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Collaborative Learning

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 a 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, 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. 

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).
  • Think-Pair-Share. Think-Pair-Share gives students a question or prompt relating to a current topic to individually answer or think about. After working individually for a few minutes, students have time to find a partner and share their answers one-on-one. This sharing can then be expanded into a full-class discussion, drawing from what students discussed in their pairs.
  • Peer Review. Peer review has students provide feedback on other students’ drafts of essays or projects. This review gives students additional resources and helps to generate new ideas for revision. Peer review can be done in one-on-one or group settings, and students often receive a rubric, scoring sheet, or list of guided questions to ensure that their feedback is in keeping with the expectations of the assignment.
  • Fishbowl. The fishbowl strategy organizes a group of students (typically, it is a smaller group; if a bigger group is needed, it should be no more than half the class) in a circle in the center of the room. The rest of the class organizes in a loose circle around the inner circle. As students in the center engage in a group discussion, students on the outside listen and take notes. Instructors can establish other rules, like students being able to “tap another student out” to take their place in the circle.
  • Case-Based and Problem-Based. Case-based learning (CBL), related closely to Project-Based Learning (PBL), is the use of a “case, problem, or inquiry” that is grounded in an authentic context to promote “the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes” (Williams, 2005, p. 577). Though CBL and PBL are similar, CBL focuses on guided inquiry in which the educator plays an active role, making it less open than project-based learning. Learners are challenged to apply their learning to dynamic, collaborative scenarios that prepare them for their future professions. CBL is prevalent in business- or medical- and health-oriented disciplines. In contrast, PBL affords groups to work through open-ended problems that change over time.  One of the fundamentals of PBL begins with “small-group brainstorming sessions where students define the problem and determine what they know about the problem (prior knowledge), what they need to learn more about (topics to research), and where they need to look to find data (databases, interviews)” (Genareo & Lyons, 2015).
  • Role-Play. Learners take on identities constructed around scenarios and situations.

Collaborative learning can be built into any class, regardless of modality. For online courses, provide 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, reduces a sense of isolation, and increases social and cognitive development.

Additional resources


Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. (2016). Examples of discussion guidelines. University of Michigan. Retrieved from

Christudason, A. (2003). Peer learning. Successful Learning, 27. Retrieved from

Genareo, V.R. & Lyons, R. (2015). Problem-based learning: Six steps to design, implement, and Assess. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Williams, B. (2005). Case-based learning—A review of the literature: Is there scope for this educational paradigm in prehospital education? Emergency Medicine Journal, 22(8).