Higher Ed

Collaborative Learning in Higher Education

By Kirk Lunsford

The Story of Higher Education

The format for higher education is changing. The ‘sage on the stage’ approach has proven less effective than active learning techniques. Although lecture has been the primary delivery method of higher education, since the early days of universities in Western Europe, a recent study suggests students in pure lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than in active learning courses (Bajak 2014). The study focuses on science, engineering, and math disciplines, however it’s possible these findings can apply to other fields of study.

A typical college lecture classroom.

It’s significant to note STEM disciplines are stressed at governmental levels in K-12 education. When students enter undergraduate programs seeking STEM degrees they may be unprepared for lecture formats. There is also pressure within higher education institutions to improve success rates and the number of degrees in STEM programs (Freeman 2014). As higher education programs seek more active learning formats, the collaborative learning approach seems to be one of the most effective ways to engage students.

What does active learning look like?

(Transforming Large lectures. UNC College. February 25, 2014)

The College of Arts and Sciences at UNC shares their story about how they approach active learning in a myriad of ways. It’s most compelling from the collaborative learning perspective to see the example of the Physics classroom. Students are gathered at round tables with laptops and projector screens with supplementary whiteboards. Perhaps modeled after MIT’s TEAL, or technology-enabled active learning classrooms that were implemented in all introductory physics classrooms at MIT in 2004.

MIT TEAL classroom layout, top view. Source: http://icampus.mit.edu/projects/teal

It seems this collaborative active learning trend is increasing in popularity to promote engagement as opposed to lecture. Paul Blowers, a University of Arizona professor, who utilizes a similar format to TEAL, lectures for a measly 4% of the time allotted in a class session (The University of Arizona 2015).

Although it might be intuitive as instructors to focus on format by curriculum, what’s influencing collaborative learning more seems to be the space design. The space design forces the social arrangement of these classrooms and the delivery method of the instructor. The space design requires instructors, architects, designers, and IT to coordinate these spaces much like Paul Blowers explains in the University of Arizona example. His group was given a blank page of the floor plan and asked to redesign the classroom (The University of Arizona 2015). For the subjects that will be taught in these rooms, and the number of students who will attend, the round table design seems to be a success. However, the round table approach may not be the right decision for every room and subject. Making a space suitable, and accessible takes some consideration. For those in consideration of a collaborative redesign of their learning space, Educause has a brief unit on the subject.

What’s Going Well?

An active learning assessment, SCALE-UP, or Student-centered, Active Learning Environment with Upside down Pedagogies is a project with the goal to “establish a highly collaborative, hands-on, computer-rich, interactive learning environment for large-enrollment courses,” (“About the SCALE-UP Project,” 2016). The SCALE-UP project was partially funded by the government and is a long enduring project across many different campuses and universities. Classroom format can vary based on class size, subject, and space plan, however, many classes are essentially modeled after MIT TEAL as in previous examples.

Most importantly, SCALE-UP has provided some forms of assessment based on the data collected in comparison to traditional lecture instruction. SCALE-UP claims, “students’ ability to solve problems is improved, conceptual understanding increased, better attitudes, and failure rates decreased especially for women and minorities,” (“About the SCALE-UP Project,” 2016). The positive results of these findings, many of which were established over ten years ago, should tell us the collaborative classroom as a trend isn’t new. However, the mindset and acceptance of this paradigm seems to have finally arrived.

Dealing with Setbacks

Although most students and instructors seem to favor collaborative approaches, according to research by M.S.A. De Hei et al., perceptions of ‘effective’ group work may hinder students and instructors wishing to engage in collaborative learning. Some challenges include student to instructor ratio. Instructors need to monitor groups to make sure they are on track, participating, and learning. Students may also claim not all group members are suited for the task at hand and some groups have different strengths or weaknesses. Claiming the projects should align with assessed skills of each individual student (Miranda S. A.De Hei & Jan-Willem S. Et al, 2015). Many other negative experiences or assessments of collaboration may include:

