Collaborative And Active Learning In Higher Education Classrooms
Nenad Aksic/Shutterstock.com

Higher Education: Collaborative And Active Learning

We often hear of the importance of collaborative learning but through personal observation and through instructor-student dialogue over the years, it seems the concept is often lost on instructors at the university level. While effective collaborative learning can take some effort on the part of instructors and students, there are simple steps that can be applied that will likely generate positive results in relatively little time.

Collaborative learning and growing is synonymous with commons, collective, interactive, and shared spaces. Shared spaces in a physical capacity are foundational elements in establishing collaborative learning. Collaborative learning can also be seen as a data or information commons whereby multiple students are learning together, and sharing their knowledge, points of view, what they know and how, how they reached those perspectives, and what pathways can be pursued as a result of what another student thinks and why.

The idea of collaborative learning is to step away from the singular and isolated state of learning on one’s own in which the benefits of education might not be fully realized or capitalized on simply because of a student attempting to learn alone. If we attempt to learn a wide spectrum of topics and issues and build a robust knowledge base, it stands to reason that the inclusion of other students would only support this endeavor.

When And Where Collaborative Learning Can Be Observed

Collaborative learning can manifest physically in the form of a reading room or common room for students, where educational amities are provided. In addition to bringing together students that usually have unique and diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking, a core feature of collaborative learning is the creation of a friendly, positive, non-threatening, and welcoming learning space. With such a learning environment within reach to almost any instructor of higher education, students are able to freely interact and engage in a comfortable learning process while taking risks.

The learning space is a service to the individual and collective learning and learning needs of students, rather than laying out the expectation that students adapt to the learning space. A key feature of this style of learning is the relaxed and enjoyable nature of learning and engaging with knowledge. When learning can be practiced in this way, students sometimes barely realize that they are actually learning. Under such conditions, students can perform at a much higher level, exemplifying skills that higher education instructors may not be able to observe otherwise. I have found this to be the case with undergraduate and graduate students irrespective of their socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. In a collaborative setting, students can also be encouraged to emulate similar working and learning conditions on their own, recreating what they see in the classroom, and consequently developing and strengthening a positive and deeply advantageous learning approach for the remainder of their educational experience.

From Collaborative To Active Learning

The collaborative learning space can facilitate active learning even more effectively with the use of the right technology (or making the most of existing technology). Building interactive and collaborative classrooms in higher education need not be confined to the classroom per se but rather can be extended beyond the classroom by means of online platforms that provide students with 24-hour access to one another, including their instructor(s). Why is connectivity key? Much of positive and collaborative student learning entails understanding the position of other students, seeing what other students in higher education are going through, understanding that many of the problems that student X is experiencing are similar to, if not exactly the same, as those experienced by student Y.

Instructors opting for the use of collaborative learning platforms, particularly those that are free and are compliant with an abundance of Learning Management Systems (LMS), can foster a deep sense of engagement between students and instructors for a particular class or course, and demonstrate the crucial element of instructor dedication to student learning and achievement. Instructors play a key role in the collaborative and active learning process by establishing the culture of student learning, accommodating their learning needs, and ensuring the classroom functions for its intended purpose, and foster a sense of learning want.

Learning Space Design–Building Meaningful Collaboration

The collaborative learning space ought to encourage or challenges students/learners socially, mentally/emotionally, and intellectually. When students are comfortable they are more likely to open up to learning in these ways. Students can then discuss and share ideas openly and freely listen to one another, debate, defend their points of view, offer alternative points of view that might be informed by their personal experiences and perspectives, and raise questions for which there might not be any ready-made answers. As such, students, instructors, technology, and the desire to foster a positive classroom culture are seminal ingredients in collaborative learning.

How To Bring Students And Instructors Closer Together

The following are some practical approaches to bring students and instructors closer together to expand the knowledge environment, change student-learning functions from passive to active, and simply alter the character and culture of what it means to teach and learn collaboratively. Some of these are:

1. Teaching Students How To Listen

This is rarely seen as a topic in and of itself. Even in higher education, at the university level, students can benefit from being taught effective listening skills that can directly translate into effective speaking, analytical, and argumentation skills. Good listening skills are probably the most valuable skills in the workplace and indeed are essential for success in subsequent classes in higher education programs. Teaching students how to listen means establishing classroom norms that enrich the element of respect among students, and as a result, boost a student’s sense of self-worth, esteem, and confidence. Effective listening entails the act of eye contact, establishing the boundaries of speaking and listening and when students should engage in both. I treat good listening as a foundational block of good ideas in my classroom because when students run into obstacles in the formulation of an idea, student following along can jump in and help flesh out an idea or carry it forward. Good listening or communication skills are easily transferable to student interaction outside the formal classroom.

