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Design the Activity

Instructors can implement collaborative learning strategies into their courses in a variety of ways and for different purposes. Some might create activities to break up class time while others might design entire units or courses around collaborative learning. In all cases, using practices that include backward design, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Framework are recommended. 

For short, in-class collaborative learning activities, it is important to introduce the task and provide instructions. Students should have enough time to complete the activity, and, once all groups have finished, debriefing as a large group can provide an opportunity to clarify any points of confusion and answer questions. 

For group work that develops over several weeks or class sessions, foster a sense of community among students and to introduce them to collaborative learning, its goals and steps, and its benefits on student success. One way to build community is by using icebreakers. Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) advocate for having students establish ground rules for working together. 

Recommended Practices for Groups or Teams

While groups can be formed in many different ways, it is important to foster an inclusive learning environment where students can feel welcome and comfortable working in groups. There are a number of strategies to form groups, including counting off, assigning members randomly by the instructor, drawing numbered slips of paper, matching quotes and authors, etc. For topic-based collaborative activities, providing students with a list of topics and a brief description can allow them to form their group or team by affinity. Alternatively, instructors can have students complete a brief survey to request partners making sure that the groups are formed in equitable ways. 

Group Composition and Size 

Group composition is a key aspect of developing a welcoming environment and it requires intentional and careful consideration. Allowing students to create their own groups can create inequitable power dynamics detrimental to minoritized students. When feasible, it is recommended that there is critical mass in every group so that lone members of a particular social category such as race, gender, or ethnicity are not isolated in a group (Brodbeck, Guillaume, and Lee, 2010). 

Group size can vary depending on the task. Groups of three students exhibit the best performance in some problem-solving tasks but anywhere between 2 and 6 members is recommended (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 2006). 

Group Stages 

Groups go through several stages as members learn to feel comfortable with each other. These stages are usually referred to as “forming, storming, norming, and performing, and adjourning” (Tuckman, 1965). It is important to let groups go through these stages to help them perform at their best. The cost of switching groups often can also be high as students need to go through the process again. 

Member Roles and Responsibilities 

Assigning specific roles and responsibilities to group members can help avoid common problems within groups or teams. Typical roles can include: a facilitator to moderate discussions, a recorder or note-taker, a reporter in charge of representing the group as the spokesperson, an editor, graphic designer, programmer, etc., or be skill-based, for example, editing and writing, programming, presentation skills, etc. Roles can be assigned based on skill and experience. Students can also be encouraged to take on different roles to develop new skills as appropriate to the project or task.


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

Brodbeck, F., Guillaume, Y., Lee, N. 2010. Ethnic diversity as a multilevel

construct: The combined effects of dissimilarity, group diversity, and societal status on learning performance in work groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/09/13/0022022110383314.full.pdf 

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

Tuckman, B. 1965. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-389.


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