Learning Activities

23 Collaborative Learning

Alexandra Bitton-Bailey

What is Collaborative Learning? | Teamwork | Activities That Focus on Students as Learners | Activities That Introduce Course Content | Orient Students to Collaborative Learning | Forming Groups | References

What is Collaborative Learning?


“Collaborative learning is two or more students laboring together and sharing the workload equitably as they progress towards intended learning outcomes. In addition, collaborative learning has three key design elements: intentional design, collaborating, and meaningful learning” (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2014).

Collaborative learning can occur in peer to peer settings or in larger groups. It helps students correct misunderstandings and clarifies misunderstandings through their joint efforts. Collaborative learning has many benefits which include:

  • Developing higher-level thinking, communication skills, and leadership skills
  • Promoting interaction
  • Actively engaging students in the learning process
  • Promoting participation and learning
  • Increasing exposure to diverse perspectives
  • Providing group members with a shared undertaking
  • Increasing student retention, self-esteem, accountability, and success (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2014)

However, collaborative learning presents some challenges. The greatest of which is that students often do not like group or collaborative work based on their previous experiences. If collaborative learning experiences are not planned and designed carefully, then students feel like the bulk of the work is done by a few (including themselves). Students don’t always see the value in the group work and consider it busy work with vague and confusing expectations. A few considerations to keep in mind to create valuable collaborative learning experiences that students enjoy and benefit from:

Intentional Empowerment

Careful planning should be part of developing a collaborative learning environment. In doing so there should be an intentional effort in making sure that all students and perspectives are respected. Students should be comfortable sharing, knowing that there is “a no-tolerance policy for bullying, establishing clear classroom expectations, and celebrating introverts’ strengths through verbal encouragement and consistent feedback will encourage even the most soft-spoken students to collaborate” (Burns, 2016).

Complex Learning Activities

The real reason to collaborate is that the task is complex—it is too difficult and has too many pieces to complete alone. Complex activities are challenging, engaging, stimulating, and multilayered. Complex activities require “positive interdependence” (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2008).

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Make working in teams or groups a course learning objective showing the students the value of learning this skill. Sometimes students are unsure how collaboration contributes to learning. Explain to students the benefits of collaboration and what successful collaboration looks like. Plan to orient your students to their teammates, the assignment, and dedicate time to practice working in teams. It begins with identifying the learning tasks and prompts and then selecting and structuring a collaborative learning technique that fits the needs of the students.

Introduce and orient students to the activity early in the semester and provide clear directions and expectations. Give groups a chance to orient to each other as well. One recommended approach is to have groups develop a set of ground rules for participation, contributions, and decision making.

Scaffold the activity and include incremental deadlines, planning carefully for each stage of the group work. Explain to students how group work will operate and how they will be evaluated. Provide students with directions and expectations on self- and peer-assessment. Include rubrics and opportunities for students to practice giving feedback.

Three steps for short in-class collaborative activities:

  1. Introduce the task
  2. Provide ample time to engage in the task
  3. Debrief the activity and ask students to report back

Five steps for larger group projects to ensure productive collaborative learning:

  1. Give students a chance to connect with peers in their group. Team quizzes, group resumes, and icebreakers are all good orienting group activities.
  2. Encourage students to develop a plan for how they will work together and communicate with each other.
  3. Have students create a set of ground rules that outlines how they will work together and what actions they should take if groups members do not meet expectations.
  4. Assign roles to group members that reflect the roles students would have in their respective fields.
  5. Evaluate not only the product students develop but also the process of collaborative work, and allow students to give regular feedback on the quantity and quality of each other’s work. Provide opportunities for regular check-ins and feedback.
Tip: To help students orient to each other and to collaborative learning, consider using ice breakers that are social in nature. For a group to work well together they should have a sense of trust which comes from knowing their teammates.

Social Icebreakers

Just as instructors who learn their students’ names show their students that they value them as individuals, instructors who help students get to know each other and form a community in which they identify shared interests and experiences, as well as intriguing differences, help students see the importance of knowing each other (Barklay, Cross, & Major, 2014).


Create a handout, Canvas quiz, or discussion with a few questions:

  • What is your name?
  • What is your academic major?
  • How long have you been a student here?
  • Why are you taking this class?
  • Do you know what you plan to do when you finish school?

