Teaching and Learning With Technology Center

of the
Center for Teaching and Learning
Georgia State University
Instructional Technology Center
GSU libraries
University Educational Technology Services
GSU Senate:
IS&T: Information Systems & Technology Committee
IS&T Teaching and Learning with Technology Subcommittee
October 23, 2003
Enabling student collaboration for learning
1 Collaboration as learning
1 Why should students collaborate?

In recent years, learning has been reconceptualized from an additive process characterized by an individual's acquisition of knowledge to a socially-enabled developmental process. Collaboration is the social process that supports learners' development of capabilities in which they learn to do without assistance things that they could initially do only with assistance. If learning really is a social process, then collaboration is required. The assistance that learners require may be provided by experts such as teachers and by peers, who collectively have expertise distributed among them.

2 What can students learn by collaborating? By collaborating, students can develop their potential for learning. Specifically, students can learn to approach and solve new problems so that they develop the capability to solve problems that do not exist at the moment of learning. Rather than simply absorbing material, learning rules, and displaying the material and rules on demand, students learn to develop capabilities that they first experience in assisted or collaborative learning situations.
3 Is collaboration practically useful to students?

Employers in many disciplines are looking for graduates that can collaborate with others to solve new problems, e.g.:

  1. Collaborate to reduce the time required for design processes
  2. Collaborate to provide better service support
  3. Collaborate to cultivate new ideas (search on "cultivate new ideas")


4 If teachers lecture less because students collaborate more, what happens to the teacher's role?

The teacher's role shifts from being a deliverer of material to a designer and facilitator of learning experiences. The new role for teachers is more creative and more demanding than the earlier one.

5 What happens to coverage of material?

Coverage can be assured by staging authentic problem-solving activities that are sufficiently engaging that learners are willing to acquire the concepts and skills that solving the problems requires. To make this work, materials and exercises that let learners acquire concepts and skills need to be accessible, i.e., available when and where learners are ready for them. Learners are likely to acquire facts/concepts effortlessly when they emerge in the context of compelling problems.

2 Staging collaborative learning activities
1 What can students collaborate on?

Some possibilities are for students to collaborate on posing problems or projects, solving problems or developing projects, implementing solution or project approaches, and evaluating outcomes. Problems and projects can be variable in size, e.g.:

  1. Instant ones, e.g., those requiring 15 minutes, the collaboration for which could occur in class.
  2. Ones with several days to several weeks' duration
  3. Ones with a term-long horizon
2 What kinds of communication are feasible?

Some ways to communicate in collaboration are:

  1. Spoken words uttered in person, in real-time audio on the telephone or streamed over the Internet
  2. Written words represented on paper, on a fax, in an email, in a file, on the Web
  3. Visual representations of thought, such as figures, drawings, charts, and graphs, conveyed in person or through mediating technologies
  4. Combinations of the above ways offered in person or through mediating technologies
3 What's required for students to collaborate?

To collaborate, students need:

  1. The task, e.g., a problem or project, the completion of which requires conceptual change in students
  2. A group of students with problem-solving or project-developing capabilities distributed among them
  3. Meaningful assistance for needed capabilities not distributed among group members
  4. Time to interact with each other
  5. Guidance for developing group processes (sample) and assessing their progress
3 Getting students to collaborate
1 How do I get students to collaborate, especially ones not used to doing so?

To entice students to collaborate, it is helpful to:

  1. Shift course situations and reward structures to encourage students to view interactions with peers as indispensable learning resources (sample class).
  2. Assign tasks that are suitable for collaboration, i.e., tasks that require the integration rather than just the accumulation of ideas.
  3. Make the collaborative aspects of a course sufficiently large that students cannot safely ignore them.
  4. Stage the first collaborative activities in ways that build swift trust among group members so they can get to work on the task to attain useful results quickly, which encourages subsequent collaboration. Swift trust is especially important to virtual groups (Meyerson et al. 1996).
  5. Have student groups make the results of their collaboration visible to other student groups, e.g., on the Web (sample directions for publishing in WebCT).
2 What do I do about free-riding and other dysfunctional group behaviors?

Here are ideas for deterring dysfunctional behaviors in groups and addressing such behaviors before they become fatal:

    1. Form term-long groups to make it more worthwhile for students to invest in their groups.
    2. Require student groups to make the results of their collaboration visible to other student groups, e.g., on the Web (sample directions for publishing in WebCT). The awareness of peers examining their work is sufficient to prompt many students to apply themselves to group tasks more diligently.
    3. Require group members to commit to learning and task responsibilities at the beginning of a task (sample learning plan) and make the task plan and progress on it visible to all members of the class.
    4. Afford students ways to monitor their group processes, e.g., periodic surveys whose group means are made available to all class members for all groups in aspects such as:
      1. Team processes (e.g., Faidley et al. 2000)
      2. Threats to team functioning (e.g., Allen and White 2001)

How can I assess the quality of students' collaboration?

The quality of students' collaboration can be assessed by:

  1. Comparing what students can do unassisted before and after the collaborative learning experiences.
  2. For virtual groups, analyze the learning that occurs in collaborative sessions, e.g., by performing content analysis of chat discussion.
4 Learning more about staging student collaboration
1 Where can I learn more about designing and facilitating collaborative learning experiences?

Books and articles on collaborative and problem-based learning:

  1. Allen, D. E., and H. B. White, III. 2001. Undergraduate group facilitators to meet the challenges of multiple classroom groups. In Duch, B. J., S. E. Groh, and D. E. Allen, eds.. The Power of Problem-Based Learning, 79-94. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  2. Dillenbourg, P., ed. 1999. Collaborative Learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Amsterdam: Pergamon.
  3. Duch, B. J., S. E. Groh, and D. E. Allen. 2001. The Power of Problem-Based Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  4. Evensen, D. H. and C. E. Hmelo, eds. 2000. Problem-Based Learning: A Research Perspective on Learning Interactions. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.
  5. Faidley, J., J. Salisbury-Glennon, J. Glenn, and C. E. Hmelo. 2000. In Evensen, D. H. and C. E. Hmelo, eds. Problem-Based Learning: A Research Perspective on Learning Interactions, 109-135. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.

Books and articles making the case for collaboration as learning:

  1. Daniels, H. 2001. Vygotsky and Pedagogy. New York: Routledge.
  2. Kozulin, A. 1998. Psychological tools: A Sociocultural Approach to Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  3. LÚvy, P. 1997. Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace. Translated from the French under the title L'intelligence collective: Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace (1995) by R. Bononno. New York: Plenum.
  4. Meyerson, D., Weick, K. E., and Kramer, R. M. 1996. Swift trust and temporary systems. In Kramer, R. M., and T. R. Tyler, eds., Trust in Organizations, 166-195. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Rogoff. B. 1998. Cognition as a collaborative process. In Kuhn, D., and R. S. Siegler, eds., Handbook of Child Psychology, Volume 2: Cognition, Perception, and Language, 679-744. New York: Wiley.
  6. Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  7. Vygotsky, L. S. 1986. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  8. Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Working paper with a model for designing collaborative learning experiences:

  1. Borthick, A. F., D. R. Jones, and S. Wakai. 2002. Designing Learning Experiences Within Learners' Zones of Proximal Development (ZPDs): Enabling Collaborative Learning On-Site and On-Line (Word file: for access, use name = tltc and password = Mg7845). This paper contains a list of references on collaborative learning, including learning in virtual spaces.
Copyright © 2003 Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLTC), Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. All rights reserved.