Collaborative learning can promote interaction between learners and deliver significant learning gains.

Collaborative learning encompasses activities ranging from classroom discussions to problem-solving in groups to working in teams throughout a semester. Tasks involving collaboration can be tightly structured or more spontaneous, based on students' questions and ideas. The goal of collaborative learning can be to either produce a clearly delineated product or drive participation in creating shared knowledge.

Collaborative learning can include experiential, problem-centred, and student-centred instruction. It is based on the premise that teachers need to “create a context where learners can discover on their own and successfully reconstruct their understanding of the world around them” (Macgregor, 1990, p. 21). Collaborative learning builds on the theory that students need to work actively with new information or skills to integrate this knowledge with their existing understanding.

These approaches can motivate and engage students leading to better course outcomes (Smith & Macgregor, 1992, Zambrano et al., 2019b).

If you need guidance on collaborative learning assessment, go to the Assessing teams and groups page.

Best practice

Facilitating collaborative learning involves creating the contexts, tasks and support students need to learn and work together effectively. In many situations, students need support to learn how to work effectively in a team.

The following are some examples of collaborative learning.

Problem-centred instruction

  • Guided inquiries. In Guided Inquiry Learning (GIL), you develop a goal and a process for students to follow. Students are then expected to work collaboratively through scaffolded inquiry to complete the task. Within this scaffolding, you might provide students with a process that includes problem identification, hypothesis formulation, experiments, discussion, conclusions and peer-to-peer communication.
  • Case studies. To use a case study approach, identify a scenario for students to investigate, which should be challenging and complex enough to yield multiple solutions. Then, provide context in the form of additional resources or information for students to work through collaboratively. Make sure to structure this group work and outline expectations and a process for sharing products or solutions. You might also provide key information to students in advance to prepare for the case and use collaborative time effectively.
  • Simulations. Simulations allow students to enact or demonstrate what they have learned. To design an effective simulation, provide students with a situation based on real-world practices problems. You might add time constraints or have students collaborate in uncertain conditions and/or with incomplete information to challenge their critical thinking and knowledge application. Consider assigning roles to students to scaffold the simulation experience further.

With the above approaches, it is important to follow up with a debrief or discussion. You might also choose to include check-in times during the activity when students can share their learning, reflections and engage with feedback.

Group writing

Group writing or writing in collaboration can help students understand their audience and how to communicate in academic discourse. You may need to provide students with a framework to manage conflict, to include quiet or unassertive students, or to produce work with consistency in style.

A few ways you might structure collaborative writing groups include:

  • assigning a group writing task with assigned sections or roles (less collaborative)
  • assigning a group writing task with no assigned sections or roles – students determine contributions (more collaborative)
  • assigning individual writing tasks with structured peer review.

Peer teaching and learning

Peer teaching can be particularly helpful for students to consolidate their learning. Through the practice of teaching others, students can define their knowledge and actively fill in gaps to develop new conceptual frameworks. Peer teaching and learning might happen in formal or informal ways, through structured activities or less defined discussions around content. When conducting a peer teaching activity, it may be helpful to provide students with instructions or written prompts for teaching, asking questions, and giving feedback.

Some examples of peer teaching activities include:

  • role-plays
  • reciprocal peer teaching (taking turns to explain things to each other)
  • teaching peers through case study presentations or article summaries
  • problem-based learning scenarios.

Discussion groups or tutorials

Effectively structuring collaborative group discussions can be a challenge. It is essential to model effective group discussions and provide students with a framework or strategies for how to be successful.

  • You should always begin with an icebreaker or introduction activity to help create an inclusive environment.
  • Encourage students to be constructive and positive and to establish ground rules within their discussion groups.
  • Once groups appear to be collaborating effectively in a discussion, remember to step back and help participants become independent learners.
  • Debrief discussions by asking follow-up questions, by asking students to share interesting points, or by asking students to write key comments on a whiteboard.
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Technology considerations

Centrally-supported tools

  • The Group Peer Assessment Tool (GPAT) allows you to collect student responses on the contribution of individual group members and calculate average scores. It can be used to encourage participation in group work.
  • Microsoft Teams is an online collaboration platform that enables staff and students to co-author documents, have both individual and group chats, schedule meetings, and use audio or video communication features.
  • Discussion boards offer a place where Course Coordinators and students can post discussion items and reply to each others' posts. A discussion board can be used for short 'question-and-answer-style' collaboration between students.
  • PadletUQ can be used as an in-class active learning tool to gain immediate feedback from students, facilitate discussion, or as an online activity to check students' understanding of content and identify student misconceptions.

View more active learning tools

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Assessment case studies

Case study 1 – Collaborative learning in plant science

Professor Susanne Schmidt

Collaborative learning is used in small group and whole-class discussion, mind mapping, individual reflection and readings beyond the classroom that culminate in a collaborative 300-word synthesis (‘pitch’) using Google docs.

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Case study 2 – Technology showcase

Dr Greg Dickson

The assessment task is delivered as a class showcase so that students are able to learn collaboratively and become familiar with numerous technologies beyond the one they are assigned to.

Read more

View more case studies (UQ Assessment Ideas Factory)

Guidance on assessing teams and groups

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References and further reading

Johnson, David W. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89(1), 47–62.

Macgregor, Jean. (1990). Collaborative learning: Shared inquiry as a process of reform. New Directions for Teaching and Learning,  1990(42), 19–30.

Slavin, Robert E. (1983). When does cooperative learning increase student achievement? Psychological Bulletin, 94(3), 429–445.

Smith, Barbara, MacGregor, Jean. (1992). What is Collaborative Learning? In A. S. Goodsell, Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education (p.p 10-30). University Park, PA:  National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

Zambrano, Jimmy, Kirschner, Femke, Sweller, John, & Kirschner, Paul A. (2019a). Effects of group experience and information distribution on collaborative learning. Instructional Science, 47(5), 531–550.

Zambrano, Jimmy, Kirschner, Femke, Sweller, John, & Kirschner, Paul A. (2019b). Effects of prior knowledge on collaborative and individual learning. Learning and Instruction, 63, 101214.

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