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Collaborative learning

‘Paired and group activities can increase pupil success, but to work together effectively pupils need guidance, support and practice.’

(ITT core content framework DfE, 2019)

Topics on this page:

What is collaborative learning? | Why use collaborative learning? | The role of the teacher | When to use collaborative learning? | Planning collaborative learning | The practicalities of working in groups | Planning a collaborative learning activity: where to start? | An idea for creating balanced groups | Suggested strategies for group discussion | Reading

What is collaborative learning?

Collaborative learning involves groups (or pairs) of students learning together on a task in which they are discussing and sharing ideas and justifying their opinions. The collaboration is the key to this learning approach. It means more than ‘group work’, where students can be seated in groups but may not be working together. There is a big difference between working as groups, which is collaborative learning, rather than in groups.

Collaborative learning can vary from short two-minute discussions in pairs to collaborative work spanning several lessons. It can be used for short activities within a lesson, when pairs or small groups of students are formed to work together on a specific learning task for a short time. It can be also used for longer activities such as geographical enquiries, decision-making activities or role-play.

Why use collaborative learning?

The opening quote sets out what new teachers should know about collaborative learning according to the DfE frameworks. It also requires that they know how to stimulate pupil thinking and check for understanding, by considering factors that will support effective collaborative or paired work. Some exemplars are given: familiarity with routines, whether pupils have the necessary prior knowledge and how pupils are grouped.

The impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive. However, the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit points out that:

‘the size of impact varies, so it is important to get the detail right. Effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting pupils together and asking them to work in a group’; structured approaches with well-designed tasks lead to the greatest learning gains. There is some evidence that collaboration can be supported with competition between groups, but this is not always necessary, and can lead to learners focusing on the competition rather than the learning it aims to support. Approaches which promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains.’

Collaborative learning is one of the key classroom practices used in geography because it capitalises on the use of student talk. When students are working in small groups, they have the opportunity to contribute their thoughts verbally and share tentative ideas that can be tested on their peers.

Everyone can participate in the discussion and explore their ideas, which is very important in all aspects of geography: physical, human and environmental. Students are often more willing to contribute in smaller groups than to whole class discussions, and it can be easier for a teacher to initiate discussion in this way. Collaboration can involve students working on separate tasks that contribute to a common overall outcome, or they may work together on a shared task.

Small group work, if well planned, can give students the chance to collaborate in exploring geographical data and information to reach common conclusions and make judgments together. Groups can evaluate the relative strength of different ideas through discussion and this often results in more effective problem-solving.

Small group activities that help students to make sense of geographical data include:

  • Sorting data into categories, such as from a shopping survey
  • Ranking information by the importance of different possibilities for future developments
  • Preparing for a role-play, such as a planning enquiry
  • Identifying links between concepts on a concept map
  • Reconstructing information in another form, such as using a text on glaciation to produce a diagram.

When collaborative learning is working well, each group member is motivated to ensure that everyone gains the knowledge needed to succeed in the task. The EEF (2021) noted that research evidence suggests that collaborative learning is likely to reduce cognitive load as learners work together and share information.

What is less clear is how this can be designed to optimise cognitive load for individuals within the group, ensuring that all are attending to relevant and challenging information relative to their prior level of understanding.

The role of the teacher

While research evidence suggests that collaborative group work is potentially highly effective, it is also true that it can be challenging for teachers to implement well. There are factors that require management expertise, such as implementing routines and organising groups. In addition, a teacher has to draw on their expertise about learning to decide on the appropriate activity to achieve the desired outcomes and how to assess prior learning.

Obviously, a teacher must initially set up the activity and groups, and provide support when students need help. However, when the activity is underway and groups are working and discussing the task, the teacher’s role changes. The teacher’s role at that time is to listen.

They should draw on what the group members are saying and doing to decide what, if any, intervention is needed; they may need to explain something that has not been understood; they may need to challenge them to think in a different direction. The possibilities are numerous. How a teacher manages appropriate interventions is a key factor in making collaborative learning successful. They should resist the temptation to interrupt groups if they are working well and having a constructive discussion.

An intervention to say ‘how are you getting on’ only succeeds in diverting their attention and breaks up their flow of discussion and thought; a teacher is likely to find out more just by listening in.

