What is it?
A collaborative (or cooperative) learning approach involve students 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. Students 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 it as a separate topic.
How effective is it?
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 students 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.
There remain a fairly limited number of published studies on collaborative learning in Australian and New Zealand contexts. A meta-analysis on the topic is yet to be published. The few studies that have been published indicate that collaborative learning is an effective way of engaging students in learning, as long as it is well structured and well communicated.
A 2014 review article about cooperative learning was conducted by academics at the University of Queensland. The article found that cooperative learning was most likely to be effective when groups included four or fewer students with mixed prior achievement, and when students worked on tasks that required them to cooperate.
How secure is the evidence?
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.
What are the costs?
The direct costs involved are very low, though professional development is advisable and associated with higher impact. Estimated costs for a class of 25 students are about $1,000 or $40 per student per year, including the costs of monitoring and evaluating impact of adopting the approach. Overall, the costs are estimated as very low.
What should I consider?
Students 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 students will try to work on their own.
Competition between groups can be used to support students 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 students 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?