What’s the Best Timing for Collaborative Learning?

Learning can be a lonely business.

Does collaborative learning help students? If yes, what guidelines should teachers follow?

Collaborative Learning: Benefits and Detriments

collaborative learning

Overall, we’ve got lots of research suggesting that collaboration helps students learn. And, happily, it doesn’t cost lots of extra dollars.

More specifically: the average score for students who learn in groups exceeds that of those who learn individually.

Unsurprisingly, students who struggle to learn benefit from practice with peers who understand better than they do.

At the same time, the highest scores tend to be lower in groups than among individual learners.

Working in groups, it seems, reduces the mental exploration necessary to find the best answers.

Given this background, we arrive at a really interesting question:

Can we get the benefits of group learning (higher average) AND the benefits of individual learning (highest scores).

It’s All in the Timing

Researchers at several Boston universities wondered if timing mattered. What would happen if students worked in groups at times and alone at other times?

The research team invited college students to work on a spatial puzzle. (It’s called the “Euclidean travelling salesperson problem.” I myself doubt that many of Euclid’s peers were travelling salespeople.)

Some of the students could always see their peers’ solutions. Some could never see those solutions. And some got to see every third solution.

Which groups progressed faster?

As they had hoped, the team found that the third group yielded both the highest average and the highest score.

In brief: teamwork helps most when team members also spend time working by themselves.

Classroom Implications for Collaborative Learning

This study offers a helpful suggestion. Teachers who use group work might ensure that group members work together at some times and solo at others.

At the same time, we should note some important caveats before we follow this guidance too strictly.

First: this study worked with college students. Its findings might apply to younger students. But, then again, they might not.

Second: this research is most easily described as “collaboration,” but that’s not exactly what the research team was studying. Notice: the participants never worked together on the travelling salesperson problem. Instead, they solved the problem on their own and then could (or could not) look at other students’ solutions.

That’s not typically how collaborative learning happens in schools.

More often, “collaborative learning” means that students work together on the project or problem. This study didn’t explore that approach.

(To be precise: the researchers focus on “collective intelligence,” not “collaborative learning.”)

Final Words

I myself think this research offers a helpful suggestion: occasional teamwork might lead to better results than constant (or absent) teamwork.

However, we should keep a sharp eye out for the actual results in our own classrooms. Unless you teach college students by having them look at each others’ correct answers, this study doesn’t explore your methodology precisely.

User mileage will vary.

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