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Collaborative learning refers to an instruction method which requires students to work together in small groups toward a common goal. In this issue of CDTL Brief, glean from the authors’ experience with Collaborative Learning and discover how it can be used to promote meaningful learning among university students.

April 2004, Vol. 7, No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Collaborative Learning: Some Issues and Recommendations
Dr Kevin S. Carlson
Former Educational Development Specialist, CDTL
Dr Zhao X.S., George
Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Collaborative learning has a long history in Educational Psychology and is increasingly being employed in a variety of contexts at NUS. Given this rising interest, we have decided to explore a few selected, central issues involved in such approaches. First, we should exactly and simply define what we mean by ‘collaborative learning’. While collaborative learning necessarily takes place in an interactive and interpersonal environment, mere interaction and the presence of others does not automatically mean that collaborative learning is occurring. To be considered collaborative learning, these interpersonal interactions must include the sharing of information, meanings and understandings in such a way that all parties educationally benefit from the interaction and come to a broader and more integrated understanding of the material. According to research, collaborative teams achieve higher levels of thought and critical thinking and retain information longer than students who work as individuals (Gokhale, 1995).

While these types of interactions may occur informally among students, we shall focus on those activities that a professor can structure and initiate. Specifically, we will examine group projects as a potential context where collaborative learning can thrive. This potential can probably only be fully realised through some planning and monitoring by the professor, as groups can drift into counter-productive habits without such. For space reasons, we will focus on two issues: (1) formation of groups, and (2) setting the assignment for integration.

Formation of Groups

Oftentimes, for convenience, we allow students to form their own groups. However, under many circumstances, it may be useful to intentionally assign students of various performance levels, backgrounds and strengths to each group. To promote content learning, it would be useful to form groups that have variance in terms of aspects like seniority, abilities and discipline expertise. In this scheme, students can benefit from having a combination of more- and less-expert members with different styles of analysing and comprehending a problem. The more-expert and senior students gain deeper appreciation of the material as they help others understand it, while the more novice students can often learn a lot from someone closer to their point of development (e.g. a more expert peer) in ways that may be hard to learn from an expert (e.g. the professor).

In addition, it may be useful to form groups based upon a combination of subject expertise: either discipline/major or varying abilities within a major (e.g. some students are more maths-oriented, while others may be better at the conceptual work). Collaborative learning is promoted by such utilisation of varying expertise within a particular group, as everyone can play an active role in such groupings. Some of these grouping suggestions depend in part on knowing your students. However, in cases when knowing the students is difficult (e.g. large classes needing to form groups early in term), then one can often approximate things by using variables such as year and major as ways to ensure some diversity of abilities and expertise in the groups.

There may be other qualities that one may use to arrange diversity among students to ensure smoother group processes. Student personality may be such a variable. For example, grouping a shy student with an intelligent, yet patient student can be the impetus for that shy student to become more active. In addition, an appropriately assertive student can be the perfect balance to an aggressive student or a remedy for students who wish to passively feed off the group by doing little work. Finally, gender may be a consideration in forming groups. Females in groups dominated by males can often be more passive than if they were in more evenly split groups or in all female groups. Ensuring a more balanced gender composition (even if it is not 50–50) would be a simple and easy remedy. We would not recommend all male/all female groupings, as this would likely exasperate this phenomenon in the future student and working lives of our students.

Promoting Integration of Group Work

Setting the Assignment. One of the biggest reasons that much group work is not collaborative learning is that students tend to do group work independently—often being quite unaware of what the other members have done—and at the last minute ‘throw’ together all the pieces to assemble the ‘group project’.

One way to promote more integration (and learning!) among members is to structure the assignment in a ‘jigsaw’ where each part is truly interdependent and each part must be done and known to all members for the project to work at all (Peterson, 2001). This type of interdependence of the content helps the group function in a more integrative manner, thus promoting broader content learning—the main educational goal of group work. If the group work is not integrative, then it is merely just individuals working on their own and using groups is neither efficient nor educational in such cases.

Assessment. The final assessment of the group work is another vehicle for promoting integration. We briefly consider group presentations. One easy way to promote integration in this situation is to question students on parts completed by other students. Alternatively, a student may be requested to present the parts completed by others. For this strategy to be optimal, one should avoid surface questions and superficial presentation of other’s material. Instead, deeper understandings about connections among the parts of the report should be demonstrated by the students to gain good marks.

In summary, collaborative learning is an effective instruction method for teaching university students. In particular, when applied to its fullest, collaborative learning can help students learn the material more deeply by interacting with peers who have different strengths, perspectives and knowledge. Such interactions promote a more integrated understanding of course content through the individual connecting the pieces of knowledge together. However, such thought processes do not often occur naturally, and a well-set structure (e.g. setting an assignment that promotes such interactions and explicating to the students that these integrative outcomes are necessary for high marks) by the instructor can be crucial in promoting these interactive processes.


Gokhale, Anuradha A. (1995). ‘Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking’. Journal of Technology Education. (Last accessed 16 April 2004).

Peterson, Cynthia, L. (2001). ‘Online Jigsaw’. Technology Support Strategies for Online Education. National Association for Developmental Education.

Recommended Reading

  1. Ledlow, Susan (1996). ‘Using Jigsaw in the College Classroom’. Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence. Arizona State University.

  2. Rossetti, Manuel, D. (1997). ‘Activate this Classroom at Time Now’. Andradottir, S. Healy K.J.; Withers D.H. & Nelson B.L. (Eds.). Proceedings of the 1997 Winter Simulation Conference.

  3. Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (1994). ‘Cooperative Learning in Technical Courses: Procedures, Pitfalls, and Payoffs’. ERIC Document Reproduction Service Report ED 377038.
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Inside this issue
Using Online Forums as a Replacement for Face-to-Face Discussion Groups
Weekly Review and Integration of Ideas and Abilities
Collaborative Learning: Some Issues and Recommendations
The Impact of Teaching Assistants on Students’ Learning Experience: A Study on Teaching and Learning in an NUS Chemistry Laboratory
A Model of Collaborative Learning Project for Japanese University Students