A Definition of Collaborative Learning

By Dr. Ranee Kaur Banerjee

By its very definition, collaborative learning points to cooperation between the teacher and the student and stands against the competitive system followed in a traditional classroom. Read on to learn more about its forms, goals and uses.

What Is Collaborative Learning?

It was midnight on a school night. I saw the light on in my 16-year-old's room and went to tell him to go to sleep. His door was Collaborating Online uncharacteristically open and I could hear animated voices from inside his room. I found him on Skype with a couple of friends. They were quizzing each other, working out numericals and clarifying each other's concepts for a big physics test next morning.

Have you worked on your homework math problems with a friend? Did you ever get together with peers in a group to understand a difficult theory in college? Did you ever brainstorm with other classmates on a school project? We've all done collaborative learning at some stage of our lives; we just didn't know what to call it.

The very dictionary definition of collaboration will tell us what collaborative learning means. The word "collaboration" brings together the Latin "col-" meaning "with or together" with the Latin "labor" or toil. For educationists, collaborative learning is a comprehensive term for "a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together."1

How Can Teachers Use These Methods?

Collaborative Learning happens when students work together in pairs or groups:

  • To understand or "make" meaning of a concept or text
  • To create a solution for a problem (given in class or self-discovered)
  • To explore a topic, a question, an area of knowledge
  • To apply the principles learned in their curriculum
  • To conceive of new ways to apply the knowledge they have learned in class
  • To construct a tangible article or a physical object (for example, a report, a term-paper, a model volcano, a recycled-paper bag, a solar panel, an electric vehicle) out of the course-learning

The above, of course, is an indicative and not a comprehensive list of the ways in which collaborative learning may be used by teachers.

Forms of Collaborative Learning

Many educators seem to confuse collaborative learning with the more structured approach of cooperative learning.

Let us say that cooperative learning is a type of collaborative learning. The developers of cooperative learning models and strategies have laid out several specific components that teachers must control: a small, inter-dependent group determined by the teacher, face to face interaction, carefully structured activity leading to the accomplishment of a predetermined goal, individual accountability of every member of the group and a group's assessment and processing of its own work as a team.2

Other types of collaborative learning that may be used both inside and out of a classroom structure are discussions, brainstorming sessions, peer-teaching groups, workshops, team projects, group field-work, study groups, seminars, simulations, role-plays, case-studies etc.

Eluding strict definition, collaborative learning can thus be specific, controlled and structured or it can be spontaneous, experiential and totally open-ended.

Considerations for the Traditional School System

Of course, the traditional school system is at odds with the very spirit of collaborative learning. Schools, as they were conceived and as they are still administered, are essentially authoritarian constructs.

"Lectures" are the preferred method of teaching and the formal physical, emotional and psychological set-up of the traditional classroom is confrontational. Teachers are still equated with "discipline" and "consequences." They are the transmitters of knowledge and the evaluators of the students' grasp of the information they have "given" to the students. They are the regulators of the competition that is encouraged between students through the assessments and recognition and rewards for individual achievement.

"Conversation" is discouraged in traditional classrooms where learning is a solitary pursuit of an individual student faced with the information being given to him from the front of a classroom by a teacher who is the expert instructor. There are definitive syllabi for every subject with course content to be covered in a set period of time; there are lecture plans for every teaching hour and teachers are under pressure to ensure that their students have ingested the carefully planned and delivered information and are capable of regurgitating it as required during formal assessments. Memory is more important than assimilation.

In collaborative learning, on the other hand, the process of learning is basically more important than what is learned. Students are taught, by hands-on experience, how to learn and not what to learn. When they learn, assimilation of the material is an absolute requirement as a student must take the material, absorb it, make it his own and then present it or teach it to others. Mere memorizing will not help the collaborative learner.

Changing Paradigms

By its very definition, collaborative learning, takes the power away from the teacher as "guru" and distributes that power among the students as self-sustaining, motivated "learners" who take ownership and responsibility of the entire process of leaning in an interactive, "talking-to-each-other" and engaged manner. The teacher becomes merely a facilitator, an "expert designer" of a student's intellectual process and a "mid-wife of a more emergent learning process." 3

The traditional "us" versus "them" power-structure of the traditional school is obviously not conducive to the mutual trust that is required for purely collaborative learning. It is also relevant to point out here that like teachers, students too have to be "prepared" to take on the challenges and opportunities offered by collaborative learning. I must emphasize that collaborative learning is a tool, just like other teaching methodologies. It is up to the school and the teacher to use this or another tool depending on the objective, the task, the group and the "preparedness" of the students. A group-discussion may enhance a lecture; it cannot and should not replace it until both teachers and students are ready for the complete shift to another paradigm.

As more and more teachers change their classroom strategies and re-orient their relationship to the curriculum from the traditional "transmission" to "transactions" that lead to "transformations" in the personal and social relations of the student to his curriculum, the school system is also slowly evolving and accommodating itself to the more student-centered, process-oriented and non-competitive model that defines collaborative learning.


1. Smith, BL and MacGregor, JT, "What is Collaborative Learning?" in Goodsell, Maher, Tinto, Smith & MacGregor's Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education; National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment; Pennsylvania State University: 1992.

2. David, Johnson & Holubec. Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company 1990

3. Smith and MacGregor op.cit


Ted Panitz, "Collaborative versus Cooperative Learning--A comparison of the Two Concepts Which Will Help Us Understand the Underlying Nature of Interactive Learning" on CapeCod.net.

Neff & Weimer. Classroom Communication: Collected Readings for Effective Discussion and Questioning. Madison, WI: Magna Publications, 1989

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. Joey-Bass: San Francisco, 1993