Largely grounded in Vygotsky’s sociocultural theories of learning, collaborative learning can be a powerful strategy in the classroom. Group work can help students uncover and address gaps and misconceptions in knowledge, further developing their conceptual frameworks while improving their public reasoning and team-based skills (John-Steiner and Mahn, 1996). In this way, group work frees instructors to challenge students to higher orders of thinking, rather than remediation. More skilled or knowledgeable students can also provide scaffolding for their peers in this setting to advance learning (Chaiklin, 2003).
While the educational benefits of group work are numerous, so are the challenges. Students may feel resentment if a group member does not adequately contribute to a particular assignment, or, a student within a group may become overly dominant and prevent others from contributing to decision-making processes. Instructors should consider best practices around collaborative learning to mitigate challenges from the beginning, encouraging a smoother group process.
Collaborative learning can be implemented in the college classroom through a variety of ways:
- Presentation - A foreign language instructor divides students into conversation groups. Their task is to perform a dialogue in front of the class pretending that they are ordering food at a restaurant. The groups have 30 minutes to prepare their conversation and 10 minutes to present it to the class. This activity culminates a course unit where students have learned vocabulary and phraseology around everyday conversations in the language.
- Problem Sets - After learning the steps for conducting several statistical tests, students in a statistics course are divided into groups and assigned a problem set. In well-functioning groups, all students contribute equally by working through the problems and offering assistance to one another until each group member fully understands the solution.
- Case Study - A sociology instructor implements case studies in the course around pressing issues. Students within each group take on particular roles and debate the issue under discussion.
- Comparative Work - A writing instructor has groups write the same general letter to different audiences, adjusting tone, wording, and style to reach their unique assigned readers. Groups then read out their letters and discuss similarities and differences based on audience.
- Jigsaw - A literature instructor breaks class into groups to close read and discuss a passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost. After some time, the instructor uses the jigsaw method by creating new groups comprised of representatives from each original group. New groups share what they discussed previously, and explore new ideas.
- Group size - In general, smaller group sizes are desirable, typically between 3 - 4 students per group. When groups are too large, equitable student contribution can be challenging. When groups are too small, they may not experience as many benefits from the ideas and contributions of others.
- Stable vs. alternating groups - Depending on the goals of the activities and instructor preference, groups can be stable throughout the semester or change more frequently. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Stable groups grant students more time to become accustomed to how they work together. However, dysfunctional stable groups are less likely to achieve class learning outcomes. In general, for the group process to occur more effectively, members must spend significant time working together. Alternating groups help students by refreshing their expectations and enabling them to work with other members of the class. However, students may also find forming connections with their group members more challenging. In general, groups may be formed randomly or the instructor can deliberately form groups using particular attributes (e.g. ability level or demographics).
- Group expectations and accountability - With regards to more time-intensive projects, students expect accountability of individual group members. To mitigate potential conflict, instructors can have groups come together before starting a project to develop an agreement around how the group will function. During this time, group members can also assign one another roles (e.g. facilitator, researcher, recorder, presenter) and delineate responsibilities. Finally, this agreement can address expectations around attendance in class and group meetings outside of class. For a more structured approach to balancing individual and group participation, instructors can also consider Team-Based Learning.
- Confidential peer evaluation - As another accountability measure, instructors can ask students to confidentially evaluate their peers on their contributions to the project. Instructors can choose whether to use these scores in determining final grades for a project.
- Group and individual grades - To account for individual as well as group contribution, instructors can consider including both individual and group assignments for the project. In doing so, both efforts can be accounted for in the grading process, motivating students to perform well on their own while contributing to the group's progress.
Cohan EG and Lotan RA. (2014). Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. Third Edition. New York, New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Collaborative Learning: Group Work - Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation
Working in Groups - Harvard Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
Chaiklin S. (2003) Chapter 2. The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction. In, Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context. A Kozulin, B Gindis, V Ageyev, S Miller (Eds). New York, New York: Cambridge University Press. P. 65-82.
John-Steiner V and Mahn H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskyian framework. Educational Psychologist 31(3-4):191-206