This week’s ONL topic shed light on the essential elements required for effective collaborative learning. In my PBL Group meeting, one of the members asked these questions: “What’s so wrong with “divide and conquer”? I’ve always done it this way… Have I been doing collaboration wrong all this while?”

This made me think more carefully about how I have been setting up collaborative learning for my students, and I realised why some groups seemed truly collaborative and enjoyed the collaborative assignment, while other groups seemed fragmented and thought the collaborative assignment a waste of time. I realised that fragmented groups tended to use the “divide and conquer” approach and met up only at the start and end of the collaboration, whereas more cohesive groups tended to work well together and have good relations and communication throughout the assignment. I also realised that how I design the collaborative assignment affects the quantity and quality of collaboration among the students.

According to Smucker & Nuss (2023, p. 2), “true collaborative learning is designed to enhance individual learning and co-constructed group learning through a shared workload.”

After some careful reflection, I surmised that effective collaborative learning essentially requires the following 3 things that are sometimes missing in the assignments I set for my students:

1. Positive interdependence among group members (Johnson et al., 1990)

There is nothing wrong with “divide and conquer,” but different parts of the project need to be dependent on each other. If the final product can be completed by one person within the given time frame, then requiring students to divide the work or to work on it together would not be meaningful and would be deemed an inefficient use of time. However, if the final product is sufficiently complex and too big for one person to complete within the given timeframe or with the resources that any one student might have, then collaboration becomes meaningful and the students are more likely to see more value in collaborating to complete the work.

For example, in one of my business communication course, I had students work in groups of 4 to conduct a 10-minute presentation on meeting skills. The students split the presentation into 4 parts, and each student prepared and presented on their own part. During the Q&A session, each student addressed only the questions relevant to their own part. Looking back now, I think this assignment did not maximise collaborative learning because each student could complete their own part independently of the others.

According to Baker (2015, p. 3), “the most ‘collaborative’ situations are those that are largely exploratory, where no clear plan or procedure exists for solving the problem (or, indeed, for organising collaboration). In such situations, the aim will be for students to explore the problem space and in so doing gain deeper conceptual understanding.”

Therefore, what I could have done to elevate collaboration was perhaps to assign each student some readings on a sub-topic of meeting skills, and then have them sit together to pool what they have learned from their readings and apply them to analyse a case study or a scenario of an ineffective meeting.

2. Individual accountability towards the team project (Johnson et al., 1990)

Most group assignments carry an individual as well as a group mark. Reflecting on my assignments, the group mark is often rather small (e.g. 10%) in relation to the overall mark allocated for the assignment. And this 10% group mark is often awarded for things like cohesion in content, attire and slides, and whether the students build on each other’s answers or help each other out during the Q&A. Sometimes, students are asked to appraise their group members’ contribution to the project. Most of the time, I realised, there is often a group leader who tends to be the most knowledgeable about the final product, while the others tend to only know their own parts. To ensure that each student makes an effort to learn about other students’ sections in the project, I think it is also necessary to impose a rule whereby each student needs to be able to answer any question about any part of the project.

3. Knowledge about how to function as a team and as a valuable team member (Johnson et al., 1990)

Collaborative learning focuses on the product AND the process. I realised that it is important to bear in mind that students do not automatically know how to work together. In order for them to function effectively and productively as a collaborative team, they need to be pre-taught such skills as:

  • Social competence – how to be supportive, show respect, be inclusive, engage with each other, create safe space, understand team development phases and challenges and be able to resolve conflicts and challenges amicably/productively, engage in difficult conversations.
    • To motivate each student to pull their own weight, teachers could help set up a free rider policy with clear expectations and even penalty for free riders. Teachers could also set up a Team member contribution report or Team work evaluation form for each member to give feedback about others’ contribution.
  • Team spirit – decision-making to benefit team goals, feelings of ownership for the team project, etc.
  • Project management – setting goals, creating timeline, making checklists, keeping the team focused on the goal, etc.


Baker, M. J. (2015). Collaboration in collaborative learning. Interaction Studies. Social Behaviour and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systems, 16(3), 451–473.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., Stanne, M. B., & Garibaldi, A. (1990). Impact of Group Processing on Achievement in Cooperative Groups. The Journal of Social Psychology, 130(4), 507–516.

Smucker, Amelie D. and Nuss, Sarah M. (2022) “Enhancing Collaborative Learning Through Design for Learning,” The William & Mary Educational Review: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 1. Available at:

Harvesting maximum value from collaborative learning