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Collaborative Learning In Colledge Classroom

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Book Report


Traditional education in college classrooms has generally been based on the "transfer" model of teaching where information is transferred from the instructors to passive students. Collaboration between students in class, and at times out of class, generally is not encouraged. For our project, we examined the role and the potential benefits and disadvantages of collaborative learning methods in college education through a two-fold process: the review of articles and literature on collaborative learning and the conducting of a survey assessing student views on and involvement with collaborative activity for their courses. Employing what we learned through the independent research project, we suggested the "FEEL" collaborative technology which we are implementing as part of our Semester Design Project. We had constructed a timeline to pick articles, review them, summarize them, create an overview of the main ideas and concepts in the readings summarized, create and choose survey questions, perform the survey, gather the results, and begin analysis of the results. For all of these milestones, we were able to stay on schedule.

Collaborative Learning: Methods and Techniques

Within traditional learning, students find themselves to be passive recipients of information, rarely interacting with each other or the instructor to construct their own personally meaningful perceptions of that information. Collaborative learning seeks to engage and involve students by allowing them to interact with each other or with the teacher in dialogue and in learning activities (5.15).

Various instructional practices and methods exist which either facilitate collaborative learning or rely on collaborative learning as their primary learning paradigm. These practices can differ in how students are grouped together and for how long those groups last with respect to the course or educational objectives.

"Cooperative groups" refer to small groups (no more than seven members) that cooperate with each other during assigned learning activities. The "integrative cooperative learning teaching technique" attempts to integrate the use of cooperative learning groups and lecture-based inquiry within class (5.12). "Informal" cooperative groups are groups which are created for the short-term purpose of solving or discussing problem during class. As such, they do not require the teachers to necessarily assign groups or grades and they do not generally last for more than a few minutes. These groups include simple pairs of learners (see below) who cooperate in problem solving or discussion. Cooper Et Al. describes an example of incorporating the use of informal groups in large classes to promote collaboration within class through the use of small group discussions to discuss concepts taught during the lecture portions of the class and handing back exams in team folders so students can discuss solutions in groups before talking to the instructor (5.5). "Formal" cooperative groups are groups assigned by the teacher which function as groups over longer periods of time, such as a single or multiple class sessions, as they are formed to tackle more complex problems or projects that require more sustained work. Teachers assign the groups to encourage positive interdependence, monitor the groupís progress and explain the benefits and methods of collaboration and groupwork (5.17).

Additionally, several versions of peer-support groups exist have been used in educational institutions where students who are more skilled or trained can help other students in their work(5.15).

The use of pairs, both formal and informal, was documented as an important collaborative technique. Goerge described how she used the "think-pair-share" approach where the class was divided into two-people learning partnerships. The partners in these learning pairs would collaborate in answering questions posed by the instructor during class as well as recall lecture material and evaluate the validity of recalled information together. The students were given class time to recall and discuss the concepts and problems presented by the instructor.

Benefits: Why Collaborative Learning?

Real-world problems are often ill-defined and often require the contributions of many individuals with different backgrounds and areas of expertise for both problem framing and resolution. Scharffe analyzed how the construction of shared meaning in the collaborative course he studied was analogous to the shared construction of a product in open-source projects . In both cases, the problem domains are difficult to frame and require collaborative effort to frame and resolve the problem (5.14). Group work allows teams to tackle and solve these "wicked problems" where individuals would not have been able to accomplish as much alone.

Utilizing and integrating the varied skills and knowledge of group members, a successful group can accomplish much more towards achieving its goal than any one individual could accomplish in isolation. Bennis Et Al. noted how talented people who can work well together and perform a common mission will be able to achieve much more than they could working separately (5.4). This understanding regarding greater accomplishment through collaboration was reflected in the answers given by first-year students to questionnaires and surveys administered by Drury Et Al. The surveys and questionnaires were given in each of two-semesters of a year-long course. Over both semesters, more than half of the students reported that the group product was much better than what they would have managed to achieve individually (5.8).

Having diverse people work together helps in the creation of social, interpersonal and team work skills that will help group members in their lives and in their professions where team work is often an essential part of their work. Furthermore, this exposure to diversity also leads to an increased tolerance for diversity and understanding of diverse opinions. (5.6, 5.13)

Students begin to "construct their own understanding of the material" when engaged in their own learning process through collaborative techniques (5.6). Coultin noted that collaboration lead to a deeper understanding of the material and also to better retention of the ideas taught (5.7). Cooper, Et Al. noted that "lectures are effective for memorizing lower-level factual material but not effective for long-term retention" (5.6). When students discuss concepts with each other, they become involved in the process of "cognitive elaboration" where their discussion of concepts leads to greater clarification and understanding of those concepts. LeJeune (5.13) states that "With the support or scaffolding provided by the group, greater learning occurs than is individually possible." Don Norman argued that the traditional style of individual solitary learning was based thoroughly on the need for grades and students often forgot material once the exams were over (5.11). Promoting collaboration and personal learning helps students to engage in personally meaningful learning activities (5.13, 5.14, 5.15).