Form pairs or small groups and ask students to alternate interviewing each other (Barklay, Cross, & Major, 2016).).

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Activities That Focus on Students as Learners

Not many students have dedicated time and energy to figuring out how they learn best. Helping students become more self-aware of their own learning can help them better understand what makes them more effective learners, how they prefer to learn, and how they learn in relation to others.

Focused Autobiographical Sketches

Ask students to each write a one- or two-page autobiographical sketch focused on a successful (or unsuccessful) past learning experience that is relevant to learning in the current course. This provides information about the students’ self-concepts and self-awareness as learners within a specific field (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Pair students to share and discuss their responses before submitting the sketches.

Goal Ranking and Matching

In small groups have students identify the goals they have for the course ad their studies. Instruct them to rank the goals individually and then discuss their individual rankings within the groups and what might help them best achieve their goals.

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Activities That Introduce Course Content

Collaborative activities can be used to introduce students to the course content, thus helping them get to know each other as they also learn the subject matter. These activities can help students identify useful prior knowledge and clarify learning gaps (Barklay, Cross, & Major, 2016).).

Problem Posting

Using a Think-Pair-Share model or a Round Robin activity, have learners identify problems and questions they think the course should address and answer (or, e.g., topics, questions, issues, information). This can be done in online group discussions or in a face-to-face setting. After groups complete the discussions together, have them report out in a follow-up whole-class discussion. Alternatively, the group recorder could share a summary of the discussion in Canvas. Use their responses to reinforce or clarify course goals and content. Consider augmenting planned course content to include modules or activities on student-generated ideas if their suggestions seem appropriate (McKeachie, 1994).

Course Concept Mapping

Give student groups a list of terms and concepts related to the course and have the groups work together to create a concept map sorting and connecting the course content. This can also be done online asynchronously or synchronously using a Google drawing or mind map maker.

For information on how to do this, see:

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Orient Students to Collaborative Learning

In collaborative learning, students, like teachers, have new and different responsibilities from what they may be accustomed to in traditional education. To help ensure a quality experience that promotes learning, learners should be oriented to what collaborative learning really is, how it works, and how it can benefit them. The activities listed below can help students become better acquainted with collaborative work.

Ground Rules

Establish ground rules for discussions and group work with your students using suggestions in Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-stakes Topics (University of Michigan. [2021]). Students work together to develop and implement group rules and expectations. When they help create rules, they are more likely to follow them and hold others accountable for breaking the established guidelines.

Group Resume

Have learner groups create a collective resume of the diverse talents, skills, and previous knowledge of the members of their group. This helps to highlight the rich diversity of skills that the whole group brings to the table and identify ways in which each member can contribute.

Individual Versus Group Quiz

Have students take an individual quiz that is particularly challenging due to its breadth and depth of content. Then have students take the same quiz with their team. Allow them to compare scores and answers they found individually and with their group.

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Forming Groups

In collaborative learning or group work, there are three types of groups: formal, informal, and base. Informal groups are quickly formed most often for short-term, in-class activities. Formal groups are developed to achieve more complex learning goals. The goal of a formal group is generally to achieve a specific task such as a group project or paper. Finally, base groups are long-term working groups that attend to a variety of tasks. These groups stay together for a semester or academic year and function much like a learning community that offers both support and encouragement as they work towards shared goals (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991; Matthews, Smith, MacGregor, & Gabelnick, 1997; Tinto, Love, & Russo, 1994).

Group size depends on several factors—including goals and aspects of different collaborative learning techniques. However, Farland, Sicat, Franks, Pater, Medina, and Persky (2013) recommends groups of 4–7 individuals. Smaller groups are limited in the work and perspectives available if all group members do not show up.

Selecting Group Members

Groups can be formed using any of the following methods:

Random Grouping

This method is most useful with informal groups.

  • Using Canvas: randomly assign students to groups
  • Freeform: in a face-to-face setting, divide groups based on students’ physical proximity in the class
  • Odd-even or count off: numerically devising group formation
  • Jigsaw matchups: give students images and have them identify those who received the same images to form a group. You can do the same using a piece of a well-known text
  • Student selection: allow students to form their own groups

Instructor Determined

This method is best used for formal or base groups.

