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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
A Model of Collaborative Learning Project for Japanese University Students
Judith A. Johnson, Ed.D.
Yamaguchi University, Japan


In Japan, the growing awareness that collaborative learning promotes critical thinking and helps students develop social skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1986) plus the reduction in class size due to Japan’s declining birth-rate have spurred a handful of instructors at tertiary-level institutions to use the collaborative approach to learning. What the instructors are discovering, though, is that when students are required to work independently in small groups, they are usually at a loss as to how they should proceed. The reason is that most students have had no prior opportunity to direct their own learning, or even to work cooperatively. In the Foreign Language (FL) classroom, there is an additional problem. Students with limited conversational skills and/ or little confidence in using the target language have difficulties expressing themselves and organising their ideas in the FL. Therefore, in Japan and perhaps other Asian countries, effective and successful collaborative learning must initially include methods of helping students organise themselves, communicate with each other and (if desired) use the FL. The model presented in this paper incorporates these instructional elements.

The terms cooperative learning and collaborative learning are frequently used interchangeably. Indeed, the approaches do overlap, but there is a fundamental difference that is important to consider when identifying instructional outcomes and designing lesson plans and instructional materials. The collaborative approach is student-centred and the instructor is a facilitator. According to Panitz (1997), “Collaborative learning is a personal philosophy, not just a classroom technique. In all situations where people come together in groups, it suggests a way of dealing with people, which respects and highlights individual group members’ abilities and contributions. There is a sharing of authority and acceptance of responsibility among group members for the group’s actions.” The cooperative approach is a structured form of collaboration. “Cooperative learning is defined by a set of processes which help people interact together in order to accomplish a specific goal or develop an end product which is usually content specific. It is more directive than a collaborative system of governance and is closely controlled by the teacher.” (Panitz, 1997).

Instructional Process

A 6-week, out-of-class collaborative research project was designed for second-year Japanese university Engineering students studying English as a Foreign Language (EFL). They were required to find, organise, and then display their data in a cohesive group PowerPoint (PPT) presentation. As genuine collaboration was an important aim of the assignment, the use of English for group discussions was encouraged, but not required. However, all presentations had to be given in English, without using notes. This was the students’ first experience in both independent research and collaborative learning, so they were guided through both processes by using specific cooperative activities prepared by the instructor and assignment deadlines.


Taking into consideration not only the foreign language needs—EFL reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, as well as technical vocabulary expansion—but also the overall educational needs of second-year university Engineering EFL students, a collaborative instructional model with the principal goals of creating a practical language learning environment that would be conducive to effective learning and nurturing the development of essential academic, professional and social skills was designed. Specifically, the goals were for students to:

  1. Use English in an authentic activity,

  2. Develop their cognitive and creative thinking skills,

  3. Improve their social skills through collaboration,

  4. Develop their research skills,

  5. Improve their computer skills, and

  6. Gain experience of giving a (PPT) presentation.


  1. Select a research topic: 52 students were randomly divided into groups of 4–5. Each group selected a research topic related to science, technology and society. Due to time constraints the instructor provided a selection of research topics from which the groups could choose. Examples are:

    • Economic Growth and Human Development

    • Energy—Fuels for the Future

    • NASA Landsat Satellites

    • Technology for Human Development
      (Approach: Cooperative.)

  2. Learn basic facts: All group members were responsible for acquiring fundamental knowledge about the research topic. For example the ‘NASA Landsat Satellites’ group members had to answer questions such as:

    • What is NASA?

    • What is Landsat?

    • What is the main job of Landsat satellites?

    • Describe two ways in which the data from Landsat would be useful to Japan. (Approach: Cooperative)

  3. General Group Outline: Students discussed the project and each person decided on a specific aspect of the topic (all related to society) that they would research. They then outlined the way they would organise the group presentation. (Approach: Collaborative)

  4. Individual Outline: This second outline showed in greater detail, how the individuals in a group planned to organise his/her research data.

  5. Detailed Group Outline: This outline contained the main points of each group member’s talk.
    (Approach: Collaborative)

  6. 10-Minute Group Presentation: While one group was presenting, the rest of the students were taking notes, using the detailed outlines the groups had prepared. This made it easier for students to follow the presentations.

  7. Review: After the presentations, students had 25 minutes to speak with each other in order to confirm information, gather missing data and study their notes. (Approach: Collaborative)

  8. Assessment: In the first class, students were given assessment guidelines for the oral presentation. The instructor did the assessment while the students were speaking. Students were not required to assess themselves. However, they were asked to make a personal assessment of their own performance and those of other groups. Shortly after the presentations, students were given 20 minutes to review their notes and exchange information with their classmates. During this time (in the same classroom) the instructor typed 20 test questions based on the contents of the presentations onto a PPT slide, and then had the students do a written test (answer the test questions on the PPT slide) without referring to their notes.
    (Approach: Cooperative)


At the end of the course, by means of a short questionnaire, students were asked about what they had learned and liked about the experience. The students’ responses were overwhelmingly positive:

  • “I used the software for the first time.”

  • “It was the first time for me to make a presentation.”

  • “I learned new information.”

  • “Talking to everybody.”

  • “I learned a method for researching a topic.”

  • “I could use the computer.”

  • “Useful to understand my friend’s research.”

  • “I learned to use the Internet.”

  • “I gained knowledge about the topic I researched.”

The few students who answered negatively said:

  • “It’s my weak point.”

  • “I didn’t know how to use the computer.”

  • “I can’t use PPT.”

  • “A presentation in English is difficult.”

  • “I can’t understand.”

In addition to researching English resources on the Internet, learning relevant information and giving an oral presentation in English, students also acquired elementary skills in collaboration, data organisation, computer usage and note taking.


Brinton, D.M.; Snow, M.A. & Wesche, M.B. (1989). Content-based Second Language Instruction. New York: Newbury House.

Gokhale, Anuradha A. (1995). ‘Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking’. Journal of Technology Education. (Last accessed 18 November 2003).

Hutchinson, T. & Waters, Alan. (1987). English for Specific Purposes, A Learning-centred Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, J. (2002). ‘Using Interactive Software for the Independent Study and The Need for Teacher Training’. Globalizing Yamaguchi University, First Steps: A Language Center for Functional Integrated Language Education. Yamaguchi University Language Center Group. Yamaguchi, Japan. pp. 47–54.

Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1986). ‘Action Research: Cooperative Learning in the Science Classroom’. Science and Children. Vol. 24, pp. 31–32.

Kessler, Kessler (Ed.). (1992). Cooperative Language Learning, A Teacher’s Resource Book. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents.

Panitz, Theodore. (1996). A Definition of Collaborative vs Cooperative Learning. (Last accessed: 18 November 2003).

Panitz, Theodore. (1997). ‘Collaborative Versus Cooperative Learning: Comparing the Two Definitions Helps Understand the Nature of Interactive Learning’. (Last accessed: 18 November 2003).

Skehan, Peter. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Slavin, R.E. (1989). ‘Research on Cooperative Learning: An International Perspective’. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 231–243.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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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