Collaboration Enhances Learning

I’ve just read two scholarly articles, both by Professor Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo and colleagues, that review the many studies that compare solo individual learning with collaborative group learning.* The first article, published in Science magazine 11 March 2011, reviewed all studies of non-lecture innovations in college classes in biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics. The most common innovative design was the use of collaborative learning groups, combined with a focus on conceptually oriented tasks. A meta-analysis showed that this innovation enhanced student learning; the mean average of the effect sizes of the enhanced learning, across 41 studies, was .54. For those classes whose only innovation was collaborative learning, the mean average of effect sizes was .68. These results demonstrate pretty convincingly that student learning outcomes are improved when college professors implement innovations that move beyond the traditional lecture-memorize-test.

A second article, presented at the AERA meeting in New Orleans in April, 2011, surveyed studies of the impact of collaboration on student learning in K-12 classrooms. Again, the consensus result of all of these studies is that collaboration enhances student learning outcomes. However, collaboration only enhances learning if it’s done in the right way:

  • The nature of the task presented to the students should be ill structured. Tasks for which a “right answer” is expected do not benefit as much from collaboration. Tasks should ask students to make choices or predictions on the basis of evidence; apply a principle to a new case; explore issues for which there is no single response; and interpret texts.
  • Teachers should emphasize the process of discussion rather than just arriving at the correct answer.  Students should be given specific training and guidance on how to work in small groups. Teachers should emphasize that meaningful conversations are the goal, and should guide students in how to engage in the kind of conversation that is demonstrated to enhance learning:
    • Describing observations clearly
    • Formulating hypotheses
    • Proving explanations
    • Constructing explanations based on information collected. Students must provide explanations, not only simple answers. If explanations are not provided, then there are no enhanced learning outcomes to groups.

When they videotaped a random sample of eight 6th grade science classrooms, the researchers found that in pretty much all of the classes, teachers did not provide enough guidance, and the student group interactions were relatively ineffective. Most groups focused on procedure rather than conceptual understandings; groups rarely engaged in effective argumentation; and groups rarely monitored their discussion process. The researchers conclude:

Our results indicate that the quality of students’ interactions in small groups do not reflect necessarily the type of dialog we all would like to happen….For small group work to potentially provide the opportunity for appropriate interaction among students, certain conditions are necessary. For example, students need to be guided in how to communicate in small groups….The characteristics of the tasks in which students need to be involved in while working in small groups are also important…. ill defined tasks rather than well structured tasks for more opportunities to interact. Yet, most of the tasks in the curricula are highly structured.

 The research is clear: collaboration among students enhances learning. However, the potential of collaboration will only be realized if students assign the right kind of tasks to the group, and if teachers teach and guide students in how to engage in effective collaboration.

*M. A. Ruiz-Primo et al., Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science, 331, 11 March 2011, pp. 1269-1270.

Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Maria Figueroa, and Maxie Gluckman. Testing a Premise of Inquiry Based Science Instruction: Exploring Small Group Processes and Its Link to Student Learning. Paper presented at the AERA meeting, April 2011