Group vs. Collaborative Learning: Knowing the Difference Makes a Difference

Collaborative learning assignments

Five years ago, I transitioned from a totally lecture-based classroom to a more student-centered, engaging one. Initially, I found that when students were placed in groups, they didn’t necessarily work together. What I discovered was that the activities needed to be structured collaboratively to promote learning.

Group work vs. collaborative learning

Definitions of group work and collaborative learning abound, and they are not exclusive of each other. One of the most useful explanations I have found of collaborative learning comes from Smith and MacGregor (1992): “Activities may differ considerably, but focus on students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it.”  Group work is often described as a good way to improve productivity by delegating tasks. However, this gives rise to what I refer to as the “divide and conquer” mentality (students who complete only a portion of the workload and then share answers with their group).  Group work is also reported to be a way to incorporate different perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and skill sets, but in my experience, the same could be said for collaborative learning.

A major difference between group work and collaborative learning is accountability. I do not give group grades. Activities are used to teach the competencies of the course, and students assume responsibility for their learning, and they earn their own grades based on their performances on an assessment of the competencies. The key is to structure the activities collaboratively so that learners are mutually dependent on each other yet are held individually accountable. This eliminates the free-riders (students who try to coast based on the group’s performance).

Creating or converting activities to a collaborative format takes some preplanning on the instructor’s part. I develop one to three collaborative activities per competency, not all of which are used during a given semester. Some may consider this time commitment a drawback to using collaborative learning; however, if a collaborative activity is designed well, it can be reused or tweaked for a future semester, which is a time-saver in the long term.

Comparison of collaborative learning vs. group work

Collaborative Learning Group Work
Group effort required “Divide and Conquer” mentality
Learners accountable to each other More free-riders
Social skills are improved Minimal interaction required
Helping and sharing is expected Helping and sharing is minimal
Emphasis on process and product Emphasis on product only

Evidence of benefits of collaborative learning

There is a plethora of research stating the benefits of collaborative learning, but I felt it necessary to collect my own data to determine whether it was working in my classroom. Fortunately, I reuse exams from semester to semester, and I still had class averages on each of my four-unit exams from when I strictly lectured. I then compared those averages to the averages after I implemented collaboratively structured activities and found the average scores improved 3–8 percent over lecture alone.

In addition, I have had several students who have retaken the course with me, once when it was in a lecture format and again after I implemented v activities. All experienced an increase of at least two full letter grades the subsequent time. Clearly, their improvement cannot be solely attributed to the addition of collaborative activities. Although subjective, two of those former students gave me very strong positive feedback about the collaborative style.

I share the data and anecdotal evidence at the start of the semester with incoming students because there are always a few who are nonbelievers or think collaborative learning is childish, and I have found it necessary to sell it to them. I strongly encourage instructors who implement collaborative learning to collect their own data and share it with their students.

Creating a collaborative culture in your classroom

I offer these tips to faculty wanting to implement collaborative learning in their classrooms:

Set the expectations. Students appreciate knowing what is expected of them, and most will rise to the occasion to meet (and often exceed) the bar that you have set.

Sell it! Tell students early on why you have chosen to use collaborative learning (based on research) and then start collecting your own data to back it up.

Create or modify activities to ensure collaboration. Be sure to structure the activities foster mutual dependence, match them to the course outcomes, and ensure that learning can be individually assessed. Some of my favorites include:

  • Jigsaw
  • Delegates
  • Hollywood Squares
  • Movable mind maps
  • Trade-n-post

After careful consideration, implement them! Try one or two and gradually build your repertoire. I would advise against doing what I did, which was to convert an entire semester course at once.

Conduct continuous quality improvement. Immediately after an activity, jot down notes on how long it took, what worked, and what could be improved on for the next time.

All collaborative learning is done in a group (of at least two people), but not all group work is inherently collaborative! The trick is to structure the activity in a way that makes students work together to be successful.

Smith, B. L., & MacGregor, J. T. (1992). What is collaborative learning? In A. Goodsell, M. Maher, V. Tinto, B. L. Smith, & J. T. MacGregor (Eds.), Collaborative learning: A sourcebook for higher education. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

Jane A. Scheuermann is an instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

This article is featured in the Best of the Teaching Professor Conference, a collection of articles from some of the top-rated presenters and sessions at the 2017 conference. Download the full report »