Methodological approaches used in the course

Collaborative learning in tertiary studies

Graciela Sbertoli

Collaborative learning and its objectives

Collaborative learning is a method of instruction that basically involves grouping students to work together towards a common academic goal. The method is based on the theory that knowledge is a social construct, that educational experiences that involve interaction and social exchange, that are contextually relevant and engaging and are student-centered, lead to deeper learning.

Experts in collaborative learning1 claim that the active exchange of ideas within groups of students promotes critical thinking and there seems to be quite persuasive evidence that teams engaged in cooperative learning achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who work solely as individuals. This constructivistic view of learning, based on Vigotsky's theories2, states that learning occurs when students are actively involved in the construction of new mental representations, instead of assuming the role of empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Collaborative learning creates a role shift between learners and teachers. The responsibility for the process is placed on the learner, in the role of researcher of his/her field of study. By engaging in discussion and taking responsibility for their learning, students further develop their critical thinking.

No matter how homogeneous the student teams are, there is bound to be a certain divergence in the individual views of the problems at hand. Needing to come to a consensus to progress in their work, students will hopefully both argue, try to persuade, listen to others and be critical to their own views. Such processes promote the ultimate goal of real learning, which is to construct knowledge out of information. Through dialogue and critical examination of the different perspectives in the team, the learners become more knowledgeable, strategic thinkers, and develop entrepreneurial and social skills.

The promotion of processes involving analysis, synthesis and evaluation of concepts (the building blocks of true critical thinking) is furthered by collaborative learning which is interdisciplinary. The more heterogeneous the collaborative team is, the better the results. Some other concrete success criteria are the existence of clear scripts for the collaborative work, clear expectations, a well-defined product and a high degree of practical relevance of the product for the individual student.

The core elements of collaborative learning

Designing collaborative learning tasks is a discipline in itself. As many practitioners have pointed out, the benefits of collaborative learning do not happen automatically just because you put some students together to work in a group. The exact structure, script, length and objectives of the activity may vary, but there seems to be a consensus among experts that the five core elements expressed by Johnson, Johnson and Smith3 almost thirty years ago, are still the main success criteria, the critical elements that will ensure that cooperation actually happens.

These five elements are positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, and group processing.

  1. Positive interdependence

    Occurs when all members of the collaborative team are conscious of the fact that they share the same goals, that their individual learning depends on the help from other members, that working together is both individually and collectively beneficial and that both individual and collective success depends on the participation of all members of the team. If positive interdependence exists, students will learn to constantly encourage each other and facilitate each other’s work.

  2. Individual accountability

    Needs to be built into the design to ensure that each of the students is conscious of the fact that, even though the team is working towards a common goal, the individual effort of each member of the team will be observed and evaluated. If the design of the activity makes proper provision for the existence of this element, the participants will not need to fear the occurrence of the “social loafer” phenomenon mentioned in §4.

  3. Promotive interaction

    Depends on how the script for the collaborative activity has been designed. There are a number of learning processes that may be called collaborative but which will lack this element because, even though the final collective success does depend on all participants bringing in their efforts, the process does not involve negotiations and interaction but is more or less the addition of different elements. Any type of Problem Based Learning, PBL, will be conducive to promotive interaction, because the process is likely to include the need to negotiate, persuade, discuss and come to a general consensus on the solution.

  4. Social skills

    Social skills, or team-working skills, include effective communication, interpersonal and group skills. They are evidenced in the way each member of the group assumes or acknowledges leadership in a process, in the dynamic processes involved in decision-making, in the level of trust built within the group, in the level of efficiency of the group’s internal communication and in the level of success in conflict management. Johnson, Johnson and Holubec formulated an interesting distinction about the types of soft skills needed in collaborative learning4. Forming skills are needed to organize the group and establish minimum norms for appropriate behavior. Functioning skills are those goal oriented skills needed to manage the group’s activities so as to achieve a result. Formulating skills are needed to build deeper levels of understanding of the content being studied, to summarize reflection, and enhance the retention of the assigned material. Fermenting skills enable students to deal with cognitive conflict, compare information, negotiate, communicate the reasoning behind own conclusions, and ultimately facilitate the progress from information gathering to knowledge construction.

  5. Group processing

    Refers to the need to encourage group participants to repeatedly evaluate the group’s performance, to discuss what needs to be done differently in order to maximize the results. Even though this type of meta-level discussions may be perceived as a waste of time by some of the participants, it is important to communicate to the students that formative assessment, ie assessment of the process while there is still time to reverse processes and change structures, is an important element of their ultimate success.

Collaborative learning at tertiary level

Whether it is because of the mentioned reluctance among the students or because of a similar reluctance among university level teaching staff, who tend to impart knowledge in exactly the same way as they were exposed to in their student days5, the fact remains that collaborative learning is still a rara avis at tertiary level. Despite the fact that its positive results were shown already thirty years ago, it is only in very recent years that university staff have seriously become interested in this pedagogical approach.

Knowing that this method promotes critical thinking, deeper understanding and more permanent learning has of course been one of the reasons for this budding paradigm shift. The main and more pragmatic reason, however, is the need to train students in what has often been called "soft skills".