  • Fear of loss of control
  • Lack of social skills or self-confidence
  • Reluctance due to lack of experience with collaboration
  • Unfamiliar and(or) unfair assessments due to group grading
  • “Free-riding”
  • Highly motivated achievers rewarded the same as “free-riders”
  • Pre-conceived notions or beliefs about learning
  • Groups consisting of students with different learning styles
  • Different levels of learning objectives and individual goals
  • Unequal division of tasks
  • Poor communication
  • Criteria used to compile groups

Many instructors may feel the outcomes of collaborative groups do not yield the expected results based on course design. And design is limited due to time, authority, and involvement of others. Although the perceptions of instructors who would utilize collaborative learning are typically positive, there remains a great need for the implementation of guidelines for collaborative curriculums and classroom designs (Miranda S. A.De Hei & Jan-Willem S. Et al, 2015).

Is Everyone Benefiting?

It’s easy to be mesmerized by a collaborative space that works, like some of the examples previously shown, MIT TEAL, University of Arizona, and UNC. It should be motivating to both students and instructors to seek engaging classroom experiences like these. However, with the re-design of the classroom to feature more collaborative opportunities, it might be possible to overlook the potential needs of all students. It’s important to take a critical stance on these new space designs and consider accessibility. Temple University has provided some resources for learning space guidelines as well as links to 508 and ADA resources. “Building for Everyone: A Universal Design Approach,” may however be a more comprehensive guide to providing access for everyone.  Instructors should reflect upon their classrooms and teaching environments before beginning a new space design as well as become familiar with the guidelines. As an example, I created an equity reflection for my own classroom.

Equity in Collaborative Learning Spaces

(Equity in Collaborative Learning Spaces. Kirk Lunsford. March 19, 2017)

The Future of Collaborative Learning

The prevalence and access to technology is changing the way students may collaborate in virtual settings as well. Social media, Google Docs, and project management software like Slack have come a long way in acceptance and adoption to invite collaboration (Adams Becker, S., et al. 2017). The LMS space has also become more accessible on mobile allowing for ‘on the go’ learning and different ways to communicate with classmates. Based on these trends I would suggest the best future for collaborative learning would be platforms that allow seamless access to both instructors and students for both synchronous and asynchronous distance learning. According to 2020 projections by a recent Horizon Scanning report it’s suggested people will drive change not the institutions or technology. MOOCs and ‘open’ classes may have the potential to weaken the hold of the institutions on access to education and the power of accredited programs. This may allow globalization of higher education to increase, thus making way for new forms of distance collaboration to emerge (Lawton, William 2013).

From my personal experience, I would like to call attention to Discord. This platform has emerged in gaming spaces and communities as a means for connecting with other players in a variety of synchronous and asynchronous means. Communicating and sharing resources in Discord is intuitive and accessible. It’s available in a browser, or to be downloaded as an app on a computer or various mobile devices. There are a vast list of features to compare to any LMS or other platform for social and collaborative production. The potential for this platform as new means for higher ed courses, whether formal or informal, are exciting to explore. To give you an idea, see my blog post on Discord.


About the SCALE-UP Project. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.ncsu.edu/per/scaleup.html 

Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall Giesinger, C., and Ananthanarayanan, V. (2017). NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2017-nmc-horizon-report-he-EN.pdf

Bajak, Aleszu. (2014, May 12). Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/05/lectures-arent-just-boring-theyre-ineffective-too-study-finds.

Freeman, Scott. Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111 no. 23. Abstract retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410#aff-1

Lawton, William. (2013, October 2). Higher education in 2020: three key forecasts from new report. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/oct/02/horizon-scanning-higher-education-2020

Miranda Suzanna Angelique De Hei, Jan-Willem Strijbos, Ellen Sjoer & Wilfried Admiraal (2015) Collaborative learning in higher education: lecturers’ practices and beliefs, Research Papers in Education, 30:2, 232-247, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2014.908407 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02671522.2014.908407

The University of Arizona. (2015, January 20). Classroom Innovation-Paul Blowers [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnZC85QAiR0