Group collaboration


Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance

How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)

What can I do?

  • Design learning activities that promote group work in class as this is excellent for promoting learning, teamwork, and enterprise skills
  • Avoid using group assessments as they lead to poorer learning and retention

What is this about?

Group collaboration is the process of working together with a group of people to achieve a common goal during class time. In the context of learning in higher education, in-class group collaboration can involve students working together to complete projects or other learning activities during class. Group collaboration can be an effective way to learn in higher education because it allows students to share ideas and perspectives, work together to solve problems, and learn from one another in real-time. It can also promote social skills, such as communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution, which are important in many fields. To facilitate group collaboration in higher education, instructors might assign group projects or activities during class, encourage students to work together in small groups during class, or create structured activities or discussions that encourage students to collaborate with one another.

What's the evidence say?

Group collaboration involves people working together toward a common goal.


  • Co-constructing a concept map
  • Trying to decide on an ethical dilemma
  • Completing a science experiment together
  • Collaborating through a set of questions about a case study

A tonne of high-quality studies supports group work.

Group work leads to large learning gains in psychology (when not accompanied by group assessment) (Tomcho & Foels, 2012).

Moderate learning benefits for science, technology, engineering, and maths students, but also benefits for persistence and attitudes to the subject (Springer et al., 1999).

It appears to also help students transfer learning onto other problems (Pai et al., 2015).

Students learning with technology also do better in small groups than individually. They're also more perseverant, but do take longer to complete tasks (Lou et al., 2001).

Collaborative learning can have moderate effects on critical thinking (Abrami et al., 2008; Reale et al., 2018; Tiruneh et al., 2014).

Make task interdependent, brief, and minimise judgment

Group learning works better when...

Students are interdependent

  • When they need to work with others to complete a task (e.g., a role-play, structured debate) rather than when they are merely provided with the opportunity to work with others (e.g., 'work with someone if you want') (Tomcho & Foels, 2012).

Groups work together for a brief period (1-3 classes) rather than the whole semester

  • Students can become 'too comfortable' with each other, leading to social loafing, so reconstituting groups regularly toward shorter activities is more effective than the same grouping for the whole semester (Tomcho & Foels, 2012).

Contribution to group activities is not scrutinised

  • We want all students to participate, but some find it hard. Encouraging peer grading of contributions led to lower learning because students focused more on impressing others than learning, and those with social anxiety feel more judgement (Tomcho & Foels, 2012).

It works because group work promotes 'co-construction'.

Basically, it operates via a high level of active learning (Chi & Wylie, 2014). The best type of individual learning comes from students 'constructing' knowledge, connecting new material to what they already know. Working in groups not only promotes this process internally (e.g., by trying to explain your understanding to peers) but also helps to fill in gaps (e.g., by identifying and correcting misconceptions) (Chi & Wylie, 2014).

What's the underlying theory?

There are several theories that can help to explain the positive effects of collaborative learning on student learning in higher education. One such theory is social learning theory, which posits that individuals learn through observation, imitation, and interaction with others (Bandura, 1977). According to this perspective, collaborative learning can be a powerful way to learn because it allows students to observe and learn from their peers, as well as receive feedback on their own performance.

Another theory that can shed light on the benefits of collaborative learning is social constructivism, which asserts that people construct their own understanding of the world through interactions with others (Vygotsky, 1978). From this standpoint, collaborative learning can be effective because it enables students to engage in meaningful dialogue with their peers and construct their own understanding of the material through these interactions.

A third theory that is relevant to collaborative learning in higher education is constructivist learning theory, which holds that learning occurs when individuals actively construct meaning from new information, rather than simply receiving and memorizing it (von Glasersfeld, 1995). According to this theory, collaborative learning can be beneficial because it allows students to actively construct meaning from the material through discussion and collaboration with their peers.

Where does the evidence come from?

Collaborative learning is one of the most researched topics in higher education and, time-and-time-again, it comes up trumps.

All of the meta-analyses that inform this evidence summary tell the same story and their quality scores well against the GRADE criteria. There are some slight differences in their findings because they all look at slightly different things, but the fact remains that we can be confident about this evidence.


Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Chi, M. T., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP Framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219–243.

Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., & d’Apollonia, S. (2001). Small Group and Individual Learning with Technology: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 449–521.

Pai, H.-H., Sears, D. A., & Maeda, Y. (2015). Effects of Small-Group Learning on Transfer: a Meta-Analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 27(1), 79–102.

Reale, M. C., Riche, D. M., Witt, B. A., Baker, W. L., & Peeters, M. J. (2018). Development of critical thinking in health professions education: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, 10(7), 826-833.

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21–51.

Tiruneh, D. T., Verburgh, A., & Elen, J. (2014). Effectiveness of critical thinking instruction in higher education: A systematic review of intervention studies. Higher Education Studies, 4(1), 1-17.

Tomcho, T. J., & Foels, R. (2012). Meta-Analysis of Group Learning Activities: Empirically Based Teaching Recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 159–169.

Additional Resources