Collaborative learning

In the January edition of Edubytes, our guest editors are Arts Instructional Support & Information Technology (ISIT) Collaborative Learning TLEF project team members (Michael Jerowsky, Jason Myers, Angela Lam, Ricardo Serrano, Meena Kahlon and Sami Haque) with faculty contributions from Dr. Siobhán Wittig McPhee, Dr. Brianne Orr-Álvarez and Dr. Katherine Lyon.

Recommendations and strategies for developing collaborative learning activities in your classroom

Collaborative learning flips the script on traditional, transmission-based approaches to post-secondary education, turning classrooms into dynamic spaces for interactive problem solving, more engaging discussions, and the co-creation of knowledge.

The main idea is that students are positioned as active social agents who, through tasks that require positive interdependence with other group members, are encouraged to take increased agency over their own learning (O’Donnell & Hmelo-Silver, 2013). Each student can bring their own unique set of skills and perspectives to their group, creating a more enriching learning environment for everyone involved. Students can potentially gain a deeper understanding of their subject this way, and build greater connections with their peers and develop soft skills like communication, teamwork, and critical thinking.

While collaborative learning has long been advocated as an effective strategy to promote active student learning, there has been increasing attention to the potential that online technologies may offer in facilitating collaboration. With the emergence of the social web in the early 2000’s, educators such as John Seely Brown began to advocate for educational systems to embrace the potential of online spaces for participatory, social learning, noting the importance for students of not just acquiring the knowledge of a discipline, but for learning to become an active participant within it as well.

Group activities are increasingly being facilitated by digital tools such as Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Office 365, Google Docs, wikis, blogs, or other cloud-based collaboration tools. These allow students to work together both synchronously and asynchronously, write together, and share feedback. For instructors, this also presents an opportunity, as many tools can enable them to monitor the progress of a project in real time, giving more visibility to student learning processes and creating an opportunity to provide timely feedback to students. Additionally, students can receive peer feedback more easily, which can improve the quality of their writing and enhance their learning experience. As more of learning and work has shifted to online spaces in the last few years, many educators see the use of online tools for collaboration as not just effective pedagogy, but as an important way to develop digital literacy skills in students, helping them learn how to work together online and understand the ways in which different environments might enable and constrain collaboration. (Sjølie, Espenes, & Buø, 2022).

UBC’s Faculty of Arts approach with collaborative learning

In 2019, Arts ISIT and a group of faculty co-applicants received a Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) grant focused on piloting and evaluating collaborative learning activities across a range of course types and disciplines in the Faculty of Arts. The project grew out of a Faculty of Arts needs assessment conducted by Arts ISIT to identify learning technology needs across the Faculty, that were necessary to support the types of pedagogies instructors felt were important to their disciplines. One of the highest priority needs identified was for increased instructional and technical support for collaborative learning. Through this project, Arts ISIT and instructor co-applicants explored approaches and tools for facilitating collaborative learning activities across nine courses between January 2021 and January 2023. More specifically, the purpose of this project was to build capacity within the Faculty of Arts to facilitate the adoption of peer pedagogies through collaborative document authoring, supporting activities like peer review, group projects, and small- group writing.

Student feedback was collected through online surveys that were distributed to students during each pilot course near the end of the term. Additionally, student focus groups were incorporated in Year 2 to provide greater context and get more in-depth feedback on themes that emerged from the surveys in Year 1. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with instructors in Year 1 to identify key themes surrounding their pedagogical approach to collaborative learning and motivations for integrating collaborative learning into their courses.

Students’ experiences

When asked about the learning benefits of collaborative learning, student responses were largely positive. Students reported a wide range of benefits associated with these activities, including improved engagement, self-directed learning, skill development, relationship building, and exposure to a broad diversity of opinions/skills within groups. Across courses, they consistently mentioned that one of the greatest benefits they experienced was exposure to the diverse perspectives of their peers, which they said helped provide a richer and more well-rounded understanding of course concepts. In some of the activities, student groups were also tasked with interacting with alumni or community groups, further expanding the diverse perspectives they were exposed to. As instructors look to include more diverse voices into the curriculum, this feedback suggests that providing intentional spaces for students to share their own unique perspectives with other students through collaborative activities could be especially valued.

