Engineering Collaborative Group Learning: A Teachers Guide

Engineering Collaborative Group Learning 

Section 1: Defining Learning for Collaboration 

When learning is defined as,

any process that in living organisms leads to a permanent capacity change not solely due to biological maturation or ageing1, 

the facilitation of learning becomes concerned with the effective engineering of these learning processes. It is commonly accepted that the most effective learning results from an active process of engagement with learning (Ireson, 2008, p.6) in order to achieve premeditated goals (Resnich, 1987). According to the Danish professor of Lifelong Learning, Knud Illeris (2007) this active process is stimulated by the interactions between three dimensions of learning, content, incentive and environment. This theory of a learning process is supported by a number of influential authors including Claxton (1999), Watkins et al. (2002) and Ireson (2008, p.6). When an interaction process such as that above is placed within a social context, such as the classroom, a further tri-directional relationship is activated between rules, tools and community, all of which shapes the activation, direction and nature of a myriad of learning processes (Engestrom, 1987, 2009). These views suggest that if we are to engineer effective learning processes and learning opportunities we must take into consideration the social nature of learning.

At the heart of the above is an acceptance of the enabling role played by social factors. This role is a central tenet of constructivist, social- constructivist and social-constructionist learning philosophies developed by Piaget (1923), Vygotsky (1978) and Burr (1999). Learning as a social process is explored throughout the literature relating to effective learning (see Lave and Wenger, 1991; Watkins, 2005) cooperative learning (Johnson and Johnson, 1999) and collaborative learning. In all cases socialised-learning, the practice of facilitating learning within social contexts, is seen to be the means through which the most effective learning processes can be activated.

Attempts to socialise classroom learning has led to the development of a variety of teaching and learning methodologies such as Dialogic Teaching and Learning (Lefstein, 2010), Think>Pair>Share (Lyman, 1981), AfL (see Black et al., 2004) and pair work (Watkins et al., 2007). Common between all is an attempt to facilitate learning through engineering social interaction between peers. Of the various pedagogic methodologies available for socialising learning, the most beneficial seems to be collaborative group learning.

Section 2: Why Collaborative Group Learning and Why Now? 

With the advent of the 21st Century it has been recognised that Europe has moved towards a knowledge-based society where the grey capital of skills is highly prized. Europe has in effect shifted from the Workshop to the brain-box of the World.

The socio-economic wake created by this move has stimulated an evolution in work-life practices and with it a need for cultural, societal, environmental and above all educational change (see Alheit, 2009; Long, 1990; and Skidmore, 2003). The development of skills sets and competencies that aid an individual’s capacity to positively contribute to and benefit from this new global society need to be fostered through educative systems. Today’s students need opportunities to develop skills that enable them to fully engage with this ever evolving knowledge rich, globalised society, lifelong and lifewide.

In line with the principles outlined above and with the belief that learning is a ‘fundamentally social phenomenon’ (Wenger, 2009, p.210), socialised-learning strategies that engineer collaborative learning processes seem to offer a route towards developing an individual’s lifelong-lifewide learning capacity. This capacity is paramount to an individual’s ability to engage with society fully throughout their lives. The literature associated with such strategies documents the cognitive, social, psychological and societal benefits of collaborative learning. Ding and Flynn (2000) highlight the relationship between an individual’s engagement with collaborative learning processes and the development of some of their more general cognitive skills, in particular, ‘intersubjectivity, planning, communication and inhibition.’ (p.3). Panitz (2011) furthers this, identifying 67 benefits of collaborative learning including, improved learning and achievement, improved skills, improved engagement and responsibility and improved relationships. Due to the way in which collaborative learning requires the use of dialogue, for problem solving and social mediation (Vygotsky, 1978; Mercer, 2002), verbal task regulation is stimulated (Biemiller et al., 1998, p.204), effective learning encouraged (Alexander, 2006, p.9; Kutnick, 2010, p.192) and personal identities developed (Bakhtin, 1981; Renshaw, 2004, p.1); helping to form socially adept individuals.

