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,
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
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
Gokhale, Anuradha A. (1995). ‘Collaborative Learning
Enhances Critical Thinking’. Journal of Technology
Education. (Last accessed 16 April 2004).
Peterson, Cynthia, L. (2001). ‘Online Jigsaw’.
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