While students were largely positive about the learning benefits of the collaborative activities, the sentiment was much more mixed when asked whether they would want to engage in a similar activity again. Some of the common challenges students noted included concern about grading fairness and unequal contributions of group members. They also discussed the additional time required to complete collaborative activities on top of already heavy workloads and difficulty organizing times to meet with their group members. There was also a concern that the time and effort involved and the often unequal contributions by group members were not always reflected in the grading systems. In many cases, they expressed a desire for the instructor to provide greater clarity around grading criteria and expectations for individual contributions and roles. Many students suggested they needed more time to meet in person during class to get to know their group members better and plan next steps. This suggests a hybrid environment that combines the flexibility of online collaborative learning while allowing for face-to-face meetings is generally preferred. There was also significant variability across courses, indicating that factors like activity design and technical issues can play a key role in determining how positively students perceive collaborative learning activities.

Experience with Technology

During Year 1 of this project, collaborative activities were conducted using Microsoft Teams. In Year 2 pilots, students were introduced to Microsoft Teams but could choose their preferred tools for collaboration. This choice was driven by feedback from Year 1 student surveys, where many asked for the ability to choose their preferred platform for collaborative learning activities. 61% of students indicated that they used tools and apps other than Microsoft Teams to complete their collaborative work.

When given the choice, students commonly utilized tools they were already familiar with. For communication between group members, Instagram, WhatsApp and Discord were some of the most common tools. In the written responses, many students indicated that they also used Google Docs for group collaboration, even when Microsoft Teams was required by the instructor. In the interviews, several instructors mentioned that groups would do their collaborative writing in Google Docs and then copy their work to Microsoft Teams for submission. The use of these tools presented challenges for instructors who wanted to use the track changes feature in Microsoft Teams to see individual student contributions or monitor group dynamics in the discussions.

Instructor experience

Like students, instructors noted a range of benefits and challenges from their experiences with collaborative activities. Some of the key benefits instructors discussed included increased visibility into student learning, the ability to more easily monitor learning processes and provide more frequent and timely feedback, and greater student engagement in classroom activities. In addition, instructors also reported an increased sense of community and appreciated the additional flexibility being able to facilitate collaboration using online tools provided, particularly for courses offered through online or hybrid modalities.

Many of the common challenges instructors expressed involved the additional time it took to develop and manage their activities. While instructors saw the benefits of increased monitoring and feedback, this required time and effort from the instructional team. Finding a balance became important. In some cases, instructors needed to redesign activities, using approaches such as peer feedback in combination with reduced instructor feedback to keep the instructor and TA workload sustainable. Instructors also noted the challenges of encouraging authentic collaboration as opposed to a patchwork of individual contributions, along with providing a balance of individual accountability and group incentive in the grading. There were also several technical challenges noted, including onboarding and technical issues with Microsoft Teams (many of which have now been resolved), getting student buy-in on tool selection and time investment needed for setup and troubleshooting.

The issue of student buy-in also came up frequently, as instructors stressed the importance of clearly communicating to students the value of working in groups and the broader skills they were hoping to cultivate. Still, resistance from a smaller percentage of students remained, and some instructors noted receiving lower teaching evaluation scores in classes where they implemented collaborative learning. This brought up a larger conversation about instructor incentives and barriers to implementing innovative pedagogies such as collaborative learning from both university administration and personal career perspectives.

Why Collaborative Learning?

Despite the challenges presented, most instructors involved in the project remained committed to including opportunities for collaborative learning in their courses, viewing it as an important part of the educational experience they were trying to create. Many of the instructors participating in the project viewed collaborative learning as part of a larger strategy to facilitate active learning in their courses and develop students’ ability to have more agency over their own learning.

For me, it's always about trying to encourage students to see themselves as being responsible for their own learning. Using those kinds of activities really puts a lot of autonomy into their hands to take responsibility for working with their group and figuring out the questions and the case studies.

