When you hear the term collaborative learning, you probably have an idea that the term refers to some kind of group-based activity. Group projects or assignments are not uncommon in the classroom setting. In fact, it appears to be increasing in popularity for a number of reasons. Despite this growth, employers indicate that new graduates are not as prepared as they should be in working effectively in groups. For this purpose, when we refer to collaborative learning, we are focusing primarily on the internal structure of group-based work. Learners are directly taught how to function independently as a team, with minimal outside structuring.
To further delineate traditional group work from collaborative learning, Those who participate in collaborative learning experiences discover that it:
• promotes a great deal of self-governance and accountability by individual;
• turns debate back to the group for decision-making;
• uses recorders and facilitators rather than authoritative leaders;
• evaluates on the basis of individual contributions;
• promotes competition between groups, and foments questioning assumptions as well as authority; and
• is most effective where "conditional knowledge" is involved rather than issues of general acceptance and agreement; that is, for knowledge that depends on a more explicit set of conditions, such as at the edges of a debate, where the lack of consensus about underlying assumptions or their relative weights (the conditions) leads to an array of interpretations (Coppola, 1996)
However, group-based work looks different from course to course. We propose collaboration as a goal which requires individuals to organize themselves to create a match between group members' skills and the task at hand.
Tinto (2008) addressed the engagement advantages of learning communities, describing three primary benefits which would seem to apply to other high-impact programs as well. These advantages include shared knowledge, shared knowing, and shared responsibility. "Shared knowledge" refers to the ways that learning intersects across the curriculum. This practice allows for this knowledge to be augmented by having students engage one another: "By asking students to construct knowledge together,…[educators] involve students both socially and intellectually in ways that promote cognitive development as well as an appreciation for the many ways in which one's own knowing is enhanced when other voices are part of that learning experience." (Tinto, 2008,p.2). The concept of "shared knowing" refers to a particular cohort of students gaining this knowledge together as a common intellectual experience. It is perhaps the aspect of "shared responsibility" that has the greatest impact on the persistence and success of at-risk students. When student "participate in collaborative groups which require students to be mutually dependent on one another… the learning of the group does not advance without each member doing her or his part" (Tinto, 2008, p.4).
Generally, group-based work:
• promotes more active engagement by students in their own learning;
• emphasizes the role of teachers and students as learners who benefit from teaching one another;
• creates the opportunity to develop important higher order interpersonal and group skills; and
• can promote the development of self-learning skills so that students can deal with new information rather than only relying on authorities to 'cover' content.