Learners work together to create a joint product, cooperatively solve a problem, or co-construct their understanding of a topic.
Collaborative learning involves groups of learners working together to create a joint product, cooperatively solve a problem, or co-construct their understanding of a topic. The literature distinguishes between cooperative and collaborative learning, with cooperative learning involving a task that can be decomposed into individual independent subtasks and collaborative learning involving a task that must be completed as one shared group task (Cohen, 1994; Watkins et al., 2007). However, more often the two terms are used interchangeably and align with the latter definition. In truly collaborative contexts, learners believe that they can only achieve goals if others in the group also reach their goals (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). As a result, learners must support one another’s learning by explaining, examining, and reconciling their multiple perspectives through conversation, as well as by giving help to and seeking help from peers (Watkins et al., 2007). Collaborative learning is an alternative to competitive learning, where students believe that they can obtain their goals only if others fail, and individualistic learning, where students believe that the achievement of their goals is unrelated to others’ achievement (Johnson et al., 1991).
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Learners working in groups deploy the social awareness and interpersonal skills needed to successfully collaborate, including the abilities to empathize, listen actively, relate across lines of difference, communicate respectfully and clearly, resolve conflicts, and both seek and offer help when appropriate.
The importance of collaboration to learning is explained by a number of interrelated theories. These theories primarily focus on the mediating mechanisms of motivation and cognitive development. Some motivational theories argue that the incentive structures that are a part of collaborative learning foster positive interdependent relationships between group members stemming from members realizing they can only attain their own goals if everyone in the group also succeeds. This, in turn, motivates the group members not only to learn the material, but also to help other group members do the same (Johnson & Johnson, 1992; Slavin, 1995; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998; Panitz, 1999). Social constructivist theory also argues that motivation is a key driver of achievement activated by collaboration, but that it is activated by the cohesiveness of the group and learners’ desire to take care of one another, as opposed to their desire to take care of themselves (Sharan & Sharan, 1992; Cohen, 1994). Cognitive theorists have developed both a developmental perspective that builds off of Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and the more knowledgeable other (MKO), as well as an elaborative perspective that extends from Piaget’s social learning theory. The cognitive developmental theory argues that within groups, learners are able to model more advanced behaviors and thinking than they could perform alone because they are engaging with other learners at similar but not identical developmental levels (Vygotsky, 1978; Dillenbourg, 1999). The cognitive elaboration theory holds that interacting with peers allows learners to explain, test, and refine their thinking in order to form new mental models or schema (Woolfolk, 1987; van Boxtel et al., 2000). While some researchers have sought to demonstrate that either motivation or cognition alone can mediate the relationship between collaboration and achievement, most argue it is likely a complex mixture of both. The group goals and processes used during collaboration increase motivation to learn and/or motivation to support one other’s learning. This increased motivation leads to more active engagement with collaborative tasks that further cognitive development, which in turn improves achievement (Slavin, 1995).