My own research 2 into the application and effects of pedagogies which foster collaborative group learning not only confirms the above but also reveals a whole range of further benefits (fig 1).

Figure 1: Results observed following a 2-year study into the effects of collaborative learning.
Enhanced verbal, aural and written communication skills Increased learner engagement and a positive learning attitude
Enhanced social interaction skills/attributes for learning Heightened SEN, EAL engagement and academic/social progression
The development of a self-directed learning capacity Changes in perceptions of self-identity
Academic attainment beyond expected levels of progress Sustained application of sophisticated discourse sequencing (dialogue)
Self-sustaining capacity for collaborative learning Strengthening of basic social skills and development of new friendship groups
Enhanced research skills Evidence of student- student tutoring in and outside of the lesson

Many of the benefits of learning collaboratively result from an individual’s positive, and surprisingly, negative interactions with a learning group; a group purposefully constructed to enhance learning. This results from a learner seeding and harvesting the learning environment with and for knowledge and skills, activating cognitive processes of appropriation (Bakhtin, 1981; Leont’ev, 1981), subsequently enables each learner to become a stronger individual in their own right. Underpinning this is the idea of interdependence, learning with and because of others, as well as notions of social indebtedness; reciprocation stimulated by sharing. To activate this learning process, collaborative learning needs to be first engineered within the particular learning context; nature of classroom, school, subject area. However before this can be done collaborative learning itself needs to be clearly understood by the practitioner seeking to engineer and facilitate it.

Section 3: Defining Collaborative Group Learning 

Defining collaborative learning is an extremely problematic undertaking, what Panitz (1997) calls the ‘Holy Grail of interactive learning’. Due to varying notions of what constitutes collaboration and learning, and due to the application of collaborative learning as an umbrella term for anything that seems to involve socialised-learning, definitions, when they are devised, are often contradictory or unsatisfactory. An extensive review of the literature suggests that a number of obstacles exist to defining collaborative group learning in both theory and practice. One is a mixed view about the results and substance of collaboration, the second the existence of an overlap in characteristics of both collaborative and cooperative learning methodologies and thirdly the influential role played by differing learning theories upon how socialised-learning is designed.

The broader literature places collaborative and cooperative learning into a wider interactive learning context that includes group work and group learning theories. What this literature suggests is that a bi-directional relationship exists between a number of interactive and socialised-learning practices, with cooperative and collaborative learning processes having the closest of these overlapping relationships. To further aid ones understanding of learning and its facilitation within a social context and in the pursuit of engineering collaborative group learning, socialised-learning processes are best viewed as a continuum (see related articles on this site).

This continuum was developed in order to highlight the differences between the varying socialised-learning processes, aiding in the construction of a definition of collaborative learning and in the identification of principles which can aid the engineering of collaborative group learning. The continuum highlights the close relationship between cooperative and collaborative learning processes. This is largely due to both being heavily shaped by constructivist, social-constructivist and social-constructionist learning theories epitomised by Vygotsky’s identification that,

With assistance every child can do more than he can by himself…What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow.3 

Constructivist paradigms suggests that learning is an internal-external process of cognitive mediation, resulting from interactions between equals (in academic skill and cognitive developmental stage) and from experiences derived from interactions with the broader environment. As such a centrally held belief is that learning is ultimately an intrapersonal process stimulated by social interaction (learning from the group). Where social- constructivism differs from constructivist thought is in the belief that development occurs twice, once on the social plain and then internally; intra only because of the interpersonal (learning with the group). This is furthered by social-constructionism, which views learning as being dependent upon this social context (learning because of the group).

