Evidence for Learning: Collaborative learning approaches

Collaborative learning approaches

A summary of the research evidence on collaborative learning in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of collaborative learning on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on collaborative learning. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of collaborative learning interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Collaborative or cooperative learning can be defined as learning tasks or activities where students work together in a group small enough for everyone to participate on a collective task that has been clearly assigned. This can be either a joint task where group members do different aspects of the task but contribute to a common overall outcome, or a shared task where group members work together throughout the activity.

Some collaborative learning approaches also get 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, but this summary does not include Peer tutoring, which is reviewed separately.

There remains a fairly limited amount of published studies on collaborative learning in Australian and New Zealand contexts. The studies reviewed, the majority of which used qualitative or mixed methods approaches, collectively argue that it is an effective way of engaging students in learning. A meta-analysis on the topic is yet to be published. Collaborative learning is a broad term and can be construed in various ways. For example, one study focused on collaborative argumentation (Brown, 2009); another study looked at a collaborative movement technique (Shoval & Shulruf, 2012); yet, another study examined collaborative teaching and grouping students based on their learning levels (Martin & Williams, 2012).

A study examining discourse types used by seven high school teachers during cooperative learning found that teachers used a variety of mediated-learning behaviours (Gillies & Boyle, 2008). These included cognitive and metacognitive questioning, scaffolding and challenging perspectives, which were in turn used by students. Study participants also highlighted the importance of group structure, and effective group composition methods included randomly assigning students to groups, limiting group size to four members, and mixing ability levels so students can support one another (Gillies & Boyle, 2008).

A study examining the experiences of 24 students (Years 4, 6, 6/7, and 11) who had participated in collective argumentation in an Australian mathematics classroom found it to be worthwhile for students (Brown, 2009). In this case, collective argumentation comprised individual and group problem solving prior to sharing conclusions and justifications. Specifically, it enabled students to: effectively use the available mathematical skills and understanding in a learning situation; flexibly and openly use mathematics in individual and collaborative situations; appreciate the benefits of collaborative mathematics learning; clearly express themselves mathematically; find new ways of solving typical problems; and explore new notions of knowing and doing mathematics (Brown, 2009). While some students felt that collaborative argumentation was a waste of time, the study suggests it may be more beneficial in some subjects over others.

A study by Gillies and Boyle (2010) saw teachers incorporate cooperative learning into their classrooms for 4 – 6 weeks for two terms. Post interviews were conducted with teachers to identify facilitators and barriers. Teachers noted a positive change in student interaction and a general feeling of improved results. These included comments about children getting to know each other better, accepting group roles, learning to interact with each other, being willing to take some risks with their learning, and managing their time more effectively. Barriers to success included students spending time to socialise, unstructured tasks, and poor time management. Effective cooperative learning came from explaining and explicitly outlining tasks, assigning specific roles to each student, and explaining an effective group dynamic.

A New Zealand-based study by Shoval and Shulruf (2011) examined the teaching of geometry through a collaborative movement activity (n=158 students, from five second and third grade classes). Data were gathered through observation and pre- and post-activity written tests. Student personality types were assessed to gauge whether certain personality types benefitted more from the technique. Students were assigned changing roles within the group. A positive correlation was found for active’ students while a negative correlation was found for passive’ students. No associations were found for social’ students. The results indicate that collaborative movement activities may be effective in improving student achievement, but likely for more out-going students who prefer to take the lead (even if they are lower achievers).

In an experimental model of collaborative teaching and learning at a New Zealand intermediate school, 156 students worked in ability groups with different teachers depending on the school subject. A study using observation, questionnaires and interviews was conducted to explore the perceptions of staff, parents and students of the model (Martin & Williams, 2012). It was found that students became more confident, more independent and more involved with their learning. They felt positive about the collaborative structure, as it allowed them to work with students at a similar pace.

Brown, R. A. J. (2009). Students’ recollections of participating in collective argumentation when doing mathematics. Palmerston, New Zealand: Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia.

Gillies, R. M., & Boyle, M. (2008). Teachers’ discourse during cooperative learning and their perceptions of this pedagogical practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(5), 1333 – 1348.

Gillies, R. M., & Boyle, M. (2010). Teachers’ Reflections on Cooperative Learning: Issues of Implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(4), 933 – 940.

Martin, R., & Williams, J. (2012). I Feel I’m Important”: Successful Collaborative Teaching and Learning in a New Zealand Intermediate School.” RMLE Online: Research in Middle Level Education, 36(2).

Shoval, E., & Shulruf, B. (2011). Who Benefits from Cooperative Learning with Movement Activity? School Psychology International, 32(1), 58 – 72.

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Collaborative learning; schools; cooperative learning; middle-school; high school; Australia; New Zealand; group learning.