Collaborative Learning: more than group discussions?

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I was reviewing a classroom based programme for a new (and therefore inexperienced) trainer recently. As they talked me through their session, they told me that they knew how important collaborative learning is so had scheduled time for group discussion within various exercises.

For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the term, collaborative learning is a process whereby more than two people set out to learn something at the same time by working together to solve problem, complete a task or create a product. Gerlach (1994) defined it as being “based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves. It is through the talk that learning occurs.”

ID-100107057So on the face of it, planning group discussions should allow for collaborative learning to take place, right? Well if only it was that straight forward.

To be truly effective and for the real benefits of collaborative learning to be realised, the quality of the discussion between delegates is key. Delegates must question each other, and the facilitator/trainer. They must feel confident and able to challenge other views and share their own views (even if they are in the minority or seem extreme). It is partly through hearing these different viewpoints and openly discussing their merits that new information can be synthesised into current knowledge frameworks.

All delegates must be also involved in the discussion. Without the views and input of everyone, some of the value of the conversation is lost, so learner engagement is also important.

Finally, the session must be structured to be learner centered, not facilitator centered. This doesn’t mean that there will be no presentations by the facilitator, but that these should be only a small fraction of the overall session. Facilitators will need to be prepared and able to manage diverse discussions, which allow learners to fully explore their ideas and concepts whilst still working towards the overall sessions learning outcomes.

So is it enough for us to just ensure that delegates have the opportunity to discuss topics and information during a session? Not if we want our learning to have a real impact. The success of true collaborative learning really depends on how well the collaborative task is designed and then facilitated – what are your top tips for developing and facilitating this type of learning?


Founder of Zostera Ltd and The Trainers CPD Club. I've worked in L&D for over 16 years across both the public and private sectors.

Posted in Learning Methods Tagged with: , ,
2 comments on “Collaborative Learning: more than group discussions?
  1. Rachel says:

    Great article thanks. Questioning is key. It is the trainers role to construct intelligent frameworks around discussions, to give appropriate prompts at the appropriate time and to also construct questions that lead to intelligent discussions. This does not mean leading questions – quite the opposite, but questions that help everyone to think further than they might without them.
    Ambiguous but each question will be topic specific! Hope helps… sometimes, even experienced facilitators miss the opportunity for a pertinent question and leave the room thinking I wish I’d asked x….

    • Fionap says:

      Thanks for your comment. :) Great point about facilitators/trainers building on discussions to challenge delegates thinking. It can be a tricky balance sometimes to allow the conversation to evolve whilst also pushing individuals to think differently. This notion of missing the opportunity for a pertinent question is one of the reasons I am a great believe in dual facilitation, as it means these situations (which we’ve all experienced) are hopefully more likely to be avoided.

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