The Value of Collaborative Learning

Learning is more effective when done collaboratively. In generations past there was a taboo about working in groups; school work was supposed to be done individually. Research from Richard Light of Harvard unequivocally indicates that students working collaboratively learn more effectively, and are far more likely to achieve their academic goals (such as graduating from college and attending graduate school). His study, which consisted of in-depth interviews with over 1,600 college students, found virtually all struggling students shared one key trait: they tended to study alone. Collaboration can be the difference between a lackluster performance and a fully engaged student.

Joe Cusio of Marymount College (CA) in his book, Thriving in College and Beyond, makes an even stronger case for collaborative learning. Following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Cusio convincingly details how students need a sense of security and belonging: collaborative learning provides both.  Once secure and accepted, these students will then take risks, study challenging courses, and through achievement, they will build self-esteem on their way to ‘self-actualization.’ This is more likely to happen among students who learn collaboratively. It’s exactly the outcome wanted, so how can collaborative learning be incorporated into daily action? Collaboration needs to be done among faculty, advisors, and peers.

Students need to develop collaborative interchanges with faculty.  Study after study finds that students who spend quality time with faculty outside of the classroom vastly improve performance and critical thinking skills. The best time to interact with teachers is right after class, during their office hours, or by text or email. Asking questions about a faculty member’s research or questions about the class content is a good means of breaking the ice. Once you have a rapport established, the relationship will build.     

Collaborating with advisors and counselors is valuable since oftentimes they know more about programs and possibilities around campus. The better they know you, the better their advice will become, and the better they can write a recommendation. If your school doesn’t assign you a counselor or advisor, find someone within the faculty to mentor you. The more you collaborate with an advisor or mentor, the more connected you’ll become to your college community which might possibly lead to undergraduate research activities, internships, and summer employment opportunities.

Collaborating with your peers is of utmost importance. You might be inclined to think your peers as ‘the competition’. Don’t.   Studies again find students from the earliest school years through graduate school improve academically and interpersonally when collaborating with their peers. You might very well want to build learning teams comprised of members who share your motivation and work ethic. You also might want to include members with a different background and perspective—that will broaden your combined skillsets and introduce you to approaches and problem solving you might never have considered among those more likeminded.

Many activities are best done collaboratively: note-taking, reading (to compare reactions to different works and how best to annotate, and understand them), writing (to brainstorm and review compositions: Dartmouth strongly advocates collaborative writing,, and researching, either online or in the library. If you have a critical number of team members, and you find yourself taking a block of courses together, you might form a ‘learning community,’ which will encourage you to explore the readings, review papers and tests, and even supplement various portions of the syllabus. Again studies confirm, students in learning communities improve active classroom learning, and attain greater intellectual gains.    

Collaborative learning encourages involvement in the classroom, while broadening networks of contacts and friends. It takes effort and possibly a push beyond your comfort zone, but the rewards warrant the effort, Collaborating will pay enormous dividends upon graduation and in your future world of work.  Don’t hesitate, collaborate.