Collaborative learning

I continue to share brief lessons from the modules in Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching, a free massive open online course (MOOC) designed for new teachers, those who wish to enhance student learning or teaching practice and emerging leaders. The current semester ends on July 1st and we will shortly be opening Session 2, 2023 for enrolment. It is not too late to join Session 1 if you would like to check out the modules on offer! Sign up at and use the following join code: 64BHPE.

Collaborative learning: Harnessing student interactions for deep learning is Module 11. It is part of the ‘Enhancing student learning’ pathway through the course.

Developed by Peter Copeman (University of Canberra) and Kelly Matthews (University of Queensland), this module covers collaborative learning (you may have heard it called cooperative learning, peer learning, group learning, peer-to-peer learning, team-based learning or connected learning) and students as partners.

Collaborative learning is students learning with and from each other as fellow learners without any implied authority to any individual, based on the tenet that students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers” (Boud, 2001, p. 3).

Think about an occasion in your life when you’ve learned or shared valuable knowledge or skills with peers – friends, colleagues, neighbours, maybe even strangers – in an informal learning context, such as learning how to use a new tool or device, put flat pack furniture together, changing a bike tyre, cooking a new dish, or learning a song.

Students collaborating over coffee

Now think about an instance of learning with peers in a formal context, such as fellow students in a group work assignment at university, colleagues in a training program, or with a professional association.

Consider the following questions:

  • What was the context of the learning?
  • Why it was important for you to learn the knowledge/skills at that time?
  • What did you learn?
  • What processes were used in the learning exchange, e.g. was there an externally-provided framework to follow, such as an instruction manual? Did you work it out together?
  • Was the learning experience a positive or negative? Why?

Need practical ideas for collaborative learning activities in the classroom?

Try one or more of the following: three-part interview, snowball, world café, constructive controversy, send-a-problem, inside-outside circles. To find out more, check out Cooperative learning made easy developed by Jill Clark and Trish Baker for Ako Aotearoa.

The heart of collaborative learning is interaction and positive learning relationships. Decades of global research on student engagement conclude that student-teacher relationships, alongside student-student interactions, are vital factors in student learning, wellbeing, and retention to graduation (Coates et al., 2022). The module expands on two (of many possible) topics on educational relationships that draw on collaborative learning: connecting with First Nations ways of being, knowing and learning; and engaging students as partners in teaching and learning.

Do you feel comfortable with the notion of teaching as something we do with students, not to them?

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