What Does Collaborative Learning Really Mean?

by Helen Beyne

Collaborative learning is working together to create deeper, better understanding.

Image courtesy of ddpavumba at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We know that students need to develop twenty-first century thinking skills and metacognitive skills. A great way to build self-awareness and metacognitive skills is to use, explain, and justify critical thinking with peers, then transfer that ability to internal processes.

What is collaborative learning? It’s probably already taking place in your classroom! Do you have two or more learners, at different stages of mastery, working together? You’re most of the way there. Learners who are struggling will benefit from observing and working with students who are further along. Students with a better grasp of the content will find that accurately assessing someone else’s level of understanding, and beginning the dialogue from that point, is a big step toward mastery. All members of a group will find that open dialogue can lead to important new insights and understanding of material.

Another key trait of collaborative learning is a learner-driven and -modified dynamic. This means that students are aware of the give-and-take within the group and adjust interactions as time goes on. The process of modifying the group’s interactions helps learners become‑and stay‑productively accountable to themselves as well as to others. Working collaboratively allows students to take on leadership roles, practice teamwork, and resolve conflict effectively.

An additional defining trait of collaborative learning is the common goal. Groups of learners must have an explicit goal that they are working toward together. Although this method is very process-driven, it will not succeed without some structure and a known endpoint.

Lastly, there is one thing that is generally absent from collaborative learning: you. The teacher, in this context, takes a hands-off, facilitator role instead of being the center of attention. As the teacher, you create a safe space for the teams to stretch, grow, and take risks without intervening at every stage.

Why is collaborative learning important to your class? Collaboration helps learners develop and mature their sense of responsibility as well as boost their sense of self-worth. It feels good to contribute to a meaningful task, and it feels good to have your contribution valued by your team! Working with peers provides authentic practice and real-time feedback on metacognitive processes such as clarifying, questioning, predicting, and summarizing.

In addition, students become responsible for their own learning through questioning, refocusing, and responding to one another. The process stretches learners and lends itself best to DOK (Depth of Knowledge) level 3 and 4 activities.

Have a success story to share? Want to chat about how collaborative learning and classroom technology are better together? Leave us a comment, or find us on Facebook and Twitter!

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.