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Collaborative learning


When we talk about Collaborative Learning (CL) we refer to the educational approach of teaching and learning that involves groups of learners who work together to solve a problem, complete a task or create a product, but most important they create and build a common understanding and learning together. In other words CL refers to an instruction method in which learners work together in groups toward a common goal and all the learners are responsible for one another’s learning as well as their own. The success of one learner helps others to be successful (Gokhale as cited in Laal and Ghodsi, 2012). There is a distinction between cooperative learning and collaborative learning to keep in mind, as the first one involves a division of the tasks among participants and each person is responsible for a portion of the problem solving, but does not involve necessarily collaborative efforts between the members (Dillenbourg et al., 1996).

The benefits that learners can gain from collaboration are organized in 4 main categories (Johnsons; Pantiz as cited in Laal and Ghodsi, 2012).


  • CL helps to develop a social system for learners
  • CL heads to build diversity understanding among students and staff
  • CL estabilished a positive atmosphere for modelling and practicing cooperation
  • CL develops learning communities


  • Student-centered instruction increases student's self esteem
  • Cooperation reduces anxiety
  • CL develops positive attitudes towards teachers


  • CL promotes critical thinking skills
  • Involves students in the learning process
  • Classroom results are improved
  • Models appropriate student problem solving technique
  • Large lectures can be personalized
  • CL is especially helpful in motivating students in specific curriculum


  • Collaborative teaching techniques utlize a variety of assessment.


It appears clear how interaction plays a key role in collaborative learning, but engaging the students in an effective collaboration requires shrewdness from the teacher. In fact there are some techniques (s)he can adopt in order to stimulate students into the collaboration. For example the task should be long enough to give students time to know each other’s and understand how individuals work, or the teacher should stimulate the students in interacting on regular basis also to develop responsibility for each other. Furthermore CL stimulates communication skills, but also help group members to deeper learning, in fact this method is basically student centered. They are actively involved in the learning process and are more likely to become interested in learning and participating school (Laal and Ghodsi, 2012).


As mentioned before, collaborative learning (unlike cooperative learning) implies mutual involvement of all the participants in order to solve the problem. In this case the nature of cognition can be described as socially distributed (or shared). “Distributed cognition refers to a process in which cognitive resources are shared socially in order to extend individual cognitive resources or to accomplish something that an individual agent could not achieve alone”. 

Significance of distributed cognition from the point of view of cognition is based on the fact that human beings have limited cognitive resources such as time, memory, or computational power (Cherniak; Harman as cited in Lehtinen et al.). Norman claimed that human cognitive resources are highly overestimated, and that without external help humans have only a limited memory and reasoning capacity (in Lehtinen et al.). Higher cognitive achievements imply that a human uses the external world as a source of knowledge and in general as a way to extent own cognition. 
In the background to theories dealing with socially distributed cognition there are observations claiming that many cognitive problems, which cannot be solved individually, can be solved by combining the limited knowledge of several participants (Forman and Cazden; Hatano and Inagaki; Hutchins; Miyake; Norman; Oatley; Roschelle; Scardamalia and Bereiter as cited in Lehtinen et al.). Vygotsky argued that the basic mechanism of cognitive growth is communicative in nature (in Lehtinen et al.).
Through social interaction, the contradictions, imperfections and limitations of learner’s explanations become visible because it forces the learner to perceive own conceptualizations from different points of view. "Limited cognitive resources can be overcome by distributing the cognitive load to several agents, each of whom is equipped with a restricted power of cognition”. 
Externalization is an important aspect for socially distributed cognitive accomplishments. Externalized conceptions can be compared with the conceptions of the others. This way a path is opened to learner’s Zone of Proximal Development  (Lehtinen at al.).


When it comes to teaching to large classes there is no absolute correct way of acting. As we mentioned previously in the chapter, there are specific challanges for both teachers and students in this kind of context, including limited classtime, management, feeling of anonymity, lack of flexibility and students diversity. But also hesitations in asking questions, minimum attention from teacher and access to the material, need of individual effort from students (Ives). The following table (from Nakabugo et al., 2008) proposes three area of attentions in teaching large classes and some practical suggestions for teachers that do not necessarily involve technology:

Target Teaching-Stance Suggested activities


  • learn students names
  • move around the class
  • elicit students' feedback
  • freely interact with students


  • divide class into small groups
  • plan participation
  • students contribute material for the lesson
  • award participation points


  • write the lessons outline and objective on the board or translarency
  • give a "think break"
  • show your own enthusiasm for the subject
  • design a lesson around a problem-solving model


Furthermore various studies, such those by Betts and Shkolnik, Smith, and Hong, have mentioned the need of review instructional time depending on the class size variation (in Nakabugo et al., 2008).

You can find here a serie of basic collaborative learning techniques useful to distribuite discussions in smaller groups.

Furthermore in this chapter we consider computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) as a possible solution when it comes to support teaching in large classes.

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