A fairly recent briefing note on Skill Mismatch from Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, reports on the results from the European Company Survey implemented in the spring of 2013. The note states that "some employers say they cannot fill vacancies because even highly-skilled candidates have the wrong skills. They claim education systems educate graduates of tomorrow in the skills needed in the industry yesterday. Many employers are concerned that applicants lack soft skills such as interpersonal communication and problem-solving abilities."6

The challenging current economic situation has made it particularly important for a new graduate to make sure that he/she can offer much more than excellent knowledge of a specific academic subject. Increasingly it is necessary for students to demonstrate other skills which may be even more important for their prospects of employment. Employability skills include: the retrieval and handling of information; communication and presentation; planning and problem solving; and social development and interaction.7

Johnny Rich, a media and higher education specialist in the UK, has argued that soft skills are the main ingredient in "graduateness", the level at which a tertiary level student becomes useful for his/her future work place. He therefore suggests8 that we need a system to express how a specific higher education course will contribute to the students' development of soft skills. For prospective students, he argues, this approach would "make explicit exactly how the course will improve their employability and which jobs they would be qualified to do. For employers, it would make it clear what each candidate has to offer."

This awareness of the importance of soft skills in tertiary education is currently permeating the tertiary sector, and its connection with collaborative learning is obvious. It is, however, not always so easy to engage the students’ approval of this approach. Despite the fact that many researchers into collaborative learning seem to agree that this approach enhances the motivation of students, it is obvious that tertiary level students are often reluctant to engage in what they tend to call "group work". Partly this is because they are not really familiar with well-designed collaborative tasks, but mostly it is because of their fear that the process will involve too much time and that it may cause the appearance of the type of participants often called "social loafers", ie, students who are part of the team but do not contribute, leaving all the work to be done by the more conscientious members of the group9 (see description of success criteria above).

Some university professors can be refreshingly pragmatic in their approach to this theme, as is the case of Richard M. Felder, Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University, who in his "Sermons for Grumpy Campers" meets all possible objections from the students to his favorite pedagogical approach, which is active, cooperative learning10. Prof Felder’s hypothetical answer to a student who complains about having to work in groups because “he doesn’t like it” is worth quoting here: “get that you’re unhappy and I’m sorry about it, but I’ve got to be honest with you: My job here is not to make you happy—it’s to prepare you to be a chemical engineer. Here’s what’s not going to happen in your first day on the job. They’re not going to say ‘Welcome to the company, Mr. Jones. Tell me how you like to work—by yourself or with other people?’ No. The first thing they’ll do is put you on a team, and your performance evaluation is likely to depend more on how well you can work with that team than on how well you solve differential equations and design piping systems. Since that’s a big part of what you’ll be doing there, my job is to teach you how to do it here, and that’s what I’ll be doing.”

A collaborative approach to interdisciplinary language learning

Because of its emphasis on interaction and communication, collaborative learning is especially indicated for linguistic studies. Language develops in contexts of functional use. Being able to express one's needs, wants, likes and dislikes, is the fundamental goal for any language learner. When the learning process involves acquiring a language in a professional context, these basic needs translate into explaining, arguing, objecting, reaffirming, and summing up decisions. All of these are language functions which foster the students' grasp of the language.

As previously mentioned, one of the success criteria for collaborative learning is the existence of clearly defined , relevant and motivating goals. When students engaging in a collaborative learning activity, which is expressly aimed at increasing both their linguistic competence and their general level of soft skills, are told that the end result of the exercise is a presentation in the target language at a final conference, all goals come together. Combining a collaborative learning approach in an interdisciplinary activity with linguistic training, soft skills enhancement, and the acquisition of concrete skills like making a good Power Point presentation, may be an ambitious goal, but this methodical approach has been proved to have the potential to be very successful and should indeed be further developed and multiplied.

  1. Totten, S., Sills, T., Digby, A., & Russ, P. (1991). Cooperative learning: A guide to research. New York: Garland
  2. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  3. Johnson, D., R., Johnson, and K. Smith, Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, 2nd ed., Interaction Book Co., Edina, MN, 1998..
  4. Johnson, D. W, Johnson, R. T, & Holubec, E.. The new circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom and school. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 1993
  5. L. A. van Dijk, G. C. van den Berg, and H. van Keulen, Using active instructional methods in lectures: A matter of skills and preferences, Innovations in Education and Training International, 36 (1999) pp. 260±272.
  6. "Skills mismatch: more than meets the eye", Briefing note, Cedefop, March 2014, ISSN 1831-2411
  7. Fallows, Stephen, and Steven, Christine. Building employability skills into the higher education curriculum: a university‐wide initiative. Education + Training 2000
  8. In «Threading employability into the tapestry of higher education», article published in Coiffait, L. (ed.) (2014) Blue Skies: New thinking about the future of higher education. A collection of short articles by leading commentators, UK 2014 edition. London: Pearson. See http://pearsonblueskies.com/2014/employability-in-higher-ed/
  9. Jones, Kyra (2013) "Discouraging Social Loafing During Team-Based Assessments," Teaching Innovation Projects: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 13.
  10. Felder, Ricard M., «Sermons for Grumpy Campers», article in the «Random Thoughts...» column of the journal Chamical Engineering Education. Quoted from http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Columns/Sermons.pdf


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