Instructors also discussed the important role collaborative learning played in community building in their courses, with students often finding important social support or even friendship within their groups. The role of collaborative learning in helping large classes feel small was a recurring theme.

I’ve had several students throughout the term pop into my office hours to tell me just how grateful they were for having an activity like the [the collaborative activity] because it was the only class where they actually met and became friends with other students. Having a very large class feeling like a small cohort is exactly what I want.

Beyond course-specific goals, there was also a feeling that collaborative learning helped play an important role in giving students broader skills that would be important in helping them achieve their educational and life goals beyond the course. These included skills related to working as part of a team to manage a project and accomplish a shared goal, the capacity to give and receive feedback, and the ability to negotiate differences of perspectives and opinions. In addition, several instructors discussed how it was an important opportunity to help students develop skills with using digital technologies for collaboration while at the same time helping them think critically about the tools they were choosing, and the resulting implications for concerns such as privacy and equitable access.

Finally, many instructors expressed that, while collaborative learning can involve challenges, they felt it helped foster critical skills that were necessary to prepare students to deal with the problems we face in our world today. From global pandemics to climate change, instructors explained how addressing these challenges requires collaboration within and across disciplinary boundaries, in both in-person and online environments. The development of the skills necessary to be an effective contributor in these spaces was seen as an essential part of a university education.

My hope is that Arts students develop a set of transferable skills that are cultivated through collaboration, empathizing with others’ perspectives and life experiences, and have the capacity to discuss ideas and weigh the pros and cons to come out with balanced arguments in ways that can’t be done alone.

Project resources

Project summary

The collaborative learning page on the Arts ISIT website provides a link to the Summary Report (PDF) for the project that highlights key findings from the evaluation. The page also includes a strategy guide for implementing collaborative learning, and a set of teaching stories where instructors share example activities from their classes.

CTLT Winter Institute presentation

Dr. Katherine Lyon, Dr. Siobhán Wittig McPhee and Dr. Brianne Orr-Álvarez participated in a panel session (video) where they discussed their experiences implementing collaborative learning activities in their classes. In the session they share some of the benefits they’ve seen and motivations for implementing collaborative learning, the challenges they’ve experienced and some of the approaches they’ve found to be effective in their courses.

Teaching stories

One of the main goals of the project was not only to support the participating instructors in implementing collaborative activities in their courses, but to create example activities and materials that can help build broader capacity to implement these types of pedagogies across the Faculty of Arts. Some of the instructors who took part in this Small TLEF grant wished to share their experiences with others. Their teaching stories provide recipes to inspire others when seeking to implement collaborative learning in their own classrooms.

What is ‘blended learning’ and how can it benefit post-secondary students?

In this article, Dr. Siobhán Wittig McPhee and Michael Jerowsky share experiences and evaluation results from implementing collaborative learning activities in a blended Geography course.

A Teaching Manifesto on the Assembly:” Co-facilitating Collaborative, Participatory Learning in SPAN 280: Revolution!

Dr. Brianne Orr-Álvarez describes the Assembly activity she uses in her SPAN 280 course where students work in groups to lead and participate in peer inquiry and dialogue about complex ethical and political issues related to revolutionary movements in Latin America.

Collaborative and Community-Based Experiential Learning

Dr. Katherine Lyon shares a community-based collaborative activity she used in her SOCI 290, Global Pandemics course, where students work with community partners that have supported vulnerable communities in responding to and recovering from COVID-19 or other disasters.

For more stories, see the Use Cases on the UBC Arts ISIT website.

Additional resources

Collaborative Learning – University of Florida Instructor Guide

This chapter, which is part of a larger Creative Commons licensed online guidebook for new instructors, provides an overview of different types of collaborative learning activities along with effective strategies instructors can use to design and implement them in their courses.

Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively

This instructor guide from Vanderbilt University describes different examples of how to implement group work, the theoretical underpinnings of the approach, and shares some approaches that can help make group work effective.

Enjoyed reading about collaborative learning? Learn about other topics we covered in the January 2024 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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