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Collaborative learning


Collaborative learning encompasses a whole host of approaches which use the group and team approach for student work. Another term associated with collaborative learning is peer learning, in which students learn from and teach each other. 

Well planned group work activities can result in students work together to accomplish a common academic goal - this is cooperative learning. It's also important to remember that teamwork is a skill much prized in industry ... but it needs to be carefully set up and prepared. 

Examples of collaborative learning activities which can be very effective in the classroom include:

  • group problem-solving tasks;
  • team writing assignments, so that a group can submit a cooperatively-authored document
  • reciprocal teaching, in which students act as teachers to lead discussion, summarize material, ask questions, and clarify material. 

When you plan collaborative learning activities, think carefully about the goals of the activity, to make sure that there is sufficient 'depth' for each group member to have meaningful input.

Try to shape the activity to allow for various group personalities (such as the creative contributers, finishers, etc) each to have the opportunity to shine. Note that you will need to work out how to fairly assign marks to the final product. The self and peer assessment strategy, in which students assess each others' contributions using a list of criteria, may help here, especially if the students have been involved in establishing the criteria used. 

Remember that most students won't automatically know how to work together productively in groups, and some of them might be reluctant initially. They need to be taught the skills they need to maintain a 'positive inter-dependence', in which each student depends on the others for success, while maintaining individual accountability.

Setting up the groups must also be done carefully - groups that are randomly assigned don't alway succeed. Pay attention to social skills and group processing.

A number of collaborative teaching spaces have been set up throughout the UniSA campuses, in which the physical layouts and technical sharing functions have been especially created to optimise group work and collaborative learning. At the City East campus, there are two Collaborative Teaching Spaces: in the library, in room C4-08, and room C6-26. You can see an image of room C4-08 below. 

Collaborative Teaching Space


Putting it into practice: Examples of successful collaborative learning in Health Sciences

Collaborative learning in the health sciences can be used in the context of student placement. Groups can be arranged for students to come together to reflect on, and find possible solutions to, any issues that arise on their placement.

The teacher should act as a facilitator if only to encourage all students to find their voice and ensure that the potential solutions that arise are acceptable solutions for the problems faced. Students should collectively problem-solve, drawing on their own experiences, learning and understanding to create better outcomes. 

(Adapted from: Myron, R, French, C, Sullivan, P, Sathyamoorthy, G, Barlow, J & Pomeroy, L 2018, 'Professionals learning together with patients: An exploratory study of a collaborative learning Fellowship programme for healthcare improvement', Journal of Inter-professional Care, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 257-265.)

Another example of cooperative learning is adopting a team approach to learning a particular concept. The concept could be broken down in to sections whereby each member of the team needs to learn and become the ‘expert’ of a particular section.

The ‘expert’, once mastering the content, needs to identify an effective way to engage and instruct the group, so they too can become ‘experts’. This strategy requires the student to teach others, an active learning strategy that achieves higher information retention rates than more passive learning strategies.

(Adapted from: Cinelli, B, Symons, C, Bechtel, L & Rosecolley, M 1994, 'Applying cooperative learning in health-education practice’, Journal Of School Health, vol. 64, no. 3, pp. 99-102.)


Interesting resources

Sydney University: Self and Peer Assessment

A team-based learning guide for students in health professions education

Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching

Tolsgaard, MG 2016, 'Collaborative learning of clinical skills in health professions education: the why, how, when and for whom' Medical Education vol. 50(1), pp. 69-78.