Small Groups for Collaborative Learning

 Uses for Collaborative Learning (Groups of 3 or more) to develop community and promote effective learning

Using ideas and quotations from
Barkley, Elizabeth, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major. Collaborative LearningTechniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,

 Purposes of all collaborative learning groups: “to engage students actively in their own learning and to do so in a supportive and challenging social context” (9).
Collaborative learning will promote five essential elements for students:

  1. Positive interdependence
  2. Promotive interaction (weird words to mean students help and support each other)
  3. Individual and group accountability
  4. Development of teamwork skills
  5. Group processing (evaluative) (8-9)

However, you may have questions!!

What is the most important and most common mistake teachers make in collaborative learning?

They under-prepare.  Collaborative learning is at least as much work as lecturing, if not more. 

  • Decide exactly what you want to happen in each group during the collaborative learning exercise.
  • Print out one copy of those instructions for every single student -- remember that some students learn visually!! 
  • Explain what you want orally.
  • Demonstrate what you want with a co-teacher or an experienced student.
  • Decide on the minimum time in which students might complete the task and stop them at that point, asking "Who needs more time? How much time?"
  • Build in an assessment aspect for each exercise/ task.
  • Leave time for de-briefing.
How often should I use collaborative learning?

The answer to this depends on the subject matter, the "character" of each class, and your own style. In a four or five-hour-per week class, doing a collaborative learning task about once a week enhances learning and keeps students engaged with the material. In a two-hour class, I recommend either a collaborative learning exercise or a pair project (see Pairs) every class. 
When students are working in a formal group for a larger, long-term project, give specific tasks to accomplish with the group several times during the week. Never, however, just say, "OK, now get together with your group and work on your project." This is the kiss of death.

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