Learning Theories



Watch overview videoAn Introduction to the Collaborative Learning Theory (4:34)


The Collaborative Learning Theory is a process whereby a group (or groups) of individuals learn from each other by working together to solve a problem, complete a task, create a product, or share one’s thinking. This theory is rooted in the work of Lev Vygotsky’s (1934) social development theory and zone of proximal development, which highlighted the importance of communication and social interaction in learning. In 1972, Kenneth Bruffee introduced the learning method, Classroom Consensus Group, in which the teacher allocated students into groups and assigned them questions to answer or problems to solve together.

Guidelines for Use

Guideline 1 – Distinction between Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

Both cooperative and collaborative learning differ from the traditional teaching and learning methods, as both learning processes have students working together in a group/team environment to complete a task. Cooperative learning is a structured approach in which the teacher is directly involved in the learning process by making each member within the group accountable for a specific task, and it is the responsibility of this individual to help others learn their specific task. An example of a cooperative learning activity would be the teacher using a Jigsaw strategy, whereby each student is required to research one section of the material and then teach it to the other members of the group. Collaborative learning is group-structured, whereby the students come together to organize and divide the work between themselves. Each student is responsible for his/her work separately, but are also in charge of the work of the team as a whole. Think-Pair-Share or Write-Pair-Share is an example of collaborative learning where students are given a discussion prompt, question, short problem, or issue to consider. Individuals work briefly on response and then share with a partner, then to the larger group.

Guideline 2 – Utilizing Informal and Formal Collaborative Learning Groups

Informal collaborative learning groups consist of smaller clusters of students assigned to work together, temporarily (usually one class period), on a specific task for a short period. An example of this type of collaborative learning would occur in groups of 3-5 students working on the solution to a problem-solving question. A smaller group helps to keep all students on-task, enabling everyone to participate and share their ideas with the solution, i.e., smaller breakout groups in an online course. With formal learning groups, learners are arranged into specific teams and are required to work together for longer periods on an extensive project(s). An example of this type occurs when an instructor defines the learning objects and success criteria for the activity and assigns the student groups with specific tasks. The instructor continues to monitor the work, evaluates group and individual performance.

Guideline 3 – Applying Problem-based Learning (PBL)

Problem-based learning is where a particular problem is introduced for students to solve, often in groups, over a given period. In some cases, the group may only be given the topic and they must develop the problem to solve. It is required that students ultimately understand the problem before proposing a solution or response. The PBL method can be incorporated effectively into a post-secondary biology class to engage students in solving authentic biological case studies to reinforce learning. This process begins with the instructor forming small groups and then presenting the problem statement. Each group works collaboratively with its members to brainstorm ideas/solutions to the problem and then shares their results with other groups (and the entire class) to come to a final solution, through consensus.

Guideline 4 –Integrating Technology in Online Collaborative Learning

Once students have been taught the general skills of working collaboratively during face-to-face group interactions, the next step is to support students in developing their online social presence through the integration of technology. This can be accomplished through various online collaborative tools that provide document collaboration (Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Office 365), as well as, class discussions that can extend online through technologies such as, Slack, WebKF, Padlet or other Learning Management System (LMS) discussion board. Technological tools can be a good way for students to exchange information online whether synchronously or asynchronously.

Guideline 5 – Providing Assessment Through Feedback and Reflection

Collaborative learning is enhanced through assessment as it encourages students to take responsibility for their participation in teamwork and to help them understand the nature of collaboration as opposed to competition. Assessment is vital to evaluate group productivity and how well individuals work together as effective members within a group. Grading of individuals can be accomplished through individual contributions and the use of self, peer, and group assessment, feedback and reflection. Examples of individual and group contributions may include tests or assignments, rubrics, performance-based assessments, participation, media works, and/or anonymous feedback.

Good Examples of Use

Example 1 – G Suite (Google Suite)

The Google Suite (better known as G Suite) of applications is an easy and effective collaboration tool for users working together on group tasks in a team learning environment.  It also allows group members to share their ideas with others, while also receiving valuable feedback and input from group members. Within the G Suite application, there several collaboration tools such as Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, Forms, and Google Classroom that can be incorporated into any collaborative group dynamics when working together on a problem or project.

Example 2 – Padlet

Padlet is an online collaborative tool that can be used as an ‘electronic bulletin board’ for gathering ideas, sharing them and modifying them later. Users can organize the information by adding links, YouTube videos, files, and images to the Padlet notes. The link to the padlet can be shared with others in a collaborative network, as well as, being embedded into webpages.

Example 3 – Slack

Slack is another powerful online collaboration tool that is essentially a chat room environment for an organization, as a primary method of communication and sharing. Its workspace allows for the instant organization of communication by channels for group discussions, while also allowing for private messages to share information, files, videos, etc., all in one site location.

Helpful Resources

Resource 1 – Difference Between Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

The terms collaborative learning and cooperative learning have often been interchanged to mean the same thing, but there are slight differences in each learning mode.  This website provides a distinction between learning theories.

Resource 2 – Video on Collaborative Learning by SimplyInfo.net

This is a 4-minute video that explains Collaborative Learning and its benefits.  It also provides some general tips and strategies for educators to implement collaborative learning in the classroom.

Resource 3 – A Critical Review of Mobile-Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning

This journal article provides a critical analysis for implementing mobile devices as an effective collaborative learning tool.


Educational Broadcasting Corporation. (2004). Concept to Classroom Workshop: Cooperative and Collaborative Learning. [website]. Retrieved from https://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/coopcollab/index_sub1.html

Gokhale, A. A. (1995). Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking. Virginia Tech University Libraries, 7(1). doi.org/10.21061/jte.v7i1.a.2

Laal, M. and Laal, M. (2012). Collaborative learning: what is it? Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences, 31, 491-495. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.12.092

Stacey, E. (1999). Collaborative Learning in an Online Environment. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 14(2), 14-33. Retrieved from http://www.ijede.ca/index.php/jde/article/view/154/379


Submitted by: Gary K. Lew
Email: gary.lew@ontariotechu.net
Twitter: @GaryLew1506
Bio: Currently, I am an elementary school principal within the Durham District School Board. As a lifelong learner, I am completing my Master of Education program, with an interest in instructional design and leadership in educational technology.



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