  • Show of hands: Have students raise their hands to respond to a series of questions. and assign groups based on their responses. This can also be done in Zoom as well!
  • Student sign-up: Give students some agency by allowing them to select from areas of interest. Form groups based on expressed preferences.
  • Single-statement Likert Scale rating: Prepare a statement that encapsulates an important or controversial issue in the field on which attitudes and opinions will vary. Ask students to select from a five-point Likert scale the number that best describes their positions (1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly disagree). Form groups based on the numbers they chose (from Collaborative Learning Techniques a Handbook for Faculty, 2016).
  • Data sheet: Develop a data sheet that can be passed out with the syllabus or incorporated into Canvas to gather information about the students (demographics, interests, strengths, majors, etc.…) use the data collected to form groups.

Group Roles

In smaller groups (e.g. 4–5), students have less opportunity to avoid participating, and in essence, hide while still benefiting from enough divergent points of view. Assign roles or specific tasks that help ensure a high degree of individual accountability. Try to design activities that will allow you to create roles that resemble the roles in the professional environment. In addition, plan to evaluate both the product teams develop and the process of working in teams.

Common roles include:

  • Facilitator
  • Recorder
  • Reporter
  • Timekeeper
  • Materials Manager
  • Wildcard

Decision-Making Techniques

An important aspect of group work is decision making. Groups must agree or decide how to come to an agreement on the direction their collective work will take.

It is a good idea to have groups think about decision making while they are establishing their ground rules. Some common decision-making methods include:

  • Authority — an identified leader has the final say
  • Majority — a pre-selected majority come to the decision
  • Negative minority – group votes to eliminate the most unpopular idea and repeats the process until only one idea remains
  • Consensus — negotiations take place until all come to an agreement
  • Criteria — group identifies criteria prior to making any decisions
  • Compromise — combine solutions and perspective to arrive at an agreeable end

Reporting Back and Frequent Discussions

Rich discussions that connect students with the experiences of others, that engage them deeply in a shared intellectual experience, and that promote coming to consensus are essential to collaboration (Burns, 2016). Reporting the results of their collaborative work gives students an opportunity for closure. This can be done through gallery walks, presentations, poster sessions, or symposiums. Try to identify and use a means of reporting out that most resembles how this happens in your field. For more ideas for reporting back, activities see the Collaborative Learning Techniques Handbook for Faculty.

Grading and Evaluating Group Work

When evaluating group work it is important to evaluate both the product (knowledge and skills acquired in a course) and the process (team communication, management, and citizenship).

In addition, group work can be evaluated individually, as a whole, or a blend of the two. A blended evaluation will look at the individual students’ contributions to the work as well as the sum of the collective group effort. Including multiple opportunities for peer and instructor feedback is essential when evaluating group work. Give students a rubric by which to evaluate the contributions and participation of their teammates. This gives everyone an opportunity to make changes and improve during the semester.

Sample Peer Evaluation Form :

Collaborative Techniques Examples

Do not reinvent the wheel! Loads of great collaborative learning techniques are available to use in your classes. You can check out some of our favorites which include:

Jigsaw: In Jigsaws, students work in small groups to develop knowledge about a given topic before teaching what they have learned to another group. View a diversity-focused jigsaw activity designed for teachers.

Fishbowl: In Fishbowls, students form concentric circles with a small group inside and a larger group outside. Students in the inner circle engage in an in-depth discussion, while students in the outer circle listen and critique content, logic, and group interaction.

Class Book: For a Class Book, individual students work together to plan and ultimately submit a scholarly essay or research paper. Then all students’ papers are published together.

Three-Step Interview:

  1. Place students into groups of three.
  2. Assign each student a role: Interviewer, Interviewee, Note-taker.
  3. Rotate roles after each interview.
  4. Have students take turns sharing the information that they recorded when they were the note-taker.

Group Grid: In a Group Grid, group members are given pieces of information and asked to place them in the blank cells of a grid according to category rubrics, which helps them clarify conceptual categories and develop sorting skills.

Team Anthology: Have students work together to create an anthology based on a given topic within the content of the course

Case Studies: With Case Studies, student teams review a real-life problem scenario in depth. Team members apply course concepts to identify and evaluate alternative approaches to solving the problem.

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UF Instructor Guide Copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Bitton-Bailey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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