Evidence for Learning: Collaborative learning approaches

Collaborative learning approaches

High impact for very low cost based on limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

A collaborative (or cooperative) learning approach involves students working together on activities or learning tasks in a group small enough to ensure that everyone participates. Students in the group may work on separate tasks contributing to a common overall outcome, or work together on a shared task. This is distinct from unstructured group work.

Some collaborative learning approaches put mixed ability pairs, groups or teams together 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 many different kinds of organisation and tasks. Peer tutoring can also be considered as a type of collaborative learning, but is reviewed as a separate topic in the Toolkit.

1. Collaborative learning approaches have a positive impact, on average, and may be a cost-effective approach for raising achievement levels.

2. Students need support and practice to work together; it does not happen automatically. Professional development can support the effective management of collaborative learning activities.

3. Tasks and activities need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some students may struggle to participate or try to work on their own. It is important to ensure that all students talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks to ensure they benefit fully.

4. Competition between groups can be used to support students in working together more effectively. However, overemphasis on competition can cause students to focus on winning rather than succeeding in their learning.

5. The most promising collaborative learning approaches tend to have group sizes between 3 and 5 students and have a shared outcome or goal.

The impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive, with students making an additional 5 months’ progress, on average, over the course of an academic year. However, the size of impact varies, so it is important to get the detail right.

Collaborative learning can describe a large variety of approaches, but effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting students together and asking them to work in pairs or 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 students focusing on the competition rather than the learning it aims to support. Most of the positive approaches include the promotion of talk and interaction between students.

The evidence indicates that groups of 3 – 5 is most effective for collaborative learning approaches – there are smaller positive impacts for both paired work and collaborative learning activities with more than 5 students in a group. There is also some evidence that collaborative learning approaches are particularly promising when used to teach science. 

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 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.

  • The effects of collaborative learning are slightly higher in secondary schools (+6 months) than primary schools (+5 months).

  • The impact of collaborative learning is slightly lower in literacy (+3 months) than mathematics (+ 5 months) and science (+10 months).

  • Small groups of 3 – 5 students with responsibility for a joint outcome appears to be the most successful structure.

  • Studies that deliver collaborative learning through digital technology tend to have lower impact (+3 months overall).

There is limited evidence on differential impact for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is some evidence that collaborative learning approaches may benefit those with low prior achievement by providing opportunities for students to work with peers to articulate their thinking, share knowledge and skills and address misconceptions through peer support and discussion.

It is crucial that support is provided through well-structured and carefully designed learning activities to ensure that lower-achieving students are involved, challenged and learn successfully. If collaborative learning approaches just involve high achieving students solving problems with no input from their peers – this is likely to widen existing gaps in achievement.

There are many theories about how collaborative learning might benefit student outcomes. Through collaboration, students may develop explanation, demonstration, problem-solving, and metacognitive skills, or students may benefit from sharing the load of challenging tasks. It is important that schools ensure that within collaborative learning:

  • all students, particularly students with low prior achievement, are supported to fully participate
  • the make-up of pairings and groups is carefully considered
  • teachers promote good practice in collaboration – for example modelling high quality discussions so that collaborative activities are productive
  • teachers carefully monitor collaborative activities and support students that are struggling or not contributing.

There is a broad range of approaches to collaborative or cooperative learning involving different kinds of organisation and tasks 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. Professional development is likely to be required to maximise the effectiveness of approaches and monitor the impact of different approaches in the classroom.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

The average cost of collaborative learning is expected to be very low with the cost to schools largely based on teacher training and resources. As a classroom-based approach, implementing collaborative learning will also require a small amount of staff time for planning and monitoring, compared with other approaches. Ongoing training for teachers is advisable, with estimated costs of about $500 per teacher, or $20 per student per year for a class of 25 students.

Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider how to maximise the effectiveness of collaborative learning through teacher professional development to support the use of well-designed tasks and should carefully monitor the impact of approaches on lower-attaining students.

The security of the evidence around collaborative learning interventions is rated as low. 212 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The topic lost three padlocks because:

  • A small percentage of studies that have taken place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
  • A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
  • There is a large amount of unexplained variation between the results included in the topic. All reviews contain some variation in results, which is why it is important to look behind the average. Unexplained variation (or heterogeneity) reduces our certainty in the results in ways that we have been unable to test by looking at how context, methodology or approach is influencing impact.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies212
Review last updatedJuly 2021