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A Short Background
The collaborative and cooperative learning processes are founded on constructivist principles that see learning as an active pursuit for the student. Learning is something students “do." It is not something they “get" as passive receivers of a communication process. The teacher is not a “giver" of knowledge; she is a facilitator of the students’ act of constructing and “making meaning" of the texts and topics he is supposed to know.
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A Brief Description
In the collaborative learning process, a student must formulate ideas about the material assigned to him, test his assumptions, clarify them, come to a conclusion and then assimilate that material within his self. Once he feels that he “owns" the material he must explain it to his group so that his knowledge can be pooled together and shared among all his group members. Each student thus, is a dynamic contributor to both the learning and the teaching process.
If you’re a teacher who is new to the collaborative learning process, you will find it a bit disorienting in the beginning. Most of us go through a slight resistance at the sudden shift of power-positions in our classrooms. It is also sometimes frustrating that we can no longer “tell" our students what we want them to know; we have to let them go through the process of finding out for themselves.
Instead of giving them the knowledge, we have to give them the tools of finding it and understanding it and explaining it to others. That is so much more difficult than “teaching."
It would be easier for us to just stand in front of the class and present the information to them. It is much more taxing and time-consuming to design appropriate activities and create the rubrics both you and your students will require during the process.
It is, in fact, much more demanding for the teacher when she relinquishes her position at the top of the class and becomes the motivator, the advisor, the consultant, the mentor, the “resolver" of conflicts, the “ideator" of the next possible step, the guide to information access and the various other hats she may need to wear during the course of any collaborative learning activity.
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The Pros or Benefits of Collaborative Learning
In the best case scenario, a collaborative learning effort can be the most exhilarating thing you have ever experienced as a teacher.
If everything goes according to plan, you’ll have a highly motivated and invested group of students who will take full ownership of their task. They will have a deeper understanding of the material you have assigned to them and will retain it for a longer period of time than if you had “taught" it to them. You’ll find a measurable improvement in their critical thinking abilities.
You will also appreciate the increase in their confidence levels and their sense of self-worth. You will see your students turn slowly into self-actualizing individuals with improved inter-personal skills.
Your students will learn not only the material you have assigned to them but also teach themselves how to celebrate diversity and difference and get along with human beings who are not quite “like" them. They will learn conflict-resolution from experience and you will see a positive change in their attitude towards themselves, others as well as the subject.
In other words, your students will show an overall growth and improvement both in the academic and social sense. Best of all, they will learn how to learn instead of just learning a text or a method or a scientific “law."
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The Other Side: Questioning the Effectiveness
In the wrong hands and with the wrong group, however, collaborative learning may not show any real advantage.
Traditional classroom pedagogy is tried and tested and both teachers and students are well versed with what is expected of them. The methods of delivery and assessment are established as are the means of the evaluation of the performance of both teachers and students.The collaborative learning process is still evolving and there will probably always remain an element of unpredictability in the outcome of group work.
Sometimes, groups will tend to rebel and will refuse to work with one or another member. Some students will always work better alone. Some groups may reinforce stereotypes of race and gender and thus defeat the very purpose of the activity.
Students may find it impossible to overcome their deeply embedded competitive instinct as they look for individual rewards. Some students may feel unduly pressured as they feel that they are taking on more responsibility than others in their groups.
Teachers, too, may feel the stress of trying to meet the demands of their syllabus in the limited time they have and thus be frustrated by the slow progress shown in some group activities.
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The Final Analysis
Ultimately, the effectiveness of collaborative learning depends on how well you design and communicate the activity and how your groups take to the task.
Most times, you will find that a collaborative learning activity is well received. It will, in any case, alleviate the elements of obviousness and monotony and make your class hours interesting. Even if you don’t get the “best case scenario" you are likely to get positive results from most group tasks.
Like any other tool, collaborative learning takes a while and much practice on the part of both teachers and students to be effective. As a teacher,while questioning the benefits of collaborative learning, you would do well to remember that it is just one more device you can use when you feel it is suited to a component in your syllabus.
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Johnson, Johnson and Smith. Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, George Washington University, 1991
The Benefits of Collaborative Learning
Essays on the definition and origins of collaborative learning and explorations into the nature, scope, benefits and effectiveness of this technique in improving student learning