Collaborative learning

Learning is promoted when pupils and students thereby work together effectively and share responsibility to achieve a common goal.

  • Does collaborative learning promote learning?
  • What is interdependence?
  • What is effective collaboration?
  • What are conditions for effective collaboration?
  • What does elaborative explanation mean?
  • What are effective interaction processes?

What does it mean and why is it important?

Collaborative learning has the characteristic that learners and students share a responsibility to achieve a common goal. As learners share knowledge and expertise to achieve this goal, there is mutual dependence (Roseth, Johnson, & Johnson, 2008). Learners and students need each other to achieve the goal. Collaborative learning can enhance learning outcomes (Roseth et al., 2008; Rohrbeck et al., 2003). Collaborative learning can lead to two types of learning outcomes: individual learning achievement and collaborative group achievement.

Whether collaborative learning is effective depends on the interaction between learners and students during collaborative learning. Effective interaction processes include arguing, proposing ideas, equal participation, building on each other’s ideas, checking mutual understanding, regulating the collaboration process and elaboration (Van Boxtel, 2004; Kumpulainen & Kaartinen, 2003; Mercer, 2000; Saab, 2012; Barron, 2003; Baker et al., 1999).

Elaboration can be applied during explanation and questioning. For example, during collaborative work, giving and receiving elaborative explanations and help can enhance learning performance (Webb & Mastergeorge, 2003), both for the explainer and the explanation receiver. The concept of elaborative here refers to providing more detailed and substantiated help. So this means not only giving the answer to the question, but also explaining why.

Effective collaboration does not come naturally. If pupils and students do not know how to collaborate effectively, have never learned this, for example, there is a chance that collaborative learning does not enhance learning outcomes. There may also be free-riding behaviour by students who contribute nothing to the collaborative process but benefit from the efforts of others.

Teachers can influence pupil-student collaboration by applying certain didactics, in preparation for collaboration, the design of the collaboration task, as support during the task.

Preparation for collaboration

Pupils and students do not naturally know how to collaborate effectively. Providing training to learn and practice collaboration skills or social skills can be helpful (Wegerif, Mercer, & Dawes, 1999; Saab et al., 2007).

Setting up the collaboration task

Promoting the interdependence of pupils and students during collaborative work leads to more effective collaboration. A teacher can design the work form so that students are dependent on each other and cannot complete the task without each other. An example of such a form of work is the ‘Jigsaw method’, in which the students and students in the group are given different, complementary information, needed to complete the task. So the pupils and students need each other and will have to work together to complete the task. It is then important that they know how to work together effectively, which can be learned through training.

Support during collaboration

Teachers can support the cooperation process by offering help at times when interaction is not going so well. However, research shows that teachers struggle with this because they do not have a good overview of the interaction processes and their effect on learning performance (Van Leeuwen, Janssen, Erkens, & Brekelmans, 2013). In addition, group composition affects effective collaboration. Heterogeneous groups with respect to knowledge level, i.e. with pupils and students of different levels, often achieve better learning performance than homogeneous groups.

Practical implications

Teacher collaboration in school

Tips for a productive conversation between teachers and how to facilitate it in school are summarised:

  • There is a clearly designated discussion leader, and the role of discussion leader varies from meeting to meeting, so there was shared responsibility;
  • There is a focus on getting to know each other and teachers’ motivation to participate;
  • In the conversations, turns are shared fairly, and there is variety in who takes the floor;
  • Productive conversations do not stop at exchanging information among themselves, but also involve other forms of discussion, such as opinion-forming and argumentation, question-and-answer conversations, but also making plans for the future;
  • The content of the conversations is supported with teaching materials, created products or video recordings of lessons, so that the ideas and suggestions are directly applicable in the classroom;
  • A size of three to four teachers is optimal if you want to develop new materials or approaches; larger PLGs are more suitable for exchanging information;
  • Productive groups are diverse in composition (teachers from different subjects, with much or little experience in collaborating, with different reasons for participating). Diverse groups were found to be more likely to provide ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking or new insights.

Research projects

  • Hybrid virtual education: interaction between teacher, class and a sick pupil at home (NRO)

Using a multiple case study, the interaction, social engagement and motivation for school of sick pupils, and the role of teachers in this, are identified. It also examines what technical systems need to meet. Implications for hybrid virtual education also apply when non-long-term sick pupils cannot or should not attend school.

  • Sustainable development of the school as a professional learning community (NRO)

The aim of this research project is to gain insight into the ongoing development of the school as a PLG, with a focus on actions taken by schools, processes initiated and how these lead to sustainable returns.

  • Professional learning communities in vmbo: effects of interdependence on differentiated education (NRO)

Research into teachers’ dialogue and collaboration in vmbo and how this can be strengthened. Loes de Jong’s dissertation is one of the projects.

  • IoT Rapid-Proto Labs (Erasmus Knowledge Alliance programme)

Three universities in Europe are experimenting with project teaching and student labs to come up with ingredients for a curriculum for teaching about Internet of Things in higher education.

PhD tracks

Scholarly publications

  • Galikyan, I., Admiraal, W., & Kester, L. (2021). MOOC discussion forums: The interplay of the cognitive and the social. Computers & Education, 165, 104133.
  • Guo P., Saab N., Post L.S. & Admiraal W. (2020), A review of project-based learning in higher education: Student outcomes and measures, International Journal of Educational Research 102: 101586.
  • Jong, L. de, Meirink, J., & Admiraal, W. (online first). Teacher learning in the context of teacher collaboration: Connecting teacher dialogue to teacher learning. Research Papers in EducationDOI: 10.1080/02671522.2021.1931950
  • Mouw J.M., Saab N., Janssen J. & Vedder P. (2019), Quality of group interaction, ethnic group composition, and individual mathematical learning gains, Social Psychology of Education 22(2): 383-403.
  • Post L.S., Guo P., Saab N. & Admiraal W.F. (2019), Effects of remote labs on cognitive, behavioral, and affective learning outcomes in higher education, Computers & Education 140: 1-9.

Contact person for this principle
Nadira Saab