The DOs and DON’Ts of collaborative learning

By Andy Tharby

Over 40 years of research evidence tells us that collaborative learning – when students work together on tasks in small groups – has a positive impact on learning.

The EEF Toolkit suggests that teachers think about the following five points when planning for students to work together:

1. Pupils need support and practice to work together; it does not happen automatically.

2. Tasks need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some pupils will try to work on their own.

3. Competition between groups can be used to support pupils in working together more effectively. However, overemphasis on competition can cause learners to focus on winning rather than succeeding in their learning.

4. It is particularly important to encourage lower achieving pupils to talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks to ensure they benefit fully.

5. Have you considered what professional development is required to support effective use of these approaches?

Despite its potential, collaborative learning is often implemented very poorly in classrooms, leading many teachers to become sceptical about its impact (this author included!). Too often, group work leads to off-topic chatter, slow work output, the embedding of misconceptions and – every teacher’s favourite bugbear – an unhealthy dose of social loafing. (Described by social psychologists, this is the well-known phenomenon that occurs when a person exerts less effort in a group than they would when working individually.)

I have undergone many years of trial-and-error when trying to implement aspects of collaborative learning into my secondary English lessons. I cannot claim to be an expert in the area, but here are my suggestions – which are based, more often than not, on a fair quantity of abject failure!

DO set clear goals and expectations. These should include ambitious timescales, the expected quantity of work and the expected quality of work. You should also explain how each student will be made accountable for taking part. My favourite line is: “Once the ten minutes is up, I will choose five of you at random to explain your ideas to the rest of the class.” This way, every child knows that in ten minutes they could be the one in the spotlight.

DO keep groups as small as possible. The larger the number of people in a group, the greater the potential for social loafing. Personally, I prefer pair-work as this maximises the amount of talking and thinking that each individual is required to do.

DO create urgency. Tasks should usually be tight and focussed. A series of short, two-minute discussions is often more effective than an extended discussion over a longer period of time. This will depend, however, on the group, their age and their prior knowledge of the topic.

DO train students how to take part in a discussion. Ideally, teachers should choose the set of collaborative learning skills (or ‘learning habits’, as I prefer) that they would like their students to master over a year, and then create a sequence for teaching these. Perhaps in the Autumn Term, Y7s are taught how to take part in a ‘Think-Pair-Share’ discussion, and practise this for a term, maybe with supporting sentence stems to scaffold academic thought. Once this is mastered by the Spring Term, they are trained in how to develop questions in pairs. The point is that if these habits are to become embedded, they need to be introduced and practised gradually. Ideally, they should be considered part and parcel of the curriculum, rather than an afterthought. They have tremendous leverage when they are planned, implemented and evaluated across classrooms at a department level.

DO expect children to think for themselves before they share ideas in a group. We are usually more creative when we are working alone than we are when working as members of a group, which may be because most people have a tendency towards conformity and a tendency to yield to the majority. I often ask my groups to form their ideas first – sometimes through a short writing task – before sharing them with others, always without interruption. Only at that point are they ready to discuss them in a group.

DO use collaborative learning as a revision strategy. Retrieval practice and elaboration – connecting new information to prior knowledge – work very well as structured pair tasks. The act of explaining a new concept to a peer is a very powerful method of embedding new knowledge and identifying where you are stuck.

DON’T expect students to discover new concepts for themselves in groups. Tricky and difficult concepts usually require explicit teaching first. This is one of the main mistakes made when facilitating group work: the assumption that group work can replace teaching. It can’t.

DON’T make collaborative learning an end in itself. Your aim, as always, is to help students to acquire new knowledge. In most cases, group work is a tool, not a goal (with the significant exception of group based subjects like drama and PE).

DON’T overcomplicate group tasks. It is very easy for group tasks, which can involve complicated or convoluted instructions, to create cognitive overload, leading to little or no learning.

And finally … DON’T carry on with a collaborative learning task it if it is not working. 

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