Collaborative Learning


To create community and a sense of belonging during the pandemic, when we were alone but together and/or socially distanced, many faculty incorporated opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. Learning after all is a social process – students benefit when they have opportunities to collaborate and learn both from and with each other. The benefits of a collaborative learning environment span the social, psychological, and academic spheres, and range from helping students build confidence and social support systems, to helping students foster critical thinking skills and encouraging active engagement in their learning. 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.  

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 a CourseWorks discussion board.


What You Can Do 

Reflect on your own experiences with collaborative learning and the benefits of engaging your students in this type of learning as it aligns with the objectives of your course. The tips below will help you think about the essential elements needed for the design and implementation of effective collaborative learning experiences. Schedule a one-on-one consultation to discuss collaborative learning approaches in your course, contact

1. Foster an inclusive environment and classroom community.

Successful collaborative learning is dependent upon an inclusive classroom community, where students trust and respect each other. Set the tone for collaboration by establishing community agreements for classroom and online interactions. Co-constructing these agreements with students is a great way to ensure student buy-in. 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.

2. Intentionally design and communicate the purpose and expectations of the collaborative activity.

Effective collaborative learning requires forethought and planning – take time before class to consider the technological and pedagogical strategies to best support the activity’s learning goals. Additionally, it’s important that students understand the rationale and the specific action steps of the given activity. Be clear with students about the purpose, and be explicit with your expectations.

3. Draw on instructional technologies to connect learners and their learning.

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 an asynchronous discussion space, like Ed Discussion, or another collaborative annotation tool. For guidance on selecting the instructional technology that best meets your teaching needs, contact the CTL Learning Designer assigned to your department or school or reach out during CTL for office hours to speak to a Learning Designer.

“Contemporary teamwork goes beyond the idea of “working together.” I push students to be generous, to share and to discover the unknown through collaboration.”

Read Dr. Herreros’ narrative

Dr. Juan Herreros

Professor of Professional Practice in Architecture, Planning and Preservation

“We need to engage in a collaborative learning process with our students, to reflect with ourselves and reflect with our students. (…). Whenever possible, try to get critique into your course, critical reflection, developing not only on student skills such as problem solving, but also how they engage with each other, how they engage with the course, how they engage with the material and the learning process.”

Read Dr. Hansen’s narrative

Dr. Sarah Hansen

Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Chemistry

“During the remote teaching period of the pandemic, students and I missed the sense of being in class together, and this is what drew me to try out virtual reality and see whether it would recreate that sense of presence in the classroom.”

Read Dr. Stockwell’s narrative

Dr. Brent Stockwell

Professor of Biological Sciences and of Chemistry

Browse through the narratives in this theme for more inspiration and to learn about how Columbia instructors leveraged collaborative learning opportunities to foster class connection and community and enhance student learning.