UIC TA Handbook – Active and Collaborative Learning Strategies

By Karen Quinn

Former Assistant Director
UIC Academic Center for Excellence



It is easy for students to sit back and passively listen as we pour forth our wisdom from an honored spot at the front of a lecture hall or classroom. What we as teachers want, however, is for our students to get involved in their own learning and to take responsibility for it. The principles and ideas of active and collaborative learning can help encourage students to become active participants in learning.

Active and collaborative learning are often used synonymously to describe educational practice that invites students to take responsibility for their own learning. Such learning is considered authentic because it is dynamic and ongoing, occurring most often when students have opportunities to participate in activities with teachers and fellow students that allow them to clarify questions; consolidate appropriate new ideas; and to critically think, read, write and speak about their knowledge and learning.

Active and collaborative learning strategies shift the focus of learning to the student as the main agent of learning, with the teacher as co-learner, facilitator or resource per­ son. This change in role for the teacher encourages active teaching practice that focuses not only on course content but ways to understand it; that creates a learning environment where consensual decision-making and respect for different opinions and cultures are fostered; and that attends to students' varied ways of knowing and learning.

In the classroom, active and collaborative learning may manifest in the design of assignments and activities, in the use of collaborative learning exercises, or in the process of assessment. The following guide describes several pedagogical strategies that help promote active and collaborative learning.

Small Group Activities

Designing informal small group activities is a relatively easy way to begin creating an active learning environment. Small group activities, such as lecture summaries, clarification of reading assignments or problem-solving allow students to apply and adopt personally what we are trying to teach. Consider the following examples:

  • A small group of three or four students might work together to clarify reading assignments by summarizing the main points in a chapter they were to read for lecture.
  • A problem-solving group consisting of pairs of students might be assigned to solve a math problem they may never have encountered before.
  • A lecture summary group might consist of several students who are asked to reflect on a statement, support an opinion or design a word problem based on ideas presented during the lecture.

One of the primary strengths of small group activities is that students can incorporate all the key elements of active learning -- talking, listening, reading, writing, and reflecting.

Cooperative Projects

While cooperative projects and small groups share com­ mon elements of active learning, there are important differences. Whereas small groups are typically short-term with immediate goals, cooperative projects involve students in longer term commitments leading toward a shared goal in which they are expected to practice positive interaction, individual accountability, and more sophisticated group processing skills. Unlike small groups, participants in cooperative projects are more dependent on the entire group for successfully completing a given task, may be assigned different tasks based on individual skills, must be able to give and receive positive and negative feedback, and may need to meet outside as well as inside of class. A significant advantage of using cooperative projects is that they can allow for a more con­ genial atmosphere for learning than traditional approaches [for all students but] especially for culturally diverse students whose cultural values and historical experiences emphasize cooperation.  Some examples include:

  • A short-term team presentation designed to engage groups of students in analyzing a data set from a variety of perspectives, after which groups present their findings to the class.
  • A peer writing group, in which four or five students meet regularly during the semester to read, comment, and critique each other's writing.
  • An ongoing study group that meets after class to review class readings, assignments, and lecture notes.

Case Studies

Case studies are a special type of cooperative project in which groups of students try to reach decisions about how to solve a problem or dilemma or answer a question. Because they engage students in analyzing situations, forming judgments, and evaluating solutions, case studies are particularly useful for developing students' higher order reasoning skills and group interaction skills. Case studies can run the gamut from those that ask management students to ponder questions of business ethics to those that ask introductory science students to draw conclusions about a scientific discovery by following the his­ tory of the steps leading up to it.

Active Versus Passive Learning

In active and collaborative learning, students become a part of the process of building their own knowledge and learning. Because they are used to passive learning and didactic teaching, students may initially be resistant to a collaborative learning environment in which knowledge evolves from interacting with others, in which meaning is made and shared. Thus, the following strategies may be helpful:

  • Start slowly with simple techniques. [At times, the most accomplished users of collaborative learning still lecture because they know some information is best conveyed by lecturing.]
  • Explain why you are using collaborative learning strategies and how these techniques will be different from what students may have expected to find in a course.
  • Explain how the use of active and collaborative learning strategies will benefit students' other courses and in their careers.
  • Do not expect students to know how to work in groups. You will have to teach group skills, problem-solving skills, and self-assessment skills required for successful team work.

For Further Reading

Meyers, C. & Jones, T.B. (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Erickson, B.L. & Strommer, D.W. (1991) Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R. & Smith, K.A. (1991) Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN.: Interaction Book Company.

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