Collaborative learning for the win

Collaborative learning seems to provide significant benefits for learning as students can observe one another learning, ask questions from their peers, bring their own perspectives for other students, learn to work in groups and so forth. However, at the same time students can experience group work as tedious and needlessly complicated and just divide their tasks and work individually. Motivating students to work in groups is thus often a challenge for educators.

The social learning framework by Etienne Wegner (2009) distinguishes between four dimensions that are relevant for learning: meaning, community, practice, and identity. Wenger seems somewhat ambiguous of what “meaning” exactly means in the framework (based on 2009 article). My interpretation is that meaning is the outcome of learning, a way to signify the world and its phenomena. That is, when I learn something, I construct a meaning through which I understand the world. Of course, it is not only “I” but we in a collaborative learning. Meaning is central aspect of motivating students: if learning outcomes are considered irrelevant there is little reason to engage in learning.

Community refers to the relations between different people who are engaged in learning in one way or another. It seems that Wenger’s concept of communities of practice more specifically defines how learning is tied to its social context – learning does not take place in vacuum but it is always related to different groups of people, institutions, and organizations. Hence it’s not just about individual motivation that is at stake as learning is connected with others in the community. It is also interesting how Wenger (2010) responds to the criticism levelled against the concept as it potentially hides power relations and other issues in communities of practice and paints them as too homogeneous: the power is inherent in reproducing inequalities through communities of practice and there is always a possibility to change power relations in this constant cycle reproduction.

Practices are the ways in which learning is done. As learning is not done just by thinking, it makes sense to conceptualize the myriad of ways in which students can learn. Practices seem to be something of a challenge in collaborative learning especially in digital contexts – there are more and more tools available, but do these tools support meaningful learning practices? While certainly many of these are truly beneficial, the interactional practices between the students beyond such tools should not be forgotten. It is no wonder that students feel taxes after too many COVID-forced team meetings over the Internet without the immediate human interactions.

As for identity, learning has implications for how we define ourselves and who we are. As identities are not fixed, there is potential to challenge oneself in collaborative settings: for example, by taking up the position as a chair in a PBL group one assumes a particular position that affects the identity – at least for the time being. This can potentially be used in enabling student groups to function more efficiently by allocating different roles to students so that they can try different position (e.g. chair, devil’s advocate, innovator) in relation with one another and hence be more explicit about how the group functions.

Related to the identity of learners, our group discussed also how the composition of the group affects collaborative learning. Setting groups so that there are individuals from different social backgrounds can be beneficial for creating understanding between different people. Sometimes it might make sense to allow students to choose their own groups to enable well-functioning learning. One interesting aspects of group composition is how to make students accountable for the group when the students do not know one another and there might be less initial cohesion. Providing enough time for socializing and motivating students of the benefits of learning from new collaborators can provide some help in with respect.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer London.

Wenger, E. (2009). A social theory of learning. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contempoary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (pp. 210–218).


Elisabeth Ahlinder says:

Thank you for your well written reflection! I agree that it is useful to think abour the collaborationa nd motivation as both an I and a we. The use of shifting roles might be a powerful tool also to help student commitment and understanding of their role visavi different tasks. For example, by being assigned the moderator task, or to be asked to summarize a discussion at the end of a metting, can be very effective in heloing students understand how important it is to contribute and help eachother as a group in different roles. By being a moderator, you will know, by own experience, what you need to do to be a resourceful and helpful part of the group and assist the moderator for the next topic.

Hi Elisabeth and thank you for the comment! I think your point about learning how to contribute in different roles is a cornerstone for collaborative learning. While these different roles might become familiar through extensive experience it’s probably good to include also explicit reflection of these roles for students in their curricula.

Mentioned Etienne Wenger’s social learning framework that identifies four relevant dimensions: meaning, community, practice, and identity sounds intriguing.

I agree that the group’s composition can also affect collaborative learning, and allowing students to choose their groups or providing time for socializing can help improve group dynamics.

Thanks for the summary!

Hi Marko, no problem and thanks for the comment! During the PBL group work I have noticed that the socializing is really important especially when working with new people. Providing time and resources for students to socialize and explicating the importance of it is certainly useful in the future.

Anita Toh says:

Hi Visa. I’m interested in what you said about collaborative learning being an avenue for students to define and discover their identity. You’ve just given me an idea for a study (TQ!) – how individual students perceive themselves in group settings and how this perception may have changed/developed after 1 semester of role-rotation in their collaborative groups… Wondering if you have any thoughts on this 🙂

Visa says:

Hi Anita, I think your study idea makes a lot of sense and is really interesting! Something that comes to my mind is that often these experiences regarding roles in groups go quite unnoticed even though they can be quite formative. So, for example, a shy student might gain more self-confidence by acting in a particular position or just by being a part of an enabling group. Making students more aware of these changes in self-perception can provide assurance for them. So maybe encouraging them to write reflections in the beginning and the end of the semester might be a good way to implement your study idea?

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