Author’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of posts concerning collaborative learning and how best to implement it in the classroom. ATS instructional designers Michael Hernandez and Joe Olivier contributed content to this installment.

As educators increasingly take into account the benefits of active learning, as opposed to the traditional “sage on the stage” lecture model, collaborative learning–a form of active learning organized by groups, in which each group member takes part in the learning process and contributes to the benefit of the whole–has come to enjoy great popularity. Collaborative learning strategies have been implemented at higher education institutions ranging from Cornell University to George Mason University to the University of Maryland; in K-12 schools; and in other educational settings, such as the National Highway Institute. When carefully thought through and implemented, the practice of collaborative learning has many benefits, but there are also pitfalls that should be taken into account. In this first installment of a series, we will discuss the affordances and risks of collaborative learning, as well as strategies that may help to improve student outcomes. Future installments will explore UChicago-supported technologies that can help you implement collaborative learning in your classroom.

Why Collaborative Learning?

Collaborative learning is not only a good way to enhance your students’ classroom experience, but also offers solid preparation for the future. In the workforce, collaboration, rather than work in isolation, is the norm, and employees will often be called upon to pool their knowledge and skills in the pursuit of broader goals.

The collaborative learning process also allows for peer instruction. When one student helps another to grasp a difficult concept, both students are likely to gain deeper understanding of the subject matter than they would if they were passively lectured to.

No less important is the opportunity for collaborative knowledge construction. When students feel that they have been given a chance to create new knowledge, as opposed to being spoon-fed facts, names, and dates, they are likely to be more engaged and to better retain the knowledge covered in your course.

Potential Pitfalls of Collaborative Work

Whenever students work in a group, certain questions must be addressed at the outset. One such is the equitable division of labor. Simply put: within the group, who is to do what? And who decides? A group that ignores these questions is likely to give way to confusion and mutual recriminations, as some students accuse others of not doing their “fair share”.

It is no less vital to achieve good group balance. If there are sharp differences of personality and/or subject mastery among the group members, the successful functioning of the group may be inhibited. In particular, some students, whether out of lack of interest or lack of knowledge of the subject, may slide (consciously or otherwise) into the role of “free riders,” letting others carry the load while participating to the smallest possible extent themselves. Conversely, those with exceptional knowledge of the subject matter and/or exceptional zeal for the assignment may “take over” the group, preventing others from gaining the full benefits of collaborative work.

There are also logistical matters to be taken into account. Students assigned to a group must be able to meet, whether physically, virtually, or in combination, and must also be able to share ideas freely with one another. As we will see in future posts, there are a number of technological tools that can facilitate collaboration.

Types of Collaborative Learning

There are many different types of active learning activities that fall under the umbrella of “collaborative learning”. These include:

  • Think-pair-share: Students are given a problem or question to consider. They first come up with a tentative solution on their own, then share this with a peer. After jointly discussing the problem or question, one of the students “reports out” to the wider class.
  • Problem-based learning (PBL): The instructor presents each group of students with a complex problem, such as an unsolved question within a particular STEM field. The group then jointly works on the problem, drawing upon outside sources and their own knowledge to work toward a hypothetical solution.
  • Small group discussion: Within each group, the students discuss a focused topic or problem, practicing active listening and making sure that everyone is given a chance to voice their opinions. This can be more effective and easier to manage than whole-class discussion, particularly in large classes.
  • Jigsaw: Within a group, each student receives a particular “puzzle piece” upon which to work. For example, if the group is discussing a complex social issue, each member might be given a separate op-ed piece to analyze. The group then assembles, and the members pool their work to come up with a general thesis on the topic. Alternatively, a whole group may work on a particular topic, after which the groups are broken up and new groups made, consisting of one student each from the prior groups. The students then bring the results from their previous group to the table and construct a solution collaboratively.

Strategies for Effective Collaboration

While no strategy will necessarily succeed in every case, there are certain tactics you can employ that increase the likelihood of successful collaboration among students. These include the following.

  • Strive for an optimal group size. Research suggests that groups of three or four students work well for collaborative learning. Groups with fewer may not be able to handle all the tasks involved, and groups with more can fall victim either to logistical difficulties (coordinating meetings for all involved) or the “free rider” problem.
  • Mix ability levels. When not assigning groups randomly, you may wish to combine different levels of ability and subject level mastery. This allows stronger students to assist weaker students, and avoids the risk of creating one or more groups where all students are at sea regarding the course material.
  • Set roles. One way of avoiding confusion over who should shoulder which part of the burden in collaborative work is to have roles for the various group members. For example, one student could outline the project, another could write the first draft, and so on. You can assign these roles yourself, or have the students decide among themselves. If you choose this route, be sure either that the roles do not entail sharp disparities in the amount of labor involved, or if this is unavoidable, that students are able to take turns filling different roles.
  • Lay out clear expectations. As with any type of assignment, so with collaborative work, it is important that students know what is expected of them and how best to meet those expectations. When first assigning the collaborative task, you should consider and address questions such as:
    • What is the minimum contribution expected from each group member?
    • How will the final product be assessed? Will one grade be assigned to all group members, or will they be graded individually?
    • Will group members have a chance to provide feedback on one another’s performance? If so, how? Will peer feedback be taken into account when assigning grades?
    • And, perhaps most importantly, how will the collaborative task support the learning outcomes of the course?
  • Scaffold group work. As with any major assessment, scaffolding–breaking the assessment down into smaller, progressive steps–can make the task less formidable and more manageable. This may be a particularly acute consideration in collaborative work, where the complexities of team dynamics may hold up progress and push completion to the last minute.
  • Check in regularly. Whether in-person, virtually, or both, keep tabs on the progress of each group. Make sure that group members know they’re welcome to reach out for help if they’re struggling, either with the task or with group dynamics.


None of the strategies outlined above requires digital technology to be implemented. That said, UChicago’s suite of technological tools can help facilitate communication and collaboration in many different ways. In forthcoming posts, we will explain what these tools can do for you as you incorporate collaborative learning into your pedagogy.

(Cover Photo by airfocus on Unsplash)