  • Read Roberts (2023) about the teacher’s role in small group work.
Four functions carried out by the teacher are organising, monitoring, guiding and social talk. These were studied in an Australian research project outlined in Roberts (2023) pp. 39-41 in ‘Supporting individual and group work’. Study Figure 4.4, which sets out categories of teacher interactions with students when working on tasks, and carefully consider the research findings described. These emphasise that effective collaborative group work requires a skilled teacher who uses sophisticated and responsive intervention strategies that are targeted to meet students’ needs and ensure their progression through the task. It is also important that teachers know when to ‘disconnect’ and allow the students the time and space to engage in problem-solving and reasoning together.
  • Carry out the activity below and note the different interventions and non-interventions made by the teacher. Discuss with the teacher afterwards how they decide when to intervene and when not to.

In one of your lesson observations focus on a group of learners.

  • What is the composition of the group? How was it formed?
  • How do the students set about the task they have been given?
  • Are all the students involved? Are they all contributing orally, or are some passive?
  • Is there a dominant student? How do the others in the group respond to this, and their ideas?
  • How are ideas developed within the group? 
  • How is a consensus reached on the outcome asked for – or is it not reached?
  • How does the group respond to any teacher interventions?
  • What learning and insights have the students gained from the discussion? Could this have been achieved in other ways?
  • Compare the findings of this group, with another you have observed closely. Can you explain why they are different? Does this influence the learning outcomes?

Discuss your observations with your mentor and the teachers you observed. You could also interview the students in the group you observed to discuss their views about collaborative learning.

When to use collaborative learning?

The use of collaborative learning depends on the nature of the task that a teacher is asking students to do. A good collaborative activity is one that requires good interaction to achieve effective learning. This usually means students learning though talk and discussion with others, for example to solve a problem. Teachers should not use collaborative learning all the time, but adopt a range of different approaches and teaching activities.

Consider the effective use of lesson time. Weigh up the time to be spent on the activity and its potential learning gains in relation to the time needed to set up groups, especially if students need to move around the classroom. That is why working in pairs can be useful and quicker for short collaborative activities.

Talk partners are a useful strategy to give students an opportunity to articulate their ideas with someone else. For example, a teacher poses a question to the class and asks students to share their thoughts with their ‘talk partner’ first, before they offer an answer. Teachers need to consider who the partners are, and should mix up talk partners from time to time so that students interact with different students in the class.

Planning collaborative learning

Collaborative learning does not just ‘happen’. Students may be seated in groups in a geography classroom, but this does not necessarily mean they are working together. Effective collaborative learning requires that all students participate and share ideas with others; they must all listen and communicate; it involves compromise. These characteristics do not come naturally to all students, so collaborative learning is part of the wider, hidden curriculum to develop these skills.

Before you plan collaborative learning, find out what previous experience the class have of working in this way. Students may need explicit guidance about how to work collaboratively and be set some ground rules, such as taking turns to make a point each. A task might require clearly assigned roles within the group, so that all become fully involved. Every student’s contribution must matter and no student should be able to opt out or hang back while the others do all the thinking.

The students must have the necessary prior knowledge and skills to undertake the task successfully. Collaborative learning is inappropriate if students have too little knowledge about the topic to make it meaningful because they will only be recycling weak or inaccurate knowledge. 

A teacher needs to decide whether any prompts/questions are needed to structure discussion and whether any students require specific support. They also need to consider what misconceptions might occur in this topic and what action might be needed to avoid these being reinforced within the groups.

When teachers plan group tasks, they should consider the group goals and ensure that the aim of the task is clear and purposeful so the students want to achieve success. Good group motivation is important and at times introducing an element of competition between groups within a class can be appropriate.

Stimpson (1994) provides good advice and points out that students must want to participate in discussion or they can become ‘cynically mute’. He reminds us that topics for collaborative working must have interest and challenge or they will be rejected by students. Stimpson sets out a number of suggestions for successful discussion that you should take account of in your planning.

Teachers also need to consider how each individual student can contribute to the group and how to avoid some dominating and some becoming passengers. Sherrington and Stafford (2019) write about the importance of positive group dynamics and Stimpson (1994) emphasises equality among participants, so that each must feel that his or her view is equal to that of any other participant.

