DoingCL - Starting Out





Starting Out

The success of collaborative learning activities depends greatly on planning.

A visitor with a traditional teaching background who observes a course with collaborative learning groups in progress may think that the classroom is chaotic. In fact, upon a closer look, the observer will see that there is a great deal of structure incorporated into the collaborative learning activity.

In the traditional lecture setting, the authority, control, and course structures are well defined. Collaborative learning techniques not only changes the teaching and learning styles, but also the authority and control structure. Group activities do not imply no structure (i.e., chaos) but rather a different structure.

Several issues need to be considered when deciding to incorporate collaborative learning. First, to what extent will group activities be embodied in the re-designed course? There are several factors to consider (Miller, et al., 1996):

  • Is this the first time teaching this course?
  • Is the instructor experienced with collaborative learning activities?
  • Is the instructor a risk-taker or risk-averted?
  • What is the instructor's comfort level with trying new things?
  • What is the instructor's style?
In general, if the instructor is new to the course or to collaborative learning, it is prudent to change only part of the course. This may involve replacing a component of the course with an entirely new piece that uses small group work or it may involve retaining but enhancing a component of the course. This cautionary approach is echoed by many advocates of collaborative teaching methodologies (Miller, et al., 1996; Millis and Cottell, 1998; Bonwell and Eison, 1991). If the instructor does not feel comfortable with collaborative learning approaches or is risk-averse, it may be prudent to incorporate only one collaborative learning activity into the course.

Second, other issues need to be reviewed when adding collaborative learning activities to the course (Miller, et al., 1996). For instance,

  • The number of students in the course.
  • The demographics of the students (freshmen or upperclassmen).
  • Whether the students are majors or nonmajors.
  • The students' group learning experience level.
Finally, it is important that the course objectives and its structure harmonize. What knowledge and skills do you want your students to achieve in taking your course? You may wish to browse the Teaching Goals Inventory (TGI) by Angelo and Cross (1993) for a self-assessment of instructional goals. Collaborative Learning has been shown to be effective in increasing students' academic achievement as well as in gaining teamwork skills.

In general, with new academic tasks (involving groups or not), it is advised that instructors

  • explain the task clearly to the students
  • explain the objectives and relate it to prior knowledge
  • explain the concepts and procedures needed and present examples if needed, and
  • query the students for a general understanding
(Johnson, et al., 1998).

In addition, especially with newer groups or students inexperienced with group work, the instructor usually needs to review group structure, group roles, and social skills needed for the task.

Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers, 2nd edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Boss.

Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J. A. (1991). "Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1)." Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Miller, J. E., Groccia, J. E., and Wilkes, J. M. (1996). "Providing structure: The critical element" In Sutherland, T. E., and Bonwell, C. C. (Eds.), Using active learning in college classes: A range of options for faculty, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 67.

Millis, B. J., and Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty, American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education. The Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ.

Doing CL
More Info