Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Collaborative learning research

Successful collaborative learning in higher education is an activity with the following characteristics: (a) It is conducted by small (5-9) self-regulated groups of learners in higher education classes working together to achieve a common object (set formally in the context of a learning activity); (b) The groups each select the means to achieve the object (tools, actions, and operations); (c) Groups are responsible for the object as a group and monitor their own progress; (d) Individual accountability is maintained (each individual is individually accountable for his or her own work), as is positive interdependence (“each individual can be held individually accountable for the work of the group, and the group as a whole is responsible for the learning of each individual group member” (Kirschner et al., 2004, p. 54); (e) The sets of expertise, skills, knowledge and previous experience of group members are asymmetric, and usefully applied to achieve the object as each group member learns according to mediation provided by their peers, in their zone of proximal development; and (f) In the process of learning, the groups transform their tools and the environment.

Learning “involves collaborative social processes intended to stimulate the meaning-making capabilities of learners” (Cottone & Mantovani, 2003, p. 249), and occurs best as a natural process of engaging in activities and shared experiences in a richly-contextualized, authentic environment rather than thinly-contextualized content delivered in a classroom to effect knowledge acquisition.

From a constructivist perspective, the benefits of collaborative learning include its ability to provide “scaffolding of the critical thinking and inquiry process . . . challenging perspectives . . . and a support environment” (Duffy & Kirkley, 2004a, p. 114). Advantages of collaborative learning include: (a) the development of critical thinking skills and deeper level thinking through discourse in a community of inquiry (Garrison et al., 2001); (b) experience with collaborative work practices expected in the workplace; (c) development on two planes, the inter-psychological, and the intra-psychological; and (d) “reduction of feelings of isolation, increased satisfaction with the course, and increased motivation” (Hughes, Wickersham, Ryan-Jones, & Smith, 2002, p. 86).

The beneficial characteristics of collaborative learning as described by (Kreijns et al., 2003) are:

  1. Learning is active;
  2. The teacher is usually more a facilitator than a ‘sage on the stage.’
  3. Teaching and learning are shared experiences.
  4. Students participate in small-group activities.
  5. Students must take responsibility for learning.
  6. Students are stimulated to reflect on their own assumptions and thought processes.
  7. Social and team skills are developed through the give-and-take of consensus-building. (p. 337)

For the distance student, the creation of community through collaboration is even more critical. The “pull” of community provides motivation for persisting and prioritizing academic requirements in the face of more “present” concerns (Duffy & Kirkley).


Cottone, P., & Mantovani, G. (2003). Grounding “subjective views:” situation awareness and co-reference in distance learning. In G. Riva, F. Davide & W. A. IJsselsteijn (Eds.),Being there: Concepts, effects and measurements of user presence in synthetic environments (Vol. 5, pp. 249–260). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: IOS Press.

Duffy, T. M., & Kirkley, J. R. (Eds.). (2004b). Learner-centered theory and practice in distance education. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87–105. doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6

Hughes, S. C., Wickersham, L., Ryan-Jones, D. L., & Smith, S. A. (2002). Overcoming social and psychological barriers to effective on-line collaboration. Educational Technology and Society, 5(1), 86–92.

Kirschner, P., Strijbos, J.-W., Kreijns, K., & Beers, P. J. (2004). Designing electronic collaborative learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 47–66. doi: 10.1007/BF02504675

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A., & Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: A review of the research. Computers in Human Behavior, 19(3), 335–353. doi:10.1016/S0747-5632(02)00057-2

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