While there are many matters to consider as outlined in these references, none should put you off using collaborative learning. There are significant benefits. Collaborative working gives students opportunities for deeper learning because through working with others they will restructure their own thinking.

They have to explain their ideas to others, which forces them to think hard. They also provide each other with scaffolding and support as they work on a task. Kirschner et al. (2009) suggest that collaborative group work can lighten cognitive load in complex tasks because the total knowledge of a group is more than that of one individual; this means that by working together they can tackle more challenging activities.

  • Read the section on ‘shared views’ in Ferretti (2017). This discusses a way to plan collaborative learning for an enquiry question such as ‘Is ecotourism sustainable?’

Davies-Crane (2023) discusses the use of student-led instruction for a half-term year 8 scheme of work. It involved students working in groups using digital devices and collaborating on the setting of homework and mid-unit quiz. The development process is outlined in this article and the outcomes evaluated.

The practicalities of working in groups

There may be practical constraints to consider that can influence group size, such as the configuration of the classroom or the need to share resources and equipment. There is also the ‘Ringelmann effect’, which states that individuals become increasingly less productive as the size of a group increases.

The EEF (2021) points out that if communication within a collaborative group is ineffective, the learning effectiveness may be impaired because the effort of organising others increases the cognitive load. Therefore, it is important to provide clear instructions about tasks to facilitate effective group working and communication.

Teachers often use self-grouping, where they ask students to group themselves into threes and fours. Discuss this with your mentor and look at alternative ways to form groups; some are suggested later on this page. Bear in mind that threes are likely to have a built in ‘odd one out’. 

Once the grouping method is decided, consider ability profile, personality traits and attitudes to learning. Some students are always happy to be a ‘passenger’ while others dominate. Weaker students are more likely to be squeezed out in larger groups.

  • Take particular note when you observe experienced geography teachers on how they manage and group students for collaborative group work.
  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 104-5 on organising small groups, setting ground rules and suitable activities.

Find out if the class are familiar with any particular routines for moving into groups in lessons. It is best to follow an approach they are used to, at least at first. Discuss how to promote genuine collaboration and purposeful group activities with your geography mentor or the class teacher. Later, you can evaluate how the group organisation works in relation to learning, behaviour and motivation and re-organise this in the future if necessary.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) p. 80 onwards on different types of collaborative strategies.

In a lesson observation, focus closely on how the teacher organises collaborative learning.

  • How does the teacher prepare the class for collaborative learning? How are groups formed? Are they formed by friendships, ability, gender or other?
  • Are the students familiar with collaborative working? What difference does that make?
  • How is the transition to group work from whole-class teaching managed?
  • What activities are used? How are they introduced by the teacher? What resources are provided?
  • What outcomes are expected from the groups? How does the teacher establish this? What techniques do they use to remind students of the expected outcomes?
  • How long are the students given for the task? Do you think it is about right or too short/long?
  • What interventions does the teacher make? What triggers their intervention? What is the result?
  • Does the teacher eavesdrop on student discussion?
  • How does the teacher ensure groups get back on task, if needed?

Planning a collaborative learning activity: where to start?

In preparation for planning your activity:

  • Refer to the flow chart, which sets out six features of collaborative learning. Use these steps to guide your planning. This diagram is from Freeman and Hare (2006), which provides plenty of excellent guidance on collaborative learning.
  • See: Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms and Enquiry and experiential learning and Discussions with photographs to help you identify the collaborative learning activity to use.
  • Refer to Roberts (2023) for information on: intelligent guesswork (chapter 15); five key points (chapter 16); the layers of inference framework (chapter 17); mind maps and spider diagrams (chapter 18); and concept maps (chapter 19). All of these are appropriate activities for collaborative learning.

Think particularly about these things in advance:

  • Prepare the task carefully to focus discussion, encourage collaboration and have clear expected outcomes.
  • How will you get students back on track if they are diverted and ‘off-task’?
  • How long will you allow for the discussion? It needs to be long enough for a discussion to develop, but not too long that they drift off task.
  • What will you do next?