An application of a constructivist/social- constructivist theory would help the facilitation of a Cooperative Group Learning process because the focus of the process remains ultimately for individual rather than group benefit; falling short of true collaboration. Learners may be helping one another, cooperating in their learning processes, but the process is still fundamentally socially and cognitively selfish. Attempts to generate knowledge together will feature but all may not participate in this process. It may be suggested that when this occurs, the process may be working towards collaboration but the individuals are not yet collaborating. However when the principles of social- constructivism/constructionism are fully applied, in particular the primary role of the social context, that learning is ongoing and reciprocal between all in the learning group, that knowledge is a consensus between learners (Bruffee, 1993, p.3), and that positive interdependence (Johnson and Johnson, 2008, p.17) in learning is being applied, then what is being facilitated is collaboration between learners for mutual benefit; a Collaborative Group Learning process. Within this stage some learners may not fully contribute and as such may individually be cooperating but what is crucial in identifying this stage is that the majority of learners within the group are collaborating, exhibiting learner interdependence; learning with and because of the group. If the teacher can engineer this situation then true collaborative learning processes, physical, social and cognitive, are being facilitated and with them effective learning, as identified above, engendered.

An application of social- constructivist/constructionist learning practices generates a number of principles that can be used to shape teaching methodologies seeking to engineer collaborative group learning. The first is that learning is an active process requiring deliberate cognitive engagement, a thinking interaction (Brown and Thomson, 2000, p.26). The second is that for this process to occur contexts rich in problem solving and knowledge construction, rather than mere knowledge acquisition and application, need to be experienced (Long, 1990; Cohen, 1994). Thirdly, verbal communication is central to the learning process, with dialogue the route to individual or group knowledge construction.

A Collaborative Learning Group 

When designing the group in order to facilitate collaborative learning a number of aspects need to be taken into consideration. These include group size, short-term or long-term membership, and above all group homogeneity or heterogeneity. Large group composition of 7 or above has been found to generate social loafing, an individual offering no gifts yet expecting them, thus undermining group interdependence (explored by McWhaw et al., 2003, p.77). However a small group, 4 or less, fails to generate enough debate, with consensus being built to quickly. When wanting to impose little structure and enable fluid leadership a group of five is seen to be of benefit. My own studies indicate the optimum size for a collaborative learning group is six as it enables dialogue, debate, fluid leadership and allows group collaboration to continue even if one member fails to collaborate effectively.

Effective collaboration also requires the group membership to remain constant from task to task over an extended period. Social coherence is time consuming to achieve and complex for the students involved thus keeping students in the same small group is more efficient than mixing them up periodically. Maintaining the same group composition benefits the development of and helps sustain a community of discourse. The existence of such a community influences heavily the level of members achievement and productivity; academically and socially.

Social-constructivist/constructionist thought suggests that a novice should learn with and from an expert, with each benefitting from this interaction (Vygotsky, 1962; Bakhtin, 1981; Leont’ev, 1981). What is being suggested is inequality in skill and not power, appreciating that every learner is a novice and expert in different contexts. As such all profit from the experience, because learners benefit from being taught and from doing the teaching. Vygotsky believes that the most effective social interactions are those where joint problem solving between asymmetrical learners occurs (Rogoff, 1999, p.72). What I observed to occur was initial dependence on the more able other, teacher or fellow student, evolving into interdependence and eventually independence, in Vygotskyian terminology the thinking process has moved from being other- regulated to being self-regulated.

Section 4: Engineering Collaborative Group Learning
The Role of the Teacher in Facilitating Collaborative Group Learning 

In order to engineer collaborative learning in the form discussed above, the teacher, department or school will need to do the following,

1: Construct heterogeneous groups;
2: Design, apply and monitor classroom experiences which facilitate collaborative learning processes (including designing the physical space for effective collaboration); and
3: Monitor and regulate social interactions for group coherence, acting like a referee, in order to encourage interdependence, the application of small group skills and the application of appropriate forms of communication, all without excessive intervention.

Above all a teacher would need to undertake a shift in role in order to engineer collaboration within their classroom, becoming a facilitator rather than a traditional instructor. In this role the majority of the teacher’s time will be spent moving from group to group as a bystander, listening, perhaps asking stimulating questions but avoiding giving answers for risk of re-establishing a traditional role as guardian of the ‘correct’ answer. Above all the teacher evaluates what is happening, refocusing individuals or the group as and when necessary to maintain ongoing collaboration.