Additionally, Goerge and Joseph in their respective academic comparisons of classes concluded that students with greater involvement in collaborative learning groups performed better academically than their peers who were less involved in such groups. Goerge performed a comparison between two classes, one taught using traditional teaching styles and the other using an approach pairing up individuals in their learning process. Goerge described how the cooperative learning group outperformed the traditionally taught class in both overall test scores and the final exams (5.10). Joseph compared two groups, one an evening-class and the other a day- class. Both classes were encouraged to collaborate together outside class but the evening-class met more frequently and "engaged in more comprehensive group-tasks". Joseph concluded that the evening class performed better than the day class in terms of test scores (5.12).

Studentsí attitudes towards learning and the instruction process were generally much more favorable in contexts where collaboration was incorporated into the learning process. In his comparison of the class that used cooperative learning in its instruction and the class that used traditional methods cited above, Goerge described how the former rated the instruction far more favorably than the traditionally taught class (5.10). Coultin noted that students "enjoy collaborative approaches more than traditional approaches to education" (5.7).

Barriers to Collaborative Learning: Motivation, Understanding, and Group Processes

In contrast to this need and general practice of collaborative work in the professional world, traditional educational methods focus on the assessment and evaluation of individuals in isolation, discouraging collaborative techniques in favor of the passive student model. As Don Norman points out in "In Defense of Cheating", the traditional educational system focuses on prohibiting collaboration and generally enforces unaided individual work in order to facilitate the assignment of grades and comparative evaluations of students with respect to each other (5.11). The educational framework does not encourage students to learn the skills needed to work together and take advantage of each othersí knowledge and understanding. Thus, students are unused to the mindset and methods for collaboration. Cooper Et Al. also noted how students were unused to the notion of collaboration in class as their educational experiences had mostly emphasized working in isolation (5.5.).

For students to gain the motivation to work collaboratively, they need to be introduced to the benefits and processes by which they can incorporate collaboration into their learning and truly understand how and where collaboration will be useful. Coutin argues that teaching students about group processes will help the group in dealing with interpersonal conflicts, time management issues, and other widely reported group problems (5.7). Furthermore, instructors must provide assessment techniques and incentives that allow students to see collaboration as a rewarding process and not an unexplained necessity imposed externally.

In addition to an understanding of the benefits of collaboration and appropriate motivation and reward for collaboration, students must also be given support in dealing with problems encountered with inadequate contributions and organizational management processes. Some problems with group work stem from the perception or real presence of "free riders" or inadequate contributions and participation from other group members. Problems with "free riders" or inadequate contributions are cited widely in the literature (5.7). Drury Et Al.ís survey of first-year students noted that student satisfaction with group processes declined significantly in the second semester of the year-long course analyzed in the paper (5.8). Students noted that there were problems with contributions from group members. Instructors must take into account how to enforce methods for individual accountability and assessment. These are discussed in further detail below.

Problems with group work also involve organizational and management overhead, as finding the time for group meetings and assigning roles can require much effort and maintenance. Druryís survey of first-year students noted that students noted problems with finding meeting times for the group and organizational issues (5.8).

Factors for Collaborative Success

A group that works well together knows how to take advantage of the diversity of knowledge and opinions to help create effective resolutions. The presence of diversity and heterogeneity is an asset as "positive interdependence" (5.17, 5.13) is one of the factors in successful group work. Positive interdependence refers to the need for integrating the different group membersí knowledge and areas of expertise in order to create an effective resolution, as all these areas are necessary in understanding and resolving the problem. Joseph gave an example where the instructor created groups where within any group, group members had similar learning styles but different ages, ethnic backgrounds, computer-related work experience (5.12).

Successful groups also exhibit shared motivation for fulfilling a common goal or common purpose (5.4). Goerge notes that "group incentive", which refers to studentsí motivation to help others in the group to perform well, is one of the most important factors in helping the group achieve its goal (5.10).

To prevent the problem of free riders and increase contributions by members, individual and group accountability and assessment should be incorporated into group processes. When individuals realize their contributions as members will be assessed and that their involvement in the group will significantly aid them in performing required tasks, they are less likely to ignore or avoid being involved in group collaborative activities. For example, students may be given grades on an individual basis (5.17), group members can be required to keep activity logs (5.7) or journals (5.12), or group members can engage in self and peer assessments, where they assess their own and othersí contributions to group activities. These assessment techniques will enable individuals to realize that their contributions to the group are being monitored and will count towards their own individual grades, encouraging students to take their own participation in the group more seriously. Furthermore, if students realize that being involved in group activity will directly affect their individual understanding of the course, they will be motivated to be more actively engaged in the groupís collaborative activities. For example, if students are asked to take quizzes, solve problems, or make presentations together where all must contribute and any student can be asked to answer for the group, they will see their participation in the construction of the group product as essential to their own individual understanding and positive assessment by the instructor.

To prevent communication problems and decrease the possibility of free riders to escape unnoticed, smaller group sizes are recommended for collaborative efforts. Finally, as discussed briefly above, groups should be given the opportunity and ability to reflect on group processes and how learning is taking place within collaborative work. Through this reflective process, group members can understand the benefits accrued from group learning and actually study how group work and processes can be improved and incorporated into their learning styles.

