Rochelle and Tesley define collaborative learning as a “coordinated and synchronous activity that results from a continuous attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem.” This succinctly summarizes “two or more people’s attempts to learn something together.” Although these definitions are not conflicting, they shed light on different aspects of collaborative learning.

Defining what “learning” means is important before delving into the details of collaborative learning. Dillenbourg defines it as “performing some activities (reading, building, experimenting, listening, predicting, etc.) which trigger some cognitive activities (deduction, induction, abduction, analogical reasoning, association, etc.) that result in learning or understanding.” Learning ultimately takes place at a personal level – collaborative learning doesn’t provide a recipe for knowledge construction, but it does involve cognitive activities like knowledge elicitation, grounding (explanation, internalization, and/or appropriation), and conflict resolution that can increase the likelihood of successful learning and improve learners’ understanding of the world.

Collaborative learning involves attempting to solve problems together. In a learning setting, the “problem” might be generalized as “solving a defined problem together,” which can be measured in terms of improvement in problem-solving skills and/or quality/level of elicited knowledge. Collaborative learning is, therefore, a side-effect of “joint problem-solving,” which depends on several crucial factors as identified by  Dillenbourg, shown in the figure.

For successful collaborative learning, participants must share a goal of solving the defined problem at the very least. Differing agendas are likely to cause coordination problems and jeopardize the shared objective. A successful shared goal is built on symmetrical group dynamic perception, including symmetry in knowledge level, status, or participation level. Mild asymmetry in knowledge level is desirable for activating collaborative cognitive mechanisms, but large asymmetry is likely to lead to asynchronous interactions, which prevent triggering conflict resolution, explanation, appropriation, or internalization mechanisms.

Vertical division of work might emerge in an environment where there is asymmetric status; low-level tasks might be performed by some group members, while high-level tasks (e.g., managerial tasks) might be performed by high-status members. Asynchronous interactions favor cooperation rather than “learning together.” Thus, horizontal division of labor requires synchronous interactions, making it more likely to trigger collaborative cognitive mechanisms.

Collaborative cognitive mechanisms are most likely to be triggered when interactions are negotiable, indicating participants’ willingness to argue their standpoint, justify their views regardless of their authority, attempt to convince, share/receive feedback, and reflect on their knowledge level. Interpersonal dynamics pose one of the obstacles to successful collaboration, partly due to participants’ motivation for attaining the task. Performance-oriented participants tend to have egocentric behavior, while mastery-oriented participants optimize the required cognitive effort since learning is personal and collaboration requires activating additional cognitive mechanisms. For either types of the motivation, collaboration bring reduced cognitive load, and is a driving force to attain the collaborative task. Therefore, successful collaborative learning can be achieved by understanding and mitigating the factors that prevent reduced cognitive load, such as coordination, time management problems, and managing interpersonal dynamics.

In conclusion, collaborative learning is a powerful tool for enhanced learning outcomes and problem-solving abilities. It requires coordination among participants, negotiability, and an environment that supports synchronous interactions that promote the triggering of collaborative cognitive mechanisms. However, maintaining the harmony of collaboration can be challenging, and participants must have a shared goal for successful collaboration. Symmetry in knowledge level, status, and participation among collaborators can further reinforce the attainment of this shared objective. It is essential to note that the success of collaborative learning is highly dependent on the quality of interactions, interpersonal dynamics, and effective communication within the group. Overall, the benefits of collaborative learning make it a favorable approach for learning and problem-solving tasks that require multiple perspectives and diverse solutions.

Understanding Collaborative Learning: Cognitive Mechanisms and Factors for Success