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On Teaching
Linda Shadiow, PhD

Collaborative Learning: Problem-Solving in Groups

Linda Shadiow and students

I will acknowledge right from the start that I sometimes find the laudatory descriptions of the benefits of group work to be more barriers than bridges to my own use of it in classrooms. Because, however, I have seen some significant learning result when students work together, I have not given up. "What," I asked colleagues and literature on the subject, "are some keys to designing group work for significant learning experiences?"

Setting aside my cynicism about group work being merely opportunities for students to make weekend plans, I have sought out and applied some guidelines provided by my colleagues and reading. The guidelines and a specific example follow.

Cooperative vs. Collaborative Learning
Some of the literature makes a helpful distinction here. Other literature says it is just semantics. Considering the work that does say there is a slight difference between the two has been helpful for me in clarifying why I even use such approaches.

When the distinctions are made, cooperative learning is said to focus on mutual sharing of (often individual) contributions in a supportive small group setting. Collaborative learning is said to aim for positive interdependence among members in a small supportive group where the goal could not be accomplished by any one individual. For a thorough review of this literature, see Barkley, Cross, and Major, 2005.

Because I find myself most often wanting to engage students in thinking critically about an issue or problem, it is collaborative learning that most intrigues me. Here are a few of the guidelines I use to frame the design and use of collaborative learning.

Planning for an effective class session that utilizes collaborative group work takes pre-planning.

  • Start with a goal: "The reason I am planning to use a small group strategy is because.…"
  • Decide on the markers of its success: "If this group work goes well, then students will…."
  • Design the strategy: "Given the content, the goal, and the students, the key question they will be working on is…" and "Given the key question, the approach that can engage them in 'mutual interdependence' is…."
  • Be clear about purpose, links with reading and class work, and directions: it is helpful to write down the steps as well as to repeat them orally.
  • Include time guidelines for each step.
  • Explain an "extension activity": what students are to do if they finish the task before the time is up on that step.
  • Plan for individual accountability: see the example below.
  • Integrate results of work into later class work.

Example and Approach
This small group collaborative learning strategy can be used for the purpose of applying course materials to solving course-based problems and for engaging students in thinking critically about alternative solutions. What follows is not meant as a recipe, but as an approach to the integration of course material to a new problem. This strategy can be adapted in many ways for online or large classes, and for courses in most disciplines. If this activity goes well, then students will be drawing on their books and class notes, developing justifiable approaches to two problems, and evaluating options.

Sample Strategy: This is a strategy that depends on students working with each other (positive interdependence).

  • One of three different brief problems are clipped to a manila envelope and then distributed to three groups of four/five students. Each group gets one envelope and one problem.
  • Each group has ten minutes to read the problem and develop a way to respond to the problem drawing on course material. They write down their response, put the response inside the envelope, and pass the question on to another group. In this way, each group gets a new problem.
  • Without looking at what the first group has written in response to the problem, each group now repeats the process of reading the problem, responding, and writing the response down and putting the paper inside the envelope. Then the envelope is passed on to the third group.
  • The third group’s task is a bit different. The group reads the problem, opens the envelope, and then reads the two responses developed by the two other groups. This third group then develops a response that is a synthesis of the other two and writes down what they decide and why they decide as they do.
  • Expansion Activity: If at any point the group finishes before the time for that portion of the strategy is up, have them work on identifying text-based justification for their response.

Individual Accountability: Once every group has developed a synthesis, one person is asked to report to the class the results of their work. Instead of asking for the group to decide ahead of time who the spokesperson will be, no one is identified until the conclusion of the exercise. Ask something like, "Whose birthday in the group is closest to today?" That is the person who will report on their findings.

Wrap-up: Once the groups have briefly reported, the class can conclude with a wrap-up question such as, "What do we know now that we did not know before class today?" And "What questions remain for us to explore in reading and in the next class discussion?"

In the End
In collaborative group work everyone has a stake, and they need each other to accomplish the goal. When I collect the manila envelopes at the end of class, I can gauge the strength of their thinking, see what misunderstandings might be present, and see what can be clarified in the next session.

Whether I am planning for class discussion, cooperative learning, or collaborative learning, I am guided by something Stephen Brookfield says in his book The Skillfull Teacher (1995). He asks, "Do your methods and techniques help people learn in the context in which you and they are working?" Collaborative small group work, when matched with goals and assessment, is one way to answer, "Yes."


Linda Shadiow

Barkley, E. F., K. P. Cross, and C. H. Major. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Brookfield, S. The Skillfull Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Millis, B. J. “Linking Cooperative Learning to Research on How Students Learn.” NAU work session, February 1, 2006.

—Linda Shadiow, professor of educational leadership and director of the NAU Faculty Development Program