Survey: Creation and Motivation

Creating the survey was a challenge, because of the obvious differences between the two classes chosen for the study, not only in size but in style. We tried to capture the true diversity in respect to the heterogeneous learning styles and methods in the two courses. We wanted to explore each of the students' prior experiences with "collaborative" or group learning, yet we were unsure exactly to what extent they had participated in collaborative work in the past. We tried to make the questions answerable no matter how much group learning the respondents had had in the past, by asking them how they felt about collaboration. By discovering their likes, dislikes, and motivations we now have a deeper understanding of what collaboration in the classroom means to the students in these two classes.

Survey: Differences and Similarities

One key difference between the two classes was that CSCI 7000 had far greater exposure to and experience with collaborative work in the classroom than CSCI 2270. We feel that this difference can explain how a greater percentage of CSCI 7000 picked "lack of technology" as a barrier to collaboration than CSCI 2270, as CSCI 7000 has had more opportunity to reflect and consider factors in collaborative success and are in a better position to contemplate technological solutions that could help with specific group processes.

Although the two classes differ in their instructional styles and experience with collaborative work, they both responded similarly in respect to what they liked and disliked about collaborative learning. Both favored "new and different ideas" the most, and felt that "scheduling difficulties" was the biggest problem. This result corresponds to the analysis of the literature and readings above which discuss the importance of the diversity of opinions and knowledge expertise in the framing and resolution of problems. Additionally, the literature also discusses how problems with group organizational management processes rank as barriers to collaborative success and that students must be given support and education in how best to overcome these barriers.

We must be wary though when comparing the results from these classes, for two reasons: the first being the significant difference in the two class sizes, where CSCI 2270 consisted of 89 students and CSCI 7000 consisted of only 13. The second reason is the fact that the teaching and learning style in one class is based on the notions of collaboration, while the other follows the more traditional method of having students work in isolation, promoting success through individual achievement. Even though both classes incorporate the idea of group learning, CSCI 7000 seems to encourage and facilitate collaboration much more than CSCI 2270. Both classes cited "suggested by teacher" and "potential for greater achievement" as the most important motivational factors in group work. But the CSCI 7000 students felt that the teacher was the most important reason, while the CSCI 2270 class cited the potential for greater achievement as their most important reason for working together in a group.


The nature of ill-defined problems necessitates the integration of varied perspectives and knowledge for both problem-framing and resolution. In opposition to this need for collaboration, traditional education has focused on techniques that force students to work in isolation. To facilitate collaborative learning success within the classroom, the benefits of collaborative learning must be understood by the students and instructors and sufficient motivation and encouragement must be given in the form of assessment and support. The problems of free-riders and organizational management are cited widely in the literature and reported by many of the respondents in our surveys as the most discouraging barriers to collaborative success.

Further questions remain regarding the particular different types of collaborative learning that might be relevant to different kinds of problems and contexts. Furthermore, we must ask whether or not it is enough to simply incorporate collaborative techniques into lecture-style classes? What comparable shifts in assessment and grading policies must be made in order to motivate and reward students adequately for participating in collaborative learning? What intrinsic and extrinsic incentives and technological support can aid in different kinds of collaborative learning? Some technological solutions currently exist that facilitate limited in-class collaboration between the instructor and students (5.1, 5.2, 5.3). Our Semester Design Project "FEEL" in part suggests one possible modified solution for furthering collaboration between the instruction and students in class.

5. References:

5.1. (Apache Server Reference)

5.2. (Clickers, current system)

5.3. (ClassTalk, current system)

5.4. Bennis, W. and Biederman, P. W., (1997) Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA.

5.5. Cooper, J., Robinson, P., "Getting Started: Informal Small-Group Strategies in Large Classes"

5.6. Cooper, J., Robinson, P., The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small,

5.7. Coutin, Susan, "Tips Gleaned from the Literature on Collaborative Learning",

5.8. Drury, H., Kay J., and Losberg, W., "Student Satisfaction with groupwork in undergraduate computer science: do things get better?"

5.9. Dugan, Robert Jr., Breimer, Eric A., Lim, Darren T., Glinert, Ephraim P., Goldberg, Mark K., Champagne Matthew V., "Exploring Collaborative Learning in Rensselaer's Classroom-in-the-Round",

5.10. George, Pamela G., "Using Cooperative Learning in the College Classroom" The NEA Higher Education Journal

5.11. Norman, D., "In defense of cheating",

5.12. Joseph, A., and Payne, M., "Group Dynamics and Collaborative Group Performance"

5.13. LeJeune, N., "Critical Components for Successful Collaborative Learning in CS1"

5.14. Scharffe, Eric. "Applying Open Source Principles to Collaborative Learning Environments",

5.15. Smith, Barbara Leigh and Jean T. MacGregor., "What is Collaborative Learning?",

5.16. Smith, Karl A., "Going Deeper: Formal Small-Group Learning in Large Classes"

5.17. Smith, Karl A., "Inquiry-Based Collaborative Learning",

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