Collaborative Learning: The Learner’s Perspective
In Spring 2021, we asked our three undergraduate student consultants to reflect on their experiences with collaborative learning*.
What follows are their perspectives and suggestions for promoting productive collaboration among students.
The suggestions put forth in this resource are applicable across all instructional modalities (e.g., in person, online, hybrid/HyFlex), and we encourage you to reflect and consider ways in which you can adapt some of the ideas into your own teaching context.
*To learn more about collaborative learning strategies, see the CTL’s resource Collaborative Learning.
Build a sense of togetherness: “Collaborative learning is crucial for a sense of togetherness. Gaining that sense in a classroom (especially an online classroom) has been important for getting through difficult classes and getting the most out of any class.” — Yarin Reindorp, General Studies (Major: Neuroscience and Behavior)
Provide opportunities for practicing collaboration skills: “When my professor incorporates opportunities for me to practice my collaboration skills, I feel that I become better prepared to apply the knowledge I learn to solving real world problems beyond the classroom, because collaborative work allows me to hear and learn from my peers and understand other facets of a problem that will ultimately lead to the development of a better solution.” — Michelle Yao, Columbia College (Major: Biological Sciences)
Incorporate in-class group activities in which students assume active roles in their learning: “In [collaborative breakout activities], students play an active role in each class discussion and it helps avoid students from zoning out as they have to complete a tangible task by the end of each class.” — Sajan Bar, School of Engineering (Major: Chemical Engineering)
Build a sense of togetherness.
Collaborative learning is crucial for a sense of togetherness. Gaining that sense in a classroom (especially an online classroom) has been important for getting through difficult classes and getting the most out of any class. It can contribute to our motivation and make the course experience more enjoyable and meaningful.
In my experience, when instructors incorporated collaboration between students (e.g., no curving, graded group assignments) into the grading schemes, created platforms for study groups, assigned group projects, and openly addressed the subjects of collaboration and competition, they made a significant difference in my learning by setting the tone for collaborative work – they managed to encourage collaboration with peers when studying, sharing resources and ideas, and working on assignments together, thus establishing a learning environment that welcomes teamwork and mutual help which leave less room for competitiveness and more for togetherness.
Once an instructor shares their viewpoint and values about the importance of collaborative work, I think students will be more inspired and motivated to work together rather than against each other. By setting expectations for collaboration, we can move away from competitiveness.
— Yarin Reindorp, Student, General Studies (Major: Neuroscience and Behavior)
In one of my Summer classes, my professor assigned a semester-long project to work on in small groups. For every class period, she spent the first half teaching the class, and then provided the remainder of class time for each group to brainstorm and work on the project. This helped us stay on task and learn that collaboration is an important part of our learning in the class. Other ways I have found helpful for actively engaging in collaborative tasks were allocating time specifically for group problem-solving and trying a “flipped classroom” approach where students learn the material before class and use class time to work in groups and apply their knowledge to a more complex problem.
In addition to intentional class restructuring, I find that when my professor takes the initiative to openly discuss what it means to be a “good collaborator” and also regularly checks in with me regarding project progress, it motivates me to participate more, since I see that my professor truly values collaboration. When my professor incorporates opportunities for me to practice my collaboration skills, I feel that I become better prepared to apply the knowledge I learn to solving real world problems beyond the classroom, because collaborative work allows me to hear and learn from my peers and understand other facets of a problem that will ultimately lead to the development of a better solution.
When it comes to ensuring that students have effective collaboration in the course, I find that the grading system and assignment formats play a big role.
First, if I am expected to carry out a semester-long project in a course, having less grade impact on individual homework assignments and exams (or no individual assignments at all) allows me to concentrate on my group project and contribute my fair share of the work.
Second, it is helpful when my professor sets clear expectations in grading rubrics by specifying how much each student should be doing in a multi-part project (and have students sign off on what parts they did) and provide both an individual grade and group project grade.
Third, receiving points for the collaborative process encourages me to actively collaborate with my groupmates. For example, when one of my groupmates is unable to complete their portion of the assignment in time and I offer to help, being able to explain these moments and receive bonus points for teamwork shows us that the process of collaboration is just as important as the final result.
With these three approaches to assessing group work, expectations for collaborative assignments become clear and students are able to become active collaborators.
— Michelle Yao, Student, Columbia College (Major: Biological Sciences)
In one of my Spring courses, we often interacted in breakout rooms. My classmates and I would be assigned to small groups and be given 10 to 15 minutes to address a question. Each group was asked to fill out 1-2 Google Slides and present a summary of our work to the class. Our instructor popped into each breakout room to see how we were working together and what common misconceptions or misunderstandings we may have had.
Engaging us in this way worked really well because instead of trying to absorb information that is lectured at us, we were forced to think about and synthesize the information discussed and present it back to the rest of the class. This flips the script in teaching, as students teach the class about their topic. In this type of collaborative activity, students play an active role in each class discussion and it helps avoid students from zoning out as they have to complete a tangible task by the end of each class.
I think the use of breakout rooms and Google Slides to document small group work can be a valuable tool in humanities classes or in STEM classes where students are asked to collaboratively problem solve then present their process and thinking.
— Sajan Bar, Student, School of Engineering (Major: Chemical Engineering)
Ask a Student!
Would you like to get a student perspective on designing collaborative assignments or activities in your course? The CTL undergraduate Students as Pedagogical Partners are available to share their thoughts (during the regular academic year). You are invited to submit your question and our student consultants will respond with their insights and experiences.