down on a card. Each member of the group then asks the question to other members.
  2. If the question can be answered and all members of the group agree on the answer, then that answer is written on the back of the card. If there is no consensus on the answer, the question is revised so that an answer can be agreed upon.
  3. The group puts a Q on the side of the card with the question on it, and an A on the side of the card with an answer on it.
  4. Each group sends its question cards to another group.
  5. Each group member takes ones question from the stack of questions and reads one question at a time to the group. After reading the first question, the group discusses it. If the group agrees on the answer, they turn the card over to see if they agree with the first group’s answer. If there again is consensus, they proceed to the next question. If they do not agree with the first group’s answer, the second group write their answer on the back of the card as an alternative answer.
  6. The second group reviews and answers each question in the stack of cards, repeating the procedure outlined above.
  7. The question cards can be sent to a third, fourth, or fifth group, if desired.
  8. Stacks of cards are then sent back to the originating group. The sending group can then discuss and clarify any question

Variation: A variation on the send a problem is to use the process to get groups to discuss a real problem for which there may be no one set answer.

  1. Groups decide on one problem they will consider. It is best if each group considers a different problem.
  2. The same process is used, with the first group brainstorming solutions to a single problem. The problem is written on a piece of paper and attached to the outside of a folder. The solutions are listed and enclosed inside the folder.
  3. The folder is then passed to the next group. Each group brainstorms for 3-5 minutes on the problems they receive without reading the previous group’s work and then place their solutions inside the folders.
  4. This process may continue to one or more groups. The last group reviews all the solutions posed by all of the previous groups and develops a prioritized list of possible solutions. This list is then presented to the group.

Value Line

One way to form heterogeneous groups, is to use a value line.

  1. Present an issue or topic to the group and ask each member to determine how they feel about the issue (could use a 1-10 scale; 1 being strong agreement, 10 being strong disagreement).
  2. Form a rank-ordered line and number the participants from 1 up (from strong agreement to strong disagreement, for example).
  3. Form your groups of four by pulling one person from each end of the value line and two people from the middle of the group (for example, if you had 20 people, one group might consist of persons 1, 10, 11, 20).

Uncommon Commonalities

Uncommon Commonalities can be used to foster a more cohesive group.

    • Groups get together and first list individual things about themselves that define them as people).
    • Groups then discussed each item, finding things that 1, 2, 3, or 4 of them have in common.
    • When the group finds an item that all of them have in common, they list that item under 4; when they find something that 3 of them have in common, the list that item under 3, etc.

    Team Expectations

    Some of the common fears about working with groups include student fears that each member will not pull their weight as a part of the group. Students are scared that their grade will be lower as a result of the group learning vs. learning they do individually. One way to address this issue is to use a group activity to allow the group to outline acceptable group behavior. Put together a form and ask groups to first list behaviors (expectations) they expect from each individual, each pair and as a group as a whole.  Groups then can use this as a way to monitor individual contributions to the group and as a way to evaluate group participation.

    Double Entry Journal

    The Double Entry Journal can be used as a way for students to take notes on articles and other resources they read in preparation for class discussion.

    • Students read and reflect on the assigned reading(s).
    • Students prepare the double entry journal, listing critical points of the readings (as they see them) and any responses to the readings, in general, or specific critical points.
    • Students bring their journal notes to class
    • Once in class, students may use their double entry journal to begin discussion, to do a paired annotation, or for other classroom and group activity.

    Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning

    The goal of this activity is to generate discussion among student groups about a specific topic or content area.

    • Faculty conducts a brief (10-15 minutes) lecture on a topic or content area. Faculty may assign a reading or written assignment as well.
    • Instructor then gives the students a set of generic question stems.
    • Students work individually to write their own questions based on the material being covered.
    • Students do not have to be able to answer the questions they pose. This activity is designed to force students to think about ideas relevant to the content area.
    • Students should use as many question stems as possible.
    • Grouped into learning teams, each student offers a question for discussion, using the different stems.

    Sample question stems:

    • What is the main idea of…?
    • What if…?
    • How does…affect…?
    • What is a new example of…?
    • Explain why…?
    • Explain how…?
    • How does this relate to what I’ve learned before?
    • What conclusions can I draw about…?
    • What is the difference between… and…?
    • How are…and…similar?
    • How would I use…to…?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
    • What is the best…and why?

    What are cooperative and collaborative learning?

    Collaborative learning is a method of teaching and learning in which students team together to explore a significant question or create a meaningful project. A group of students discussing a lecture or students from different schools working together over the Internet on a shared assignment are both examples of collaborative learning.

    Cooperative learning, which will be the primary focus of this workshop, is a specific kind of collaborative learning. In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups on a structured activity. They are individually accountable for their work, and the work of the group as a whole is also assessed. Cooperative groups work face-to-face and learn to work as a team.

    In small groups, students can share strengths and also develop their weaker skills. They develop their interpersonal skills. They learn to deal with conflict. When cooperative groups are guided by clear objectives, students engage in numerous activities that improve their understanding of subjects explored.

    In order to create an environment in which cooperative learning can take place, three things are necessary. First, students need to feel safe, but also challenged. Second, groups need to be small enough that everyone can contribute. Third, the task students work together on must be clearly defined. The cooperative and collaborative learning techniques presented here should help make this possible for teachers.

    Also, in cooperative learning small groups provide a place where:

    • learners actively participate;
    • teachers become learners at times, and learners sometimes teach;
    • respect is given to every member;
    • projects and questions interest and challenge students;
    • diversity is celebrated, and all contributions are valued;
    • students learn skills for resolving conflicts when they arise;
    • members draw upon their past experience and knowledge;
    • goals are clearly identified and used as a guide;
    • research tools such as Internet access are made available;
    • students are invested in their own learning.

    How do cooperative and collaborative learning differ from the traditional approach?

    Cooperative and collaborative learning differ from traditional teaching approaches because students work together rather than compete with each other individually.

    o   Collaborative learning can take place any time students work together — for example, when they help each other with homework.

    o   Cooperative learning takes place when students work together in the same place on a structured project in a small group. Mixed-skill groups can be especially helpful to students in developing their social abilities.

    Because it is just one of a set of tools, however, it can easily be integrated into a class that uses multiple approaches. For some assignments individual work may be most efficient, while for others cooperative groups work best.

    Research suggests that cooperative and collaborative learning bring positive results such as deeper understanding of content, increased overall achievement in grades, improved self-esteem, and higher motivation to remain on task. Cooperative learning helps students become actively and constructively involved in content, to take ownership of their own learning, and to resolve group conflicts and improve teamwork skills.