What is Collaborative Learning?

A photo of a group of students sitting surrounding a desk and interacting with one another.

Barkley, Cross, and Major (2005) define collaborative learning as: “two or more students laboring together and sharing the workload equitably as they progress toward intended learning outcomes” (p. 5).

A large body of research indicates the value of collaborative learning. Changes in students have been documented in areas of psychosocial development, knowledge, cognitive skills, and impacts upon attitudes and values (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991). When compared to individual learning, collaborative work is shown by research to provide a greater opportunity for academic achievement (Barkley et al., 2005).

Svinicki and McKeachie (2006) report that students more likely to talk in small groups than in large ones and students who are confused are more likely to ask other students questions rather than reveal these difficulties with a faculty member present. Students who are not confused must actively organize and reorganize their own learning to explain it. Thus, both confused and the unconfused students benefit.

Collaborative learning can include a variety of team and group learning activities, but regardless of size, characteristics of effective learning groups are: 

  • Individual success depends upon group success.
  • Social interaction promotes sharing of ideas, support, and resources.
  • Each student contributes to the work of the group and everyone is responsible.
  • Interpersonal and small group skills are an important component of college curricula and professional development.
  • Group members assess the effectiveness of their groups and ideas for changes that will facilitate improvement.

Steps for Designing Engaged Learning Experiences

In order to begin implementing collaborative learning in your own course, take the following steps:

  • Assist students to learn more about one another. If students have worked together in the same group for a period, this is less likely to be an issue. However, there is always something new to learn about one another. See our article, “Starting the Semester with Engaged Learning,” and “Creating Groups for Collaborative Learning” for ideas.
  • Develop a strategy to stimulate recall of prior knowledge. Getting students to tap into prior knowledge provides an anchor for gathering new information. See our articles, “Working with Students’ Prior Knowledge & Assumptions,” for more.
  • Develop strategies for addressing challenges inherent in small group collaborative, engaged learning. Students are sometimes resistant to engaged learning and small group strategies for multiple reasons. Students have had past experiences where other team members don’t fully participate and the rest of the group (or sometimes a single person) must carry the project for these non-participative students. Additionally, many students have come to expect to learn passively—to sit back, listen, and take notes while the instructor lectures and delivers information. Engaged learning settings can be a real adjustment for students and may go against their expectations for their roles in the learning process. See our article, “Student Resistance to Engaged Learning” for more.

Resources for Developing Small Group Work

The following resources are included for their practicality for immediate use by instructors seeking to design group work for their classrooms. They all aid in one or all of these areas: orienting students, forming groups, preparing group learning strategies, facilitating students, and assessing groups:

  • The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center provides a thorough section on group work that is an excellent practical resource.
  • The Cornell University Center for Teaching and Learning site provides examples of short-term group work activities that may help you with your own class.
  • The Team-Based Learning Collaborative website thoroughly explains a rather new model for team work in college classrooms. We also have a Team-Based Learning Interest Group on campus.
  • Working with groups online can pose specific issues. This journal article provides a review of the most commonly reported problems with online group work and provides several practical strategies for addressing these issues.
  • Another approach to student group work and peer evaluation is team contracts. This extensive template from the University of Arizona’s Business Math class walks students through writing team contracts and includes a worksheet addressing a variety of issues such as procedures, expectations, and consequences.
  • Ground rules and contracts can assist students working in groups. Students should share in developing both ground rules and contracts, but instructors should facilitate the process to insure fairness and feasibility. For components to include in ground rules and sample templates for contracts, click here.
  • Rubrics for assessing group work are available for work with Core classes in areas of teamwork and communication. Other rubric templates can be found at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s rubric bank. Broken down by category, scroll down to “Collaboration, Teamwork, Participation” for collaborative learning rubrics. You could use these rubrics directly or adapt them to your specific course.
  • Review this resource by Warren of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for ideas for working with students when difficult, challenging issues arise within group discussions.


Barkley, E.F., Cross, K.P. & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research, Volume 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Svinicki, M. and McKeachie, W.J. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.