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Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning is a learning situation in which students actively contribute to the attainment of a mutual learning or creative goal and share the effort to reach that goal.(1)

For concepts and practical activities, check out our page on integrating group work into your classroom.

Scroll down to learn the benefits of collaborative learning and how to start creating collaborative experiences.

Collaborative learning…

  • can facilitate critical thinking and deeper learning through requiring students to be active learners, talk through course concepts, and construct knowledge from multiple perspectives.
  • mirrors professional practice.Post-it notes on a board, with caption "what problem are we trying to solve?"
  • increases student affinity for learning about the subject.
  • encourages interaction and promotes cross-culturalism.
  • increases students’ self-confidence.
  • promotes experiential learning.
  • allows students to be part of much larger projects than they could reasonably do on their own in a semester.
  • increases retention rates.
  • increases students’ efforts to achieve.
  • encourages positive relationships with classmates and faculty.
  • improves psychological health and well being.

How do I structure a class to get these benefits?

What type of collaboration is used depends on the circumstances.  Instructors are often advised to adopt “group work”, yet group work is an ill-defined term.  Groups can refer to pairing, groups or three, groups of four, and groups of five and more.

First, what are the learning goals?  What outcomes do you want?  Can you achieve these in one class or do students need more time (either during class time or after class)?

Group Format Options groups

Casual (Peer Discussion)

  • Small size (2, 3, or 4)
  • Held for one class session
  • Instructor has less control over group construction
  • Roles may be assigned
  • Product due at end of class
  • Low stakes grades or no grades


  • Medium size (3-4 people)
  • Very structured groups
  • Roles are assigned and rotated
  • Clearly defined product with a moderate stakes grade
  • Instructor uses some training and assessment with the groups


  • Large size (5-6 people)
  • Contract-based structure
  • Complex projects with high stakes grade
  • Teams trained in collaborative work
  • Peer and self reviewed
  • Involves course redesign; group projects are managed during class time

How do groups work?

Given the learning goal and the design of the assignment or activity, consider how, as the instructor, you can help the group function best.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 3.10.56 PMGroups work best when they operate with:

  1. Positive Interdependence (with contributions from each of the team members) to succeed
  2. Promotive, face-to-face interaction (which influences how groups perform)
  3. Individual accountability (the way an assignment is structured needs to include a method to make each individual accountable)
  4. Group and Individual reflections: for effective processing of the learning

While short, one-session activities do not need this level of group functioning, team work does.  For resources for both small groups and team creation, see our page on integrating group work into your classroom.

  1. Adapted from: Janssen, J., et al. 2010. Making the Black Box of Collaborative Learning Transparent: Combining Process-Oriented and Cognitive Load Approaches. Educational Psychology Review, 22:139–154.

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