2. Interacting Academically Beyond The Classroom

Because bringing students together means more than simply gathering them in a classroom, instructors would benefit tremendously from enhancing student engagement and creating a culture of learning outside of the classroom. In another sense, an interaction can mean taking the classroom to the students and making the learning process available to students in environments they deem most comfortable to them. This means going online and using the many online resources that are readily available to instructors to propel efforts to create collaborative learning. Piazza.com online learning platform, for example, is a lively way to extend learning beyond the classroom. It is a constructive way to give students their own voice as well as a collective voice in teaching and learning. Polling students to assess the pace of the class, its content, and inform the instructor of necessary alterations to lecture trajectories is not only useful for the instructor but also serves as a fundamental aspect of learning that can easily boost student motivation and participation.

3. Plant The Idea Of Student Interaction Into The Syllabus

Peer review assignments give students the opportunity to provide feedback on other student assignments. Paper submissions, for instance, by students can undergo a 3-student peer review process that allows for multiple perspectives to inform the refinement of research and writing at any level of higher education. Communication between students in such a way can be anonymous or students can be identified, enabling those students who provided feedback to meet with their classmates I order to further discuss developing the work. Peergrade.io is a free online platform that can easily facilitate this process. The benefits of a student peer review process are plentiful but one that stands-out is the student-student interaction and forms the basis of the collaborative learning space. This approach helps to develop practical skills that will be transferable to other classes and workplaces. Students, through this approach, are given a sense of positive empowerment and enablement in the classroom—an opportunity to share their critical points of views and help other students with their work. The process of critiquing student X’s work can also shed light on those of student Y’s work. It promotes a culture of students reaching out to one another who share similar interests or seek diverse points of view that extend across disciplines, fields, or majors.

4. Employ Multimodal Communication In The Classroom

When teaching in the classroom I have often found that providing students with opportunities for greater interaction makes a noticeable difference in their written assignments. By encouraging and practicing various forms of communication among students in the classroom (i.e., presentations, student-led discussion groups and seminars, and short informal debates and roundtable discussions) the quality of student assignments improves markedly. This approach in the classroom satisfies many important instructor objectives and forms the very soul of collaborative and active learning.

5. Teach By Example

It means instructors are exemplars of the standards and conduct that should find their way into student attitude and conduct in the classroom. Instructors need to demonstrate the art of listening to students, exhibit the proper formulation of questions, appropriate or diplomatic ways of presenting and sharing ideas and emotions, and how to exchange different points of view while demonstrating empathy, openness, and appreciation for complementary or competing positions. Instructors in higher education classrooms, as in all classrooms at other levels of education, are not just teaching; they are being observed and even studied. In other words, instructors are essential for transferring 21st-century skills to students so that they can apply those skills in all walks of life—they are, in essence, skills facilitators. Instructors can quickly begin to see the benefits of being role models in the classroom when they employ constructive criticism, pointing out the positive aspects of student ideas and comments first and foremost, followed by areas of opportunity or improvement. The type of language an instructor employs can be picked-up with relatively ease by students who tend to emulate how the instructor presents and responds to ideas and information in the classroom.

Conclusion

Collaborative learning and active learning are exercises in creating a deep scholarship. They should be seen as essential approaches to teaching in higher education given the demands placed on students during their student careers, the workplace, and in the broader sense of life. Building collaboration and facilitating active learning can yield many positive results in student performance, and can usually be seen in a short period of time. It is important for instructors to set the tone for student learning as early as possible in a class, bridge the student-instructor divide, and empower students with a sense of agency over their own learning.

Since students share a common learning space, they should also feel a sense of common learning, a sense of sharing and interacting rather than one of isolation or remoteness even in the presence of dozens of other students. Indeed, the classroom is a shared space as much as the learning that takes place within it is a shared experience. As such, instructor-led activities and teaching should be formulated and implemented in accordance with this view, connecting students as resources to amplify the benefits of what is already taking place in higher education classrooms.

Close