As educators think through various active learning strategies that engage learners in fostering meaningful learning experiences, many turn to peer-based learning techniques, also known as collaborative or cooperative learning. Collaborative learning derives from the constructivist framework where learners “construct” or build knowledge by connecting concepts with existing knowledge. Infusing learning using collaborative framework enables learners to complete tasks, solve problems, or create products, reaping collective benefits (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Strategies range from one-time activities such as "jigsaw" discussions to ongoing processes such as formalized team-based learning. Small group discussions can take many forms such as buzz groups, teams (i.e., team-based learning), and panel discussions (a discussion among group members presented in front of the class, followed by participation from classmates who first served as the audience).
Small group or class discussion provides an opportunity for members of the learning community to exchange ideas, their experiences, and knowledge openly. With any type of discussion, it is important for learners to feel they are in a “safe space” to speak without judgment or retribution. Learners also benefit from knowing the educator’s expectations for the discussion, the specific topic of discussion, and receiving positive feedback for their contributions to the discussion. Therefore, before engaging in any form of collaborative learning, it is important to establish boundaries or ground rules to ensure a collegial, rigorous dialogue (refer to resources under Apply).
Discussion works best when there is no clear and absolute “correct” answer; therefore open-ended questions that do not result in a yes/no answer are recommended. It is important not to “panic” if there is silence. It is advised to acknowledge the silence, inquire about reasons for the silence, and based on the answers received, either continue with the discussion or move forward with a new activity (at least for the moment).
Below are some possible types of group configurations that enable the best of peer-assisted learning:
“Buzz” Groups. A large group of learners is subdivided into smaller groups of 4–5 learners to consider the issues surrounding a problem. After about 20 minutes of discussion, one member of each sub-group presents the findings of the sub-group to the whole group.
Affinity Groups. Groups of 4–5 learners are each assigned tasks to work on outside of formal contact time. At the next formal meeting with the educator, the sub-group, or a group representative, presents the sub-group’s findings to the whole class.
Solution and Critic Groups. One sub-group is assigned a discussion topic, and the other groups constitute ‘critics’ who observe, offer comments, and evaluate the sub-group’s presentation.
Teach-Write-Discuss. At the end of a unit of instruction, learners must answer short questions and justify their answers. After working on the questions individually, learners compare their answers with each other. A whole-class discussion subsequently ensues examining the array of answers presented” (Christudason, 2003, p. 1).
Collaborative learning can be built into any class, regardless of modality. For online courses, providing links to free online meeting platforms such as Google Hangout, Skype, GoToMeeting, etc. Meaningful learning occurs in socially constructed environments where learners feel connected with their peers and educators. Such a connection fosters trust and reduces a sense of isolation and increases social and cognitive development.
The Stanford Teaching Commons (n.d.) provides several strategies that require minimal preparation to foster engagement. A few considerations:
Case-Based. In case-based learning, the educator presents groups with a real-world problem to analyze, research, and solve.
Coached-Problem Solving. Similar to case-based coached problem-solving requires learners to solve a problem using newly learned concepts/content from the respective lesson.
Role-Play. Learners take on identities in scenarios constructed around scenarios and situations.
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