Collaborative learning refers to a broad spectrum of instructional activities for getting students to work together to achieve common educational goals. Collaborative learning environments can range from a one-minute writing exercise shared with a partner during a lecture to a semester-long group project culminating in a final team presentation to the entire class.
Collaborative learning activities give these students an opportunity to become more connected to the class, and to RIT, through the relationships they develop in small group activities.
Benefits of Collaboration
Interest in collaboration is a natural outgrowth of the trend in education toward active learning, where students become involved in constructing their own knowledge through discovery, discussion and expert guidance. Collaboration affords students the opportunity to share thoughts and interact with peers, facilitators and experts in a field. Effective collaborative learning environments…
- Promote critical thinking skills
- Promote creative thinking through social stimulation and sharing of ideas
- Require active student involvement in the learning process
- Increase preparation and practice for working with others
- Provide a safe place for questions
- Create a more personal environment in large classes
- Provide a social support system for students
- Build diversity understanding among students
- Develop team skills used on the job and beyond
"In the working world, many employers expect their employees to solve problems in teams. It only makes sense that multiple minds are better than one. Therefore, I believe instructors who have their students work in teams better prepare them for the working world."
Brian Goff, RIT Student
Collaborative Learning in Online Environments
Collaborative learning in the online environment is usually called “online teams” or “online groups.” myCourses enables instructors to create student teams or groups that can share and discuss information easily within the online environment. These online tools facilitate both asynchronous and synchronous meetings between group members, and, if managed properly, help to eliminate the possibility of logistical problems when working within teams.
By assigning students to online groups, you can monitor their progress and intervene if the group or a particular member of a group needs attention. You won't be surprised at the end of the project when students suggest that some members weren't cooperative, some members did all the work, or that the project went off on an unexpected tangent.
Working with Online Groups
Establish team discussion areas
Set up separate work areas for discussing and posting work as a project or team assignment progresses. Create a separate discussion board where all teams post their final work.
Give each team an identity
Create team discussion boards with explanatory titles so the entire class has some idea about what each team is working on. Specific titles also make the discussion more navigable.
Start discussion with a useful subject line
It is difficult to ask students to change the subject line with each message, but you can make the subject line for your initial messages as specific and clear as possible, with maximum explanatory power. In one case, a professor successfully asked students to append the subject line to make it unique and easier to find; as the discussion grew and messages became numerous, they found the added effort worthwhile.
Strategies for Effective Online Collaboration
Build strong group interdependence
One design goal for any group activity should be to build strong group interdependence, the "one for all and all for one" camaraderie that encourages members to help each other work toward a common objective. This can be as simple as offering bonus points to a study group if everyone in the group scores above a certain grade on an assignment, test, or individual paper. This will motivate the better-prepared students to help and encourage the members who may not meet the goal, and the less-prepared students are likely to work harder so they don’t disappoint the group.
Statistics Professor Tom Barker used effective goal interdependence coupled with peer instruction in a class that he had organized into study teams. He told teams before their fourth (and last) quiz that if everyone on the team scored above 80% correct, then everyone would get 2% bonus points added to their score, and if everyone on a team scored above 90%, then each team member would receive a 3% bonus. The result?
"I need to do more analysis, but there is promise! The average grade on the last quiz was 7.76 (s=1.34). The average grade on this quiz was 8.96 (s=.90). Not only did the average increase, but the variation was less. Now, while there is no statistically significant difference between the variances, I did observe a more consistent grade within teams. I will next ask how much study the teams did as a group and use this covariate to see if there is more significance beyond the raw comparison of scores. Thanks for the idea!"
Keep groups small
Group members need to interact frequently; a good guideline is for groups to have six or fewer members.
Establish peer evaluation
RIT offers an online evaluation tool called Clipboard. The best use of this tool is not simply at the end of a team project, but also 25 to 30 percent into the process, when students can learn from the feedback and make adjustments. According to Barbara Millis, director of faculty development at the US Air Force Academy and author of Managing! — and Motivating! — Distance Learning Group Activities, peer evaluation helps to build team skills as it "permits students to reflect on their process and outcomes, and provides teachers with continuous feedback." As examples, she recommends that students respond to these questions after an assignment is completed:
- Did all members of the group contribute?
- What could be done next time to make the group function better?
- What were the most important things I learned?
- What contributions did I make?
For example, RIT faculty member Kitren VanStrander used the peer evaluation tool available from Teaching & Learning Services with her Intro to Quality class. The class completed the tool at four points during the team throughout the quarter. The feedback they received informed them of their performance along the way, and was beneficial to learning about quality improvement.
Group project evaluations
Group project evaluations are peer evaluation in another form. Once projects are completed and posted, groups evaluate one another's projects according to the project criteria. For example, for a Software Process Management class, one RIT faculty member asks students to propose a topic to cover from the list of course topics. Teams of five people are assembled and grouped by similarity of topics.
Students write individual reports and comment on one another's work. Students also critique the work of their peers, providing both positive feedback and suggestions for improvement at certain milestones (outline, draft report). Students are asked to pay particular attention to references in the report and to suggest other references, with a rationale for those suggestions.
Encourage peer instruction
Devise assignments whereby students develop expertise in different topics and are charged with teaching other students in a structured format, such as an activity, an interactive online lecture, a game or a quiz.
