Collaborative learning in the forms of think-pair-share, group discussions and longer-term projects have been introduced across different levels of learning, including the higher education (Jin 2012; Flores et al. 2015).

In teaching professional and business communication courses, teamwork and collaboration are incorporated in my courses as a way to simulate interaction within workplace work teams. Often, the design requires students to work extensively with a group of three to four peers on assignments which require them to select a focus of their choice (e.g. rethink the use of a public space for urban planning; choose an existing public space and propose a redesign for an aging population). The groupwork necessarily goes through Tuckman’s stages of teamwork – forming, storming, norming and performing (1965). Over the years, I have found the experiential learning (Kolb, 1985) process that comes with mandated collaborative work effectively constructivist.

From individual research on a topic of interest, to group brainstorming and checking-in with the teacher, students learn to create spaces to develop their inquiry, share, listen and consider others’ inputs, consolidate ideas and present preliminary iterations to gather feedback. The journey simulates real-world workplace rhythm and gives autonomy at individual and group level as they facilitate purposefully the learning together. The discussion, iteration, checking-in and revision processes outline a version of Kolb’s experiential learning naturally.

Aside from learning to collaborate and through collaboration, often, the final assessment products of a written proposal and presentation pitch are works students can be proud of as current and industry relevance are showcased in the products. On paper and with most groups of students, the design is beautiful. However, there are always concerns about the shared marks received when there are free-loaders or weak links in a group. The shared marks for the assignments have caused their individual distinction to be ‘indistinguishable in the work of the group’ (Webb 1993; Kagan 1995; cited in Meijer, 2020).

The discussion leads to further considerations on (1) the maximum weighting for group work, and (2) whether groups should be made up of students with a mix of strengths and competencies (i.e. heterogenous) or homogenous? Both considerations are critical in affecting motivation and successful, meaningful collaborative learning. In simulating reality, team dynamics and team management seldom take up a high percentage of a professional’s appraisal unless she is a manager. As for group mix, again, in reality, executives (or engineers, programmers) do not choose their colleagues and teammates. Teams are made up of heterogeneous mix of strengths, competencies and attitudes in reality.

Long-term collaborative work requires well-timed support. In my course, students form their own groups, often with friends or fellow stragglers (ungrouped during given time). The chance of success and excelling frequently depends on the group’s motivation and individuals’ competency levels. In the socio-emotional realm, there are friends who learnt discouraging truths about each other and strangers who became friends in the process. And groupthink (Whyte, 1989) is common. The teacher’s role in having milestone check-in meetings is crucial for long-term collaborative groupwork. Early and timely interventions to correct groups that are deviating in focus is part of formative assessment. Strategic check-ins are part of scaffolding and it creates a safe space for learning. Most importantly, the check-ins should prevent having to penalize a group harshly at the stage of summative assessment.

There are many creative ways to design collaborative learning into our courses. Short and simple ones like mid-seminar small-group chats on a couple of concept questions helps to make clarification of doubts less threatening as they can engage in peer teaching. If students are ‘lost’, their peers may teach them how to find pre-class resources. At a more advanced stage of the seminar, small-groups can be challenged to co-develop examples for concept application. The short, timed group chats may culminate with big-group (class) sharing by a few groups. Again, the grouping is likely to be organic; as with having randomized Zoom break-out arrangements for online seminars.

Whether it is a short, long, group or individual task, students always appreciate systematic scaffolding, a safe learning space, and clear instructions. Reflecting and considering these three factors in my pedagogy are a constant as I embrace both the beauty and challenges of collaborative learning and assessment.


Flores, M. A., A. M. Veiga Sim~ao, A. Barros, and D. Pereira. (2015). Perceptions of Effectiveness, Fairness and Feedback of Assessment Methods: A Study in Higher Education. Studies in Higher Education, 40 (9): 1523–1534. doi:10.1080/03075079.2014.881348.

Jin, X. H. (2012). A Comparative Study of Effectiveness of Peer Assessment of Individuals’ Contributions to Group Projects in Undergraduate Construction Management Core Units. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37 (5): 577–589. doi:10.1080/02602938.2011.557147.

Kagan, S. (1995). Group Grades Miss the Mark. Educational Leadership, 52 (8): 68–71.

Meijer, H., Hoekstra, R., Brouwer, J. & Strijbos, J-W (2020). Unfolding collaborative learning assessment literacy: a reflection on current assessment methods in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(8): 1222-1240.

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6): 384–399. doi:10.1037/h0022100PMID 14314073

Webb, N. M. (1993). Collaborative Group versus Individual Assessment in Mathematics: Processes and Outcomes. Educational Assessment, 1 (2): 131–152. doi:10.1037/e670282011-001.

Whyte, G. (1989)..Groupthink reconsidered”. Academy of Management Review14 (1): 40–56. doi:10.2307/258190

Topic 3: The Beauty and Challenge of Collaborative Learning and Assessment