Active and Collaborative Learning

Active and Collaborative Learning

Students working in small groups.Students working independently are capable of learning deeply, and it is likely that those of us who teach undergraduate students are well suited to this sort of intellectual method. Nevertheless, structuring learning so that students are required to respond to one another’s ideas, create a product together, and, more to the point, teach each other, can be an effective teaching strategy. Collaborative or cooperative learning (or, on occasion, “group work”) has stimulated significant literature. Here are three definitions:

“‘Collaborative learning’ is an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together” [Smith, B. L. & MacGregor, J. T. (1992). What Is Collaborative Learning. In Goodsell, A. S. (Ed.), Collaborative Learning: a sourcebook for higher education. University Park, PA: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.:]

“Cooperative learning is an educational approach that promotes interaction among students and shared responsibility for academic achievement” [Stein, R. & Hurd, S. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom. Bolton MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.:]

“Cooperative Learning procedures are designed to engage students actively in the learning process through inquiry and discussion with their peers in small groups” [Davidson, N. & Worsham, T. (1992). Enhancing Thinking through Cooperative Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.]

As you teach, bear in mind a few characteristics of the academic community. Advocates of collaborative learning regularly appeal to the importance of collaboration in the “business world,” reminding students of the ways offices, businesses, and even large corporations thrive on the projects developed and produced by teams. We in the academic community often work in isolation, but our disciplines are the product of many types of collaboration, including peer-review, grantsmanship, appointment, promotion, and tenure. We engage with our peers in matters of scholarship almost daily, and so it makes a degree of sense to craft a pedagogy that allows students the opportunity to act as a similarly motivated group. Collaborative learning, when planned well, structures effective communication between peers, peer evaluation, problem-solving, and the possibility that students will begin to teach each other.

The following examples are among the most well-known types of collaborative learning.


  • Give students a discussion prompt, question, short problem, or issue to consider.
  • Individuals work briefly on a response.
  • Peers report their responses to each other in pairs.
  • Some (or all) pairs summarize their discussion for the large group.

Think-pair-share is a low-stakes, low-effort strategy for active learning and abbreviated collaboration. Students must work independently, communicate their ideas to peers, consider peer responses, and share that discussion in a way that begins to synthesize an exchange. While it is unlikely that all pairs in a class will have the opportunity for the last step, calling on random pairs means that most should be prepared. Think-pair-share requires that students act, instead of passively listening.

Problem-based learning (or PBL) introduces a specific problem to students, usually in groups, over an extended period, and requires that they understand the problem and begin to propose a response or solution. PBL begins to approximate the sort of work scholars do (think of the “problem” as a sort of research question), as well as the way students may need to approach problems in their lives after higher education.

Guided Design, a type of PBL, leads students through steps as they work on a problem. So, for instance, groups might do preliminary research and report back simultaneously, identify stakeholders and report back simultaneously, propose compromises and report back simultaneously, etc. For more information about PBL visit the University of Delaware’s Problem-Based Learning Site at and come to talk to us at the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center.

Case studies provide students with sample problems from experience. So, for instance, students in microbiology might propose a response to a waterborne viral outbreak. Find more examples for the sciences and humanities at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science

Simulations ask students to adopt roles as they perform the work of a problem-solving group. Students of government and politics, for example, might take on the roles of business owners, city council members, and neighborhood advocates in a zoning dispute.

Peer teaching is a very effective means for both the student teacher and student learner to learn new concepts or reinforce concepts with which they are familiar. One example of peer teaching is tutoring, which means guiding the learning of a newer student. This can be as informal as a brief discussion in which a student explains a concept or clarifies a misunderstanding. Supplemental instruction is the extended guidance students receive over an entire course from a secondary source (e.g., a tutor). Presentations ask students to communicate course material to their peers effectively. This requires more than restating content or paraphrasing the day’s readings.

Small group discussion offers students the chance to interact with peers, to listen, and to teach. Effective small group discussion is guided by clear directions and asks students to share a product (a summary of discussion, a consensus view with minority report, or even a critique of the discussion prompt).

Peer editing guides students as they review each others’ drafts of written work. This foundation of the craft of academic writing serves to teach both editor (who must learn to read critically and communicate criticism) and writer (who must learn to consume, evaluate, and incorporate feedback). When requiring peer editing, articulate clear expectations, instead of simply asking students to read and evaluate writing (e.g., have them identify a thesis statement and assess the strength of the writer’s evidence).

The jigsaw strategy breaks problems into small parts and assigns parts to groups who report back, contributing a piece of the puzzle’s solution. For example, each student in a group might be assigned a distinct article to read on a shared topic or issue; each would present that article to the group in preparation for a synthesis of all articles.

While there is of course some resistance to collaborative learning (think, for example, of your own experiences carrying the weight of the group whose participants may have not all contributed equitably), when planned carefully it helps to satisfy a number of goals. It requires active learning, in which students must engage with course material in ways lecturing alone cannot support. It takes advantage of the notion that teaching is learning and provides a structure for peer teaching. It supports multiple learning styles by adopting a heterogeneous approach (some students write, some discuss, some edit, some listen and synthesize, some move around to gather findings from different peers, etc). Finally, by simply unsettling what students are often used to (e.g., extended lectures with little or no contribution from inactive students), collaborative learning reminds students that learning requires more than listening, and that reminder may be an early step toward metacognition, the practice of thinking about (and recognizing) how we learn.

As you develop collaborative approaches, bear in mind the following:

  • Do not simply put students in groups with vague directions to discuss a topic. Instead, focus the discussions with a question or topical conflict.
  • Organize groups with a purpose. Have a learning objective in mind: Would it make more sense to assign groups randomly, to allow peers to organize themselves into groups, to place students together with those whose performance has been similar? There are rationales for each of the preceding; just be sure your strategy is not arbitrary.
  • Always require a product of groups’ work, even if it is as informal as a brief summary of their discussion. Accountability will motivate students put in their full effort and the product will serve as a means of assessing their understanding.
  • Consider ways for assigning roles, but resist appointing a “leader,” upon whom more responsibility will fall than his or her peers. Instead, think about roles that share work (e.g., facilitator, recording secretary, spokesperson).
  • For long-term collaborative projects, require regular interim reports.
  • Be attentive to student schedules. If requiring regular collaboration that demands face-to-face meetings, allow those meetings to take place during class.
  • As with any method, be wary of overuse. If each class meeting relies on group work learning may be no more lasting than if each class relied exclusively on uninterrupted lectures.
  • Always prepare and distribute a grading rubric for collaborative projects that will be graded.

Resources: The TLTC maintains a library which includes several works on collaborative learning. Consider reviewing one or more of the following:

  • Cuseo, J.B. (1996). Cooperative Learning: A Pedagogy for Addressing Contemporary Challenges & Critical Issues in Higher Education Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. 
  • Davidson, N. & Worsham, T. (Eds.). (1992). Enhancing Thinking through Cooperative Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Stein, R. F. & Hurd, S. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company Inc.