Provide clear instructions and assignment overviews
Barbara Millis suggests that clear instructions include an estimate of the time needed to do the work to help students budget their time.
Form heterogeneous groups
Millis explains that "heterogeneous grouping, deliberately mixing students based on achievement level, gender, ethnicity, academic interests, learning styles or other relevant factors... will typically permit students to work constructively with other individuals who bring different strengths and approaches to academic tasks... preparing students for the modern work place and for society as a whole." Most authorities agree that instructors should form groups to ensure students are exposed to diverse ideas.
Give teams time
Keep collaborative teams together long enough to do needed team-building and to create a meaningful product; this may take at least half of an academic quarter.
Establish a way to differentiate individual work, by monitoring discussion, establishing milestone "meetings" or requiring progress reports. Grades for team effort alone raise student concerns about those who will not do their fair share, but receive the grade others have earned. Clear grading should have a mechanism to grade individual as well as group effort.
Make the important work visible
Be sure that email is used only for "housekeeping" details (such as, when to chat, where to post, format of written work) and reserve the discussion board for posting substantial work and for discussing content or issues. This keeps the discussion board substantive and easier to evaluate.
Give students control
Students who say that they do not like collaborative projects may have had a bad experience on a team where some members procrastinated, where they took on more than a fair share of the workload, or where communication was difficult. Make collaborative work more attractive by giving students more control over process and outcomes.
Allow students choice in learning activities, decision-making, initiation of activity, and end-products. For example: one RIT faculty member allows students in Strategic Planning & Evaluation to select their group assignment and individual projects from an array of potential topics, including the opportunity to define a unique project with guidance from the instructor.
Set up meaningful in-process dates
Provide a timeline for work to be done, with milestones for meaningful chunks of work.
"Until I was in Professor Coleman's class, I had not had a good experience in an online group project. The projects in my previous courses were somewhat vague in their requirements; normally this is desirable in a "face-to-face" group project, but in an online project, it leads to more confusion and delay, as team members attempt to find agreement on the problem domain. What she did that the others did not was to give clear group project guidelines, as well as multiple deliverables of these projects (rather than one big deliverable at the end of the quarter)."
Tony Jefferson, Faculty, B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences
Make the learning personally relevant
Allow students to relate and apply coursework to student needs, interests and their workplace or life experience. Direct and immediate application of course concepts is motivating and enhances the learning.
Model questioning by using open-ended questions to start a discussion, and then encouraging questions and dialogue within the group. Encourage negotiation within the group by beginning the process.
Start a conversation
Communications Professor David Neumann finds that collaboration begins best with a conversation.
"The most important thing for successful student team projects is setting up specific communication expectations early, supply online icebreaker exercises, give students a chance to participate in the course before assigning teams, checking in to group discussion area to make sure interaction is healthy. But the most powerful method for motivating students to engage in group projects or any other form of online interaction is to have a conversation with them. I have found that creating this type of personal connection, even if only once, is extremely important."
David Neumann, Communications Professor
Give students feedback on their discussion contributions
Students expect timely and direct feedback, but it should not always be posted publicly. A message of praise or a message with pointers for improvement should be sent privately, while messages explaining or contributing to course content should be added to the course discussion.
Make sure to seed the discussion, not just request a post
Start a debate, ask for a critique, establish a panel discussion, solve a problem... ask any open-ended question.
Instructor involvement in discussion should be minimal
Instructors are needed to guide discussions, but replies to every message can halt discussion. Small groups need the freedom to conduct their own discussions.
Assessing Online Groups
Group work can be assessed as:
- a single entity;
- a combination of individual and group achievement; or
- as individual achievement within the group
The choice of assessment level is important, and the grading schema must be clear to students, who are understandably sensitive to receiving a lower grade than they feel they earned on a group project. Team evaluation can always be done on two bases: how well the group worked together to produce the product, and the quality of the product or output.
Assessing the group as a team
When the group is assessed as a team, members can bond more closely and, where bonding and interactivity occur, the social context improves the quality of the learning experience. However, you need to prepare for the situation of the procrastinator or non-contributor who may reduce the team's motivation. The group must have some mechanism to manage this problem if it affects performance. In the most extreme circumstance, you may allow the group to elect to work without the person who is not contributing, and arrange alternate work or a withdrawal for the non-participating student. To avoid such situations, keep the tone positive and ensure that everyone understands expectations.
Assessing the group as a team and as individuals
You may elect to give separate grades, weighted appropriately, to individual work and to work within the team. In this way, the grade for team that produces a quality product, despite a non-contributor, will not be reduced. Only the non-contributor will experience receiving a lower grade.
Assessing individuals within the context of the group
You can set expectations for group performance, but assess students separately.
"In this class, not everyone in each learning team will necessarily receive the same assessment. Assessments depend on individual efforts. I will be looking at individual contributions to each team project, as well as the ability of each learning team to work together effectively as a team."
Kitren VanStrander, RIT Faculty
Assess as you would other student work
The contributions may be in the form of links to web sites, but contributions of ideas, new content, challenges to assumptions and synthesis of concepts and ideas are always important.
To discuss designs for collaborative learning activities for on-campus or online classes, click here to make an appointment with the Teaching & Learning Services team.