Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning activities are a great way to actively engage students in their own learning. They can help foster community and counter potential feelings of disconnection or isolation, while at the same time, they help students take shared ownership and responsibility for their learning. The following resource introduces the benefits of collaborative learning, highlights some strategies for effective collaborative learning, and overviews some of the Columbia-supported tools to facilitate collaborative learning.

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Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2021). Collaborative Learning. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from

Collaborative Learning: The What & Why

Collaborative learning is a type of active learning that involves several students working together “and sharing the workload equitably as they progress toward intended learning outcomes” (Barkley et al., 2014, p. 4). This collaboration and equitable division of work “engages students actively in their own learning […] in a supportive and challenging social context” (Barkley et al., 2014, p. 13). While collaborative learning can help foster community among students who may be feeling otherwise disconnected, it also provides students with an opportunity to engage in team building and develop positive group dynamics.  

Research has shown positive correlation between collaborative learning experiences and students’ achievement of learning outcomes. In their book, Collaborative Learning Techniques, Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) identified some of the benefits of collaborative learning, which include increased student engagement, persistence, and personal development, as well as improved achievement across a wide range of students (p. 23-7).

Collaborative learning activities can be designed for students to complete during class, using group work and other collaborative tools like Google docs, or asynchronously between classes, using something like a CourseWorks discussion board. Your course structure and student needs will determine the mode of these activities.

Strategies for Effective Collaborative Learning

Like any class activity or lecture, collaborative learning requires intentional planning and preparation to ensure effectiveness.  

Foster an inclusive environment & classroom community 
Successful collaborative learning is dependent upon an inclusive classroom community, where students trust and respect each other. Consider using social icebreakers (e.g., learning names, finding common interests) to help students warm up to each other before they begin their collaborative activities. For more strategies on fostering community in your course, see the CTL’s Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses resource.  

Intentionally design and plan for collaborative learning 
Effective collaborative learning requires forethought and planning. While it’s possible to ask students to quickly form ad-hoc groups during class, you will also want to take time before class to consider the technological and pedagogical strategies to best support the activity’s learning goals. 

Communicate the purpose and expectations of the activity 
When students understand the rationale and the specific action steps of the given activity, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their learning. 

  • Be clear with students about the purpose of the particular activity: What do you hope they will gain from the collaborative nature of the task? What are your expectations for students’ engagement, and what should they expect from their collaborators? 
  • Be explicit with your expectations: Should each student take notes, or will there be a single note-taker for the group? Are you expecting groups to share-back to the whole class? 

Partner with your students
As one of the primary goals of collaborative learning should be to actively engage students in their own learning, helping them take ownership of the process and experience, it’s important to partner with your students throughout. This partnership can take many forms, depending on the goals and context of your course. Some activities you might consider include: 

  • Co-construct guidelines and expectations for the collaborative learning experience. 
  • Assign students’ roles (or ask them to choose their own roles). Using roles in collaborative learning helps each student take responsibility for a different part of the given task.   

Engage specific technologies to facilitate collaborative learning activities 
The educational technology tools you choose will be dependent upon your course goals, the goals of the specific activity, as well as the context of the course. For example, if you are asking students to complete an activity during class time, you might ask groups to take notes in a  collaborative document (like a Google Doc). If you are asking students to collaborate outside of class, you may consider leveraging your CourseWorks space, engaging students in online discussion board forums. 

The following section introduces a few of the Columbia-supported tools to help facilitate collaborative learning.     

Columbia-supported Tools to Facilitate Collaborative Learning 

There are a number of Columbia-supported tools available to help support and facilitate collaborative learning. 

Google Suite/LionMail Apps 

Faculty and students have access to a whole host of Google Suite apps through their university email accounts. Perhaps most relevant to collaborative learning are Google Docs, Google Slides, and Jamboard. Prior to engaging with any of these apps, it’s important to first understand sharing and access permissions. Please note, if you have students with both LionMail and affiliate accounts, you may want to consider creating a course parent folder for accessibility. For more information or support in creating this folder, please contact the Learning Designer liaison for your school or program. The following video offers a brief overview of creating, sharing, and accessing various Google suite applications, like Google Docs and Slides.  

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at

Google Docs 

Google Docs offer a great space for collaborative note-taking, a process that requires students to take shared responsibility for their work. Whether done as a whole class activity (asking students to take shared notes during a lecture or discussion) or used within small group activities, collaborative note-taking offers a number of benefits for students’ learning and engagement. Writing on her use of collaborative note-taking, M. Brielle Harbin (2020) identifies three benefits to the process. Collaborative note-taking can help to:

  • “[Level] the playing field for students with different levels of prior preparation,
  • [Provide] a consistent access point for assessing student comprehension and learning, and 
  • [Improve] the quality of classroom discussion” (p. 216). 

In Google Docs, students can collaboratively annotate and comment on given text or images using various features like bookmarks, tagging, and suggesting mode. Previous versions of a working document can be accessed and retrieved when necessary. The following video highlights some of these Google Docs features that can make the collaborative note-taking process more effective and productive. 

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at

Google Slides

Like Google Docs, Google Slides offer a space for students to take collaborative notes. If you are asking students to share back with the whole class, Google Slides have the added benefit of being “presentation ready.” Using Google Slides, you can ask each group to create their own presentation slide deck; this is particularly useful if you are asking for larger presentations from the groups. To help with toggling between slides, you can also create a single slide deck, with assigned slides for each group. This is helpful if you are looking to gauge student understanding and progress throughout an activity, as you can follow along with groups as they work. 

Google slides also offer a Q&A feature, which can help create a collaboration between instructors and students during a lecture. The Q&A feature allows you, the instructor, to accept student questions or comments while presenting, and show those questions and comments on the current slide in real time. Doing so allows students to actively engage in the presentation, collaborating with you to make meaning throughout the course. You can also ask students to come up with questions as a group and submit them together. The following video offers an overview of using Google Slides for collaborative note-taking as well as the Q&A feature. 

Note: The video walkthroughs are conducted on LionMail. Other affiliate accounts might have different permissions or sharing settings. For direct support, please contact the CTL Faculty Programs and Services team at


There are a number of features in CourseWorks to help facilitate collaborative learning, especially asynchronous collaboration that takes place in between class meetings. 

Discussion Board

The CourseWorks Discussion Board is a great space to have students work together in response to a particular reading or prompt. Using the discussion board, specifically threaded discussions, students can co-construct knowledge, and actively and collaboratively engage with course material. Additionally, CourseWorks Discussion Boards support a range of media, so students can respond and post using text, audio, video, images, etc. For further support facilitating discussion, see the CTL’s resources on Learning Through Discussion and Teaching with CourseWorks.


The Groups feature in CourseWorks makes it easier for students to collaborate on assignments, while also helping to break down larger projects and concepts for small groups. Using groups, students can communicate with only those assigned to their groups using a discussion board, the announcements, or the conference feature. Within CourseWorks, each group has their own calendar, discussion board, group files, and collaboration tools, making it easier for students to organize and work together more effectively. This is particularly helpful in larger classes, as you can read, review, and assess group reflections rather than sorting through individual comments or posts.

Resources & References

CTL Resources 

Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Classes

Learning Through Discussion

External Resources 

The Power of Group Note-Taking from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Teaching” Column


Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H., & Cross, K.P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty, second edition. Jossey-Bass. 

Harbin, M.B. (2020). Collaborative note-taking: A tool for creating a more inclusive college classroom. College Teaching 68(4), 214-220.  

The CTL researches and experiments.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.