A collaborative (or cooperative) learning approach involves learners working together on activities or learning tasks in a group small enough for everyone to participate on a collective task that has been clearly assigned. Learners in the group may work on separate tasks contributing to a common overall outcome, or work together on a shared task.
Some collaborative learning approaches put mixed ability teams or groups to work in competition with each other in order to drive more effective collaboration. There is a very wide range of approaches to collaborative and cooperative learning involving different kinds of organisation and tasks. Peer tutoring can also be considered as a type of collaborative learning, but in the Toolkit it is reviewed as a separate topic.
The impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive. However, the size of impact varies, so it is important to get the detail right. Effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting learners together and asking them to work in a group; structured approaches with well-designed tasks lead to the greatest learning gains. There is some evidence that collaboration can be supported with competition between groups, but this is not always necessary, and can lead to learners focusing on the competition rather than the learning it aims to support. Approaches which promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains.
Over 40 years a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have provided consistent evidence about the benefits of collaborative learning. In addition to direct evidence from research into collaborative approaches, there is also indirect evidence that has shown that collaboration can increase the effectiveness of other approaches such as mastery learning or digital technology. Collaborative learning appears to work well for all ages if activities are suitably structured for learners’ capabilities and positive evidence has been found across the curriculum. Not all of the specific approaches to collaborative learning adopted by schools have been evaluated, so it is important to evaluate any new initiative in this area.
Overall the costs are estimated as very low. The main cost is ongoing training for teachers which is estimated as below £80 per learner per year for a class of 25 learners.
Learners need support and practice to work together; it does not happen automatically.
Tasks need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some learners will try to work on their own.
Competition between groups can be used to support learners in working together more effectively. However, overemphasis on competition can cause learners to focus on winning rather than succeeding in their learning.
It is particularly important to encourage lower achieving learners to talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks to ensure they benefit fully.
Have you considered what professional development is required to support effective use of these approaches?