One of the challenges facing teachers trying to engineer and facilitate collaboration is not only having to undergo a shift in their own role but also trying to change established views held by learners. Part of facilitating collaboration is therefore also altering student views about teaching and learning. I have found that this does occur the longer a learner participates in collaborative group learning.

Two Strategies for Engineering and Facilitating Collaborative Learning 

Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) 

Central to learning is discovering potential answers to interesting problems. Presenting learners with a problem in the form of a question, or an answer which requires reverse engineering, both of which not requiring a pre-determined answer, encourages a thinking interaction of debate, dissent, discussion and an activation of non-foundational knowledge construction through foundational knowledge/skills application. Making this the predominant form of learning within the classroom has proven to encourage learners to engage in a reciprocal process of developing collaborative learning skills, applying these skills, reviewing these skills and developing them further, thus constructing a collaborative learning capacity.

A CPS Process:

  • A problem, in the form of an open ended question, or answer, possible to reverse engineer, is given to the class or to individual groups (Think>Pair>Share)
  • Resources, carefully engineered by the teacher, relating to the problem are made available to each group
  • Time is given for the group to plan their approach to exploring the problem or develop a process criteria. Groups may share plans with the class and review them in light of peer feedback (Plan>Review)
  • Groups are then given the freedom to explore the problem while the teacher marshals, nudges and refocuses the learning when necessary (Do)
  • At the end of the process each group shares their consensus view with the class
  • The above process is then followed by individual and group learning reviews, helping to further develop metacognitive processes.

Collaborative Project Work (CPW) 

A large variety of knowledge can be gained through research projects that encourage students to explore topics they are interested in through class and home learning. The benefits of this are multifaceted (encouraging research skills and covering more content than class time will allow), particularly when placed in a collaborative learning context. CPW is designed to encourage skills interdependency, through the negotiation and allocation of roles, as well as interdependency in knowledge construction. It is designed to stimulate similar thinking interactions as with CPS but also to develop broader lifelong-lifewide learning skills through the collaborative project context.

A CPS Process:

  • Groups discuss and choose the topic of their projects (Think>Pair>Share)
  • The product criteria for the final presentation (form of which is negotiated and can vary between groups) is discussed and agreed upon as a class (Think>Pair>Share)
  • Groups are instructed to identify the process criteria for each stage of the project and democratically allocate roles and responsibilities. Groups may share criteria/plans with the class and review them in light of peer feedback (Plan>Review)
  • Groups are then given a predetermined amount of time to complete the research and presentation components of the project (in and out of class) (Do)
  • Each group shares their presentation with the class
  • The class peer assess each presentation against the agreed product, not process, criteria
  • Each individual and group then undertake individual and group learning reviews, helping to further develop metacognitive processes.

Section 5: Closing Reflections 

It is hoped that this study highlights that engineering collaborative group learning processes within the classroom has the potential to cognitively, socially and academically benefit learners, while encouraging them to develop a lifelong-lifewide learning capacity.

It is my belief, born out of research and application, that a pedagogy based around collaborative group learning has the potential to bring about the paradigm shift needed in classrooms to meet 21st century learners, and societies, needs. A unified, whole-school commitment to this pedagogy has the power to empower and liberate, but it can be just as effective in a single classroom, emerging slowly at a grass roots level.

The work I have done and continue to do in the field of collaborative group learning further reinforces my conviction that it has the potential to truly be a Trojan Horse pedagogy.


1:Illeris, (2007), p.3

2:Gratton. R. (2011). ’Learning Together, Learning Forever’ Masters Dissertation, Institute of Education

3:Vygotsky, 1962, p,187-188

One response to “Engineering Collaborative Group Learning: A Teachers Guide

  1. During CPS you mention that the teacher should provide carefully select resources to facilitate planning and dialogue in groups. In this case what is deemed as an appropriate resource? I’ve been providing materials that have a series of questions which can potentially be researched or not by a group. I’m going to try and integrate this method learning into a Science SoW.


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