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10 Benefits of Collaborative Learning

Bob Little 

September 30, 2016

Recently, at a business networking meeting, I found myself sitting next to Richard Cockerill. I discovered that he is now in active retirement after a long career as a printer.

As we talked, Richard noted that the world of work had changed fundamentally in recent years – not necessarily for the better. In particular, he pointed out that, these days, people don’t “just meet for a chat, maybe over coffee.”

You could learn a lot from those conversations but, nowadays, people see them as unnecessary, wasteful and unproductive,” he said. “Those meetings produced a great deal of creative, imaginative and ultimately profitable ideas but, nowadays, we’re all under pressure to always do more. So we tend to work in our own technology-driven and technology-limited ‘bubbles.’ 

“We don’t make time to go ‘out and about,’ meet new people in a work context, and share ideas and opportunities.

Of course, he’s making the case not only for informal meetings but also for collaborative, face-to-face learning.

People increasingly like to use technology, especially social media, to deliver learning materials, notably the younger members of today’s workforce. This might be structured but it’s still a solitary learning experience.

Organizations encourage collaborative working, so why not encourage collaborative learning too?

10 Benefits of Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning in small groups (the L&D equivalent of “informal business meetings”) can bring at least these 10 benefits:

  • It enhances social skills and interaction, and transfers specific subject knowledge and skills. This helps learners to interact and co-operate with one another, and reduces any sense of isolation that they may have.
  • Learners develop and practice skills in decision making, problem-solving, clarifying values, communication, critical thinking, negotiation, conflict resolution, and teamwork.
  • It provides a learning experience that helps learners to appreciate the realities and diversity of the workplace, working with people with different skills, cultures and approaches, and from different places. In particular, it enables learners from diverse backgrounds to be heard, share experiences and skills, and participate in unique ways – to give all of them new perspectives.
  • It encourages learners to become active rather than passive, by developing collaborative and co-operative skills.
  • It encourages the development of critical thinking skills.
  • It enables “deep” rather than “surface” approaches to learning.
  • Students learn with one another.
  • It facilitates greater transfer of previous knowledge and learning.
  • It gives quiet students an opportunity to speak and to be heard in small groups, overcoming the anonymity and passivity associated with large groups.
  • It can generate alternative ideas and points of view.

Celebrating and Valuing Diversity

“Learning in small groups celebrates and values diversity – which is valuable in a world which appears to be growing increasingly intolerant,” says Richard Lowe, director of training and digital learning at Hewlett Rand.

The learners learn to work with all types of people. During interactions, they can reflect on, and reply to, the diverse responses that fellow learners make to the questions raised. This aids their understanding of other cultures and points of view.

So, collaborative learning in small groups actively involves the learners in their learning. It also helps to promote interpersonal development, and develop social skills and inter-cultural perspectives.

Developing Team-Working Skills

Students are apt to take more ownership of their material and think critically about related issues when they work as a team,” adds Richard. “There are more exchanges among the learners, so there are more opportunities for personal feedback. Such feedback isn’t possible to the same extent when learning in large groups or when learning ‘remotely’ via technology.

A study of young learners, conducted about 10 years ago by the Institute of Education at London University in the U.K., suggested that those who learn in groups learn how to compromise and resolve petty arguments, as well as make rapid progress in their studies. The research found that learners became more focused on their work, and the amount of thoughtful discussion between them more than doubled.

Of course, as Canadian educationalists Keith Hartley and Lorraine Robson point out, people aren’t born knowing how to work – or learn – in teams. Simply creating a group of learners doesn’t create a team, nor does it necessarily achieve the desired results. So the learners need guidance – coaching and, maybe, training – in how to learn collaboratively. Helpfully, Harvard University publishes a guide to Working in Groups, containing information for both tutors and learners.

Tips for Making Collaborative Learning Work

Some useful tips for L&D professionals who’re using this form of unstructured and semi-structured learning include:

  • Ensure that every group member contributes in some way.
  • Prevent “bigger” personalities from dominating, to keep group dynamics healthy.
  • Establish clear outcomes, hopefully via group consensus rather than imposing them.

Richard Lowe says, Learners’ retention of what they learn is increased from 20 percent to 75 percent through ‘practical application,’ so L&D professionals should consider the most appropriate blend of learning to achieve this. According to our researches, the most effective L&D programs use 32 percent more delivery methods – a mix of online with face-to-face learning. So, bringing the learners together at the end of the program to reflect on and conceptualize the content can improve its application.”

If, in these technology-oriented times, you find it necessary to introduce a “technology element” to this collaborative, small-group learning, you could encourage the learners to publish their conclusions on a wiki or via a YouTube-like video on your corporate network. It might prompt further discussion and, maybe, further meetings between “new” learners, sparking the whole learning process again with new participants.

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