The Why and How of Collaborative Learning

The Why and How of Collaborative Learning

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Students who are encouraged to take learning into their own hands benefit in a multitude of ways. Using a collaborative approach to learning not only motivates students to be hands-on in their education, but also builds academic and social emotional skills that extend beyond the classroom. This article will examine the benefits of collaborative learning (CL) and share some personal favorite CL strategies.

The 5 Key Elements of Collaborative Learning

Understanding the key elements of successful CL is essential for implementing effective collaboration that meet learning objectives and support cognitive and social emotional learning. Johnson et al. (1998) (as cited in Barkley et al., 2005) outline five elements that are needed for successful collaboration:

  1. Positive Interdependence– The idea that the success of the group depends on the success of each individual.
  2. Promotive Interaction– Students should be expected to actively help one another.
  3. Individual and Group Accountability– The group is assessed both as a whole and individually, holding each individual accountable.
  4. Development of Teamwork Skills– Students are learning academic material as well as how to work in groups.
  5. Group Processing– Students assess their group’s productivity and discuss where changes are needed.

When these elements are incorporated into a collaborative activity, a plethora of cognitive and social emotional benefits can be observed including:

Cognitive Benefits

  • Improved cross-cueing
  • Complementary knowledge
  • Increased working memory resources
  • Error-correction
  • Re-exposure
  • Relearning through retrieval (Nokes-Malach et al., 2015)

Social Emotional Benefits

  • Social observational learning
  • Increased engagement
  • Joint management of attention
  • Construction of common ground
  • Negotiating multiple perspectives (Nokes-Malach et al., 2015)


4 Collaborative Learning Strategies

 When looking into collaborative strategies some factors to consider include the learning goals of the activity, the working habits of your students, and the past strategies that have worked well with your group. Each group of students is unique and techniques that work well for one group may not produce similar results with another. The following list of CL strategies and techniques are few of my favorites that have been successful in my own experience as a learner and educator.

          Collaborative Discussion Techniques

  1. ThinkPair-Share: This technique gives students a chance to think and reflect on a topic, then verbalize and discuss the topic. The teacher poses a question or prompt and asks the students to take a moment to reflect. After a set time, the students discuss their thoughts in pairs. After sharing in pairs, the students discuss their ideas in a larger group (either whole group or larger groups). This gives each student the chance to share his or her ideas, ensuring that each student is engaging in the material (Srinivas, 2015).
    Tips and Advice: Think-Pair-Share is a great way to get brains thinking about a topic. Knowing that they will be expected to share, students will be encouraged to fully develop their thoughts and opinions. Use this technique to introduce a topic and ask provoking questions that challenge students to connect material back to their own experiences.
  2. Critical Debate: Debates can promote critical thinking and they can get an entire class talking and involved. The first step in creating a successful debate is selecting a great topic. Websites like offer a great variety of topics along with supporting material for each group to discuss. Next, group the students into Pro and Con groups (teachers can allow the students to choose a side, or choose for them). Then give each side time to research and find supporting arguments. When the students are ready, let the debate begin and be sure to monitor the amount of time each side is allotted. Teachers can act as mediators by summarizing the arguments made and asking provoking questions.
    Tips and Advice: The key to a successful debate is choosing a great/interesting topic and providing the students with solid research to support their side. If the students’ sides were pre-selected, give the students a chance to share what they really feel at the end of the debate.

    Reciprocal Teaching
  3. Jigsaw: This CL strategy is a wonderful technique to use with a variety of age groups. For a jigsaw activity, the class is divided into smaller groups and each group is responsible for becoming ‘experts’ in their assigned area. After each group is given time to research and organize their thoughts, the group then teaches the rest of the class. This not only helps students become familiarized with the material at a higher level, but also encourages students to learn from each other (Barkley et al., 2005).
    Tips and Advice: To help students clarify what was taught and learned, provide a segmented worksheet for students to take notes on. Having each group prepare a visual helps students organize information and gives visual students a chance to shine.
  4. Note Taking Pairs: Note taking is an important academic skill that students will continue to use throughout their academic careers. While this skill is an important one to hone, many students struggle with taking good, concise notes, often leaving out details or struggling to process information while taking notes. Pairing students to compare notes increases student’s working memory resources, while helping students retain information (Barkley et al., 2005).
    Tips and Advice: Use this technique to keep minds engaged and retention levels high when you have less time for larger group activities. This simple, yet effective technique keeps minds sharp and is especially great for helping students work through dense content.

Questions to Ask Before Implementing CL

 “There is […] much evidence from the laboratory, and a few studies from the classroom, that show individuals in a group can sometimes perform worse than if they work alone”(Nokes-Malach et al., pg. 651, 2015).

While the benefits of CL have been supported by research, recent studies question the use of CL in certain situations. Not all activities and learning goals are suited for CL. Teachers should carefully reflect on the learning objectives of an activity and should choose CL strategies that meet their learning goals. Some questions to ask before incorporating CL into an activity include: How will my students benefit from collaborating? Would my students work better individually? After deciding that CL would be appropriate, the next questions to ask are: Which strategy would best accomplish my learning goals? How much time will be needed?  How should I group my students? What sort of resources will my students need? How will I mediate any conflicts that might arise? Carefully thought out and well prepared CL activities will help your students collaborate successfully, deepening students’ learning experiences and fostering important social emotional skills for the future.



Barkley, Elizabeth F.; Major, Clair Howell; Cross, K. Patricia (2005). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley and Sons.

Nokes-Malach, Timothy J.; Richey, J. Elizabeth; Gadgil, Soniya (2015). When Is It Better to Learn Together? Insights from Research on Collaborative Learning. Springer Science + Business Media, Educ. Psych. Rev., 27:645–656.

Quoteswave (2015). Benjamin Franklin Quotes. Retrieved from:

Srinivas, Hari (2015). Four Collaborative Learning Strategies. Global Development Research Center. Retrieved from:

Welch, Kim (2016). Collaborative Learning. Teaching & Learning Excellence. University of Utah. Retrieved from:

About the Author:

YeaEun Schwartz has five years of international experience teaching children age 2-18. She began her teaching career as an ESL teacher for Kindergarten and has worked with a variety of ages since. Currently she is a preschool teacher at Saint Albans School in New York, NY. She is also pursuing her Masters in Early Childhood Education at Hunter College.


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