Give attention to the points in the Stimpson article (1994) about the pre-conditions for discussion and the suggestions for improvement.

An idea for creating balanced groups

Explain to the students that you need six groups and each must include students with different skills. Have different coloured stickers or small pieces of card of five different colours. Ask those who think they are good writers to put their hands up and deal out six cards of the same colour. Then repeat the process using different attributes, e.g. good thinkers, good listeners, fair minded, good talkers etc.

Select the attributes so that everyone should have a chance to put their hand up for something. Then ask them to organise themselves into groups, with the proviso that no two colours can be on the same table. This can be a stimulating and fun activity to start a discussion. It ensures that each group has a ‘writer’ and all feel that they have a valued role to play.

Suggested strategies for group discussion

As you get more ambitious with collaborative learning, you will want to try different forms of groupings that share discussions beyond an initial group. There are many different strategies you can use to do this. Try some of these:

  • Snowballing: activity starts with pairs, then they join another pair to share what they have done. The fours join to eight. Finally, the whole class discusses (see Students’ questioning skills).
  • Jigsaw groups: work in a home group to start. Groups are then reformed into topic groups, with one representative from each home group and they discuss that topic. Students return to home groups and inform each other what they found out in the topic group. Home groups report back to the whole class.
  • Listening triads: groups of three in which there is a speaker, questioner and recorder.
  • Buzz groups: discussion in pairs/threes prior to whole class discussion.
  • Shared views: in groups of four, students discuss some information provided on a topic and all complete their own worksheet. Then they summarise their views on a flip chart. Each group moves on to the next table to look at a different information sheet, complete their worksheets and add their views to the flip chart. This helps them see a range of views about an issue and to develop their own opinions (see Ferretti (2017) pp. 176-8)
  • Dragons Den: this is a group role play following the idea of the TV programme with the same name. In groups, students prepare a ‘pitch’ to argue for their topic, and each presents the pitch to a group that is designated ‘dragons’ (se Ferretti (2017) p. 179)
  • Refer to Walshe (2017) p. 200, Figure 1 for some strategies for the geography classroom.

Alcock, Fryer and Robinson (2023) use Harkness discussions in their GCSE and A level lessons to increase student engagement and develop the skills of evaluation and synopticity. They describe the approach as follows: 

A Harkness discussion involves a small group of students discussing an issue around a table. The discussion will usually focus on a shared stimulus, for example an article, but it can also be a fruitful revision method for the end of a unit. The teacher decides upon the stimulus, sets up the questions the students should tackle, facilitates how lesson time is used, observes the lesson (making notes on what was contributed and by whom), and feeds back on it. As well as giving their own take on the topic, students should be encouraged to politely question, challenge, or prompt each other.’

They noted that on the first occasion that a discussion takes place, the teacher may need to intervene, to move the conversation on and sensitively help quieter members by suggesting that they start parts of the discussion. Later on, however, such interventions were rare.  

  • Read the article by Alcock, Fryer and Robinson (2023) Consider the three case studies in and try out this technique in your classroom with older students. 
  • Read Roberts (2023) p 106, ‘What is a Harkness discussion?’.

Reading

  • Alcock, D., Fryer, L., and Robinson, H. (2023) ‘Active geographical learning using Harkness discussions’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Davies-Crane, G. (2023) ‘DIAL – how to enhance geographical knowledge through developing digital fluency’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘Differentiation’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 13.
  • Freeman, D. and Hare, C. (2006) ‘Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration’ from the GA’s Secondary Geography Handbook.
  • Kirschner, F., Paas, F. and Kirschner, P. A. (2009) ‘A cognitive load approach to collabrative learning: United brains for complex tasks’, Educational Psychological Review, vol. 21, pp 31-42. 
  • Perry, T., Lea, R., Jørgensen, C.R., Cordingley, P., Shapiro, K. and Youdell, D. (2021) Cognitive Science in the Classroom. London: Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Sherrington, T. and Stafford, S. (2019) ‘Great teaching techniques: Collaborative learning’, Chartered College of Teaching.
  • Stimpson, P. (1994) ‘Making the most of discussion’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Walker, S. (2019) ‘Making learning captivating: Collaborative work as part of a varied learning diet’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, February.
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 15.