students working collaboratively at a desk shaking hands


To describe collaborative learning approaches as well as provide a number of activities that support students working together and their implementation in the classroom.

What Is Collaborative Learning?

Collaborative learning is an umbrella term used to describe various approaches to teaching which involve students working together. According to Smith and MacGregor (1992), “in most collaborative learning situations students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product” (11). Because it is a student-centered approach, collaborative learning strategies shift the focus from the instructor and instead emphasize students learning together and from each other. 

Collaborative and cooperative learning share commonalities, including students working together, though the latter is more structured. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some differences between collaborative and cooperative learning. Most notably, cooperative learning places a higher emphasis on students working together as a group whereas collaborative learning emphasizes the development of independent thinking through group work (Bruffee, 1995). They can therefore be seen as on a continuum from least structured (collaborative) to most structured (cooperative) (Millis and Cottell, 1998). Since the 2010s, the term collaborative has been preferred over cooperative learning in higher education. For this reason, this resource uses the term collaborative to describe strategies and activities for students working together.

Although collaborative learning might on the surface sound like group work, the latter can be done without much preparation. By contrast, collaborative learning has specific features, including intentional design, co-laboring, and meaningful learning (Barkley, Major, and Cross 2014). Intentional design refers to the deliberate creation of learning activities that provide students with opportunities to learn by working together. Intentional learning activities might have students problem-solve, write, or teach each other (Major, 2020). Another aspect of collaborative learning strategies is co-laboring, that is, students working together in pairs or groups in equitable ways. Students often fear group projects where one person ends up taking on most of the work while the others loaf (Voyles, Bailey, and Durik 2015). Therefore, an important element of co-laboring is that all students share the workload, whether each group member receives the same task, or each group member completes different tasks that together comprise a single project (Major 2020). The final feature, meaningful learning, refers to students’ engagement with content and skills that helps them accomplish the course goals. 

In an online setting, collaborative learning shares the same characteristics as in an in-person classroom but with a few distinctions. Depending on the online course structure, the co-laboring aspect might be carried out asynchronously, and activities might require even more structure as the instructor may not be readily available to clarify any confusion. 

Benefits of Collaborative Learning Strategies

Research has shown that collaborative learning has many benefits for students. Loes, Culver, and Trolian (2018) synthesize some of the major benefits: it improves the quality of relationships among students, including better communication and group work skills, and it promotes critical thinking skills and student engagement. Collaborative learning helps students adjust to college and manage difficulties. 

In a review of 164 studies on eight collaborative learning methods, Johnson, Johnson, and Stanne (2012) found that when these methods were compared to competitive and individualistic learning methods, collaborative ones had a significant positive impact on student achievement. Given the wide variety and flexibility of collaborative strategies, instructors are well-poised to find ones that fit their teaching practice.

Because it promotes student-centered approaches to learning, collaborative learning strategies typically involve active learning. Major (2020) identifies the following active learning strategies associated with collaborative learning:

  • Discussion
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Problem-solving
  • Writing
  • Gaming
  • Increased levels of effort on collaborative tasks

For a list of collaborative learning activities that foster active learning, consult the section on Examples of Collaborative Learning Activities


Barkley, E., Major, C., Cross, P. 2014. Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass.

Bruffee, K.A. 1995. Sharing our toys: Cooperative learning versus collaborative learning. Change, 27 (1), 12-18. 

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. 2006. Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Interaction.

Loes, C. Culver, K.C., Trolian, T. L. 2018. How collaborative learning enhances students’ openness to diversity. The Journal of Higher Education, 89 (6), 935-960. 

Major, C. 2020. Collaborative learning: A tried and true active learning method for the college classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 164. 

Millis, B.J., Cottell, P.G. 1998. Cooperative learning for higher education faculty. American Council on Education. Oryx Press.

Smith, B. L., and MacGregor, J. T. 1992. What is collaborative learning? In A. Goodsell, M. Maher, & V. Tinto (Eds.), Collaborative learning: A sourcebook for higher education (pp. 10– 36). National Center on Post-Secondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. 

Voyles, E., Bailey, S., Durik, A. 2015. New pieces of the jigsaw classroom: increasing accountability to reduce social loafing in student group projects. The New School Psychology Bulletin, 13 (1), 11-20. 

Additional Resources

Giel, L. I., Noordzij, G., Wijnia, L., Noordegraaf-Eelens, L., Denktaş, S. 2021. When birds of the same feather fly together: the impact of achievement goal compatibility in collaborative learning. Educational Psychology, 41 (1), 79-98. 

Loes, C., Pascarella, E. T. 2017. Collaborative learning and critical thinking: testing the link. The Journal of Higher Education, 88 (5), 726-753. 


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