October 17, 2011

The Value of Collaborative Learning

Filed under: October 2011 — mbrown @ 10:47 am

Creating a classroom environment where collaboration can thrive doesn’t tend to be a high priority in our education system in the United States.  That’s not surprising given that we emphasize the importance of students finding answers and problem solving individually.  But recent studies are beginning to show that collaboration actually enhances learning.  Students who are allowed to use technology and work together to solve problems learn quickly and retain the information long term.

Collaboration and Self-Learning
Professor Sugata Mitra discovered the value of collaboration accidentally.  He was focusing on how to improve education outcomes in poor areas in India where good teachers were scarce.  He installed computers in public areas at a child’s eye level and waited to see what happened.  The results were interesting.  In every area—remote rural villages to inner city shantytowns—where he had installed computers, children responded in the same way.  Small groups of three or four children worked together to figure out the operating system.  By collaborating, they became proficient with the computers astonishingly quickly.

Collaboration Fueling Advanced Learning
Mitra continued his experiments by loading information into computers and then seeing what the children could accomplish in two months of unsupervised collaboration.  In one case, he told the children at the outset that the material in the computer was really difficult and that he didn’t expect them to understand it.  When he returned two months later they agreed that the material was tough.  A twelve-year-old girl told him sadly that they hadn’t learned much.  “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.”  These kids had worked together to grasp ideas far beyond normal curriculum for their age.  Having Internet access and collaboration gave them the ability to find and then process all the information they needed in an informal example of unsupervised online education.

Practical Collaboration Integration for Teachers
Teachers can integrate collaborative learning into their classrooms easily.  Mitra’s model featured three to four students per computer.  Classrooms that don’t have computers or access to a mobile computer lab can still schedule class time in a library or media center.  And since you only need one computer for every four students, you’ll require fewer computers.  A great way to incorporate collaborative learning as a supplement to lectures is to give students one period to work together in a collaborative study session—perhaps before a quiz.  If you have computers in your classroom, you may be able to implement collaborative segments into each class period.

Why It Works
Teachers have been suspicious of whether collaborative learning produces “deep learning.”  The answer, simply, is yes.  Professor Mitra replicated his experiments in Great Britain in a regular classroom and allowed students to form small collaboration groups according to preference.  These students were given a series of difficult questions to solve.  They were allowed to use any search engine at their disposal.  Working together, these students averaged 76% across the board!  When the teacher expressed skepticism about whether this was indeed “deep learning,” Professor Mitra arranged to come back and test students individually in two months.  When these students were tested individually with no collaboration or computer access they still tested at 76%. So the collaborative process fuels long term memory retention as well as rapid knowledge acquisition.  If you’ve been looking for a way to engage students and move them from passive to participatory learners, introducing a collaborative environment may work wonders.

Jesse Langley lives near Chicago. He divides his time among work, writing and family life. He writes on behalf of Colorado Technical University and has a keen interest in blogging and social media. He also writes for www.professionalintern.com .

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