Topic 3 is about learning in communities and learning in collaborative learning.

Most of the time, when we ask students to do a collaborative work, they end up by sharing the work into sub-tasks and then they do these sub-tasks individually. Collaborative learning is much more than that.

In our PBL group, we focused our discussions on ‘limitations of collaborative learning’ and ‘teachers role in collaborative learning’.

There are many limitations in collaborative learning. A main issue is to ensure that all the participants are active and really learning.

From my own experience, engaging students in collaborative learning and checking if the students are active or not are the hardest tasks for a teacher. I could deal with this problem in my teaching because the groups were quiet small (groups of two to three students).
This is confirmed by Brindley et al (2009) who say that ‘There appears to be a strong argument for including small group collaborative learning experiences in online courses. The literature reveals a significant relationship between participation in these experiences and deeper learning as well as the development of learning and teamwork skills’.
It is not feasible for the teacher to grade and give feedback to all the participants. It is also very hard for the teacher to check who is an active participant and who is not (especially when the groups are big). This problem can be (at least partially) solved (for the teacher) by the following strategies:

  • setting a group contract (to be signed by all the participants) that allows to remove participants who do not do the work,
  • combining individual and group tasks,
  • group evaluation, where each student evaluates the other members of the group,
  • self-evaluation for each students,
  • quizzes about the content of the group work.

Another limitation in collaborative learning is that different participants learn at different speeds. Also, some participants may struggle because of their limited group work skills.

Here comes the role of the teacher in collaborative learning, who can help to improve the overall collaborative learning experience and its output despite the limitations mentioned above.
The teacher must be well prepared by ensuring that all groups have appropriate tools to work together, setting rules for collaboration, and preparing students for peer feedback whenever it is used.
The teacher should also encourage students to be active in group collaborative learning, for example by giving a ‘social grade’ on group assignments.

It is important that all students participate in the group work, otherwise the goals of the group work will not be achieved. We experienced that in our PBL group, where we learned a lot as a group thanks to our individual contributions.

In summary, to get the best output from collaborative learning, the latter has to be used in combination with individual learning/work. Also, a good preparation of the teacher is a key factor in making the collaborative learning experience successful, as stated in Brindley et al (2009): ‘Further, well planned instructional strategies that are intended to improve the group learning experience appear to have a number of added benefits, such as helping students to achieve deeper learning and to build their confidence and skills.’

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3)

Reflections about collaborative learning