by Dr. Miriam Horne, Associate Professor, CORE; edited by Caroline Toy, CLT

Collaborative classrooms provide benefits for student learning and development. By implementing collaborative teaching practices, whether remotely or in person, faculty can strengthen the learning experience and foster community for students.

Why use collaboration in and outside the classroom?

Three concentric rings. The outermost is labeled "learner cannot do", the middle "zone of proximal development (learner can do with guidance)", and the innermost "learner can do unaided".
Visual model of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
  • Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory shows how students are able to develop higher-order thinking when they work with other people drawing on different skills, passions, and knowledge
  • Collaboration can help students build connections with each other (especially important in virtual/remote learning and for first-year students)
  • Students are able to practice their social interaction skills
  • Working together for a common goal helps students build trust and community
  • Collaboration builds confidence and self-esteem

Setting Up Collaborations

  • Start small – set up dyads and triads so students can’t get lost in a larger group
  • Start early – use small-group collaboration right at the beginning of the semester so student have the opportunity to get to know other people
  • Start casually – don’t worry too much about who works with whom

This guidance gives you an opportunity to assess the development of collaboration. Who works well together? Who clashes? What are students’ current levels of readiness for group work? Gathering this information will help you structure more complex and long-term collaborations, like major projects, later in the course.

Early and informal collaborations can be an essential component of building a sense of community. This is also true in virtual learning environments. Canvas provides options for student collaboration. You might also consider using Google Suite or third-party collaborative reading and annotation tools like Perusall or Hypothesis, whether your course is in-person or remote.

Examples of Collaborations

  • Buzz groups – form small random groups (in the classroom or in Canvas), and ask students to communicate outside of class time about a specific text you have assigned for class. Start with specific questions to scaffold the reading process for students. Students then post on the discussion board and include how their buzz group helped them shape their ideas about the text. Buzz groups might also use tools like Google Docs or Jamboard.
  • Peer consulting groups – for this longer-term strategy, create groups of two or three students to brainstorm and discuss an assignment that involves the creation of an individual substantial work (not a group project). Individuals create proposals for the assignment and then receive feedback from their peer consulting group. This can be done using the peer feedback tool in Canvas or through in-person meetings, with or without the instructor.

Examples of Collaboration for In-Person and Virtual Learning

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