Cooperative and Collaborative learning – Inspiring the practice of group work – full article

Collaborative und cooperative learning have been integrated in higher education for years. Due to the stronger emphasis on independent and especially critical thinking (as evidenced in the Critical Thinking Initiative at ETH) these teaching methods are increasingly moving to the centre of attention.

What is the difference between collaborative and cooperative learning?

Dillenbourg (1999, p.8) distinguishes collaborative and cooperative learning as follows: “In cooperation, partners split the work, solve sub-tasks individually and then assemble the partial results into the final output. In collaboration, partners do the work together.” Later he clarifies that collaboration is “a process by which individuals negotiate and share meanings relevant to the problem-solving task at hand”. Stahl et al. (2016, p.481) add that “Of course, individuals are involved in this as members of the group, but the activities that they engage in are not individual-learning activities, but group interactions like negotiation and sharing.”

What are the benefits of collaborative learning?

Laal and Ghodsi (2001) list the main benefits of collaborative learning as developing learning communities, promoting critical thinking and enabling new forms of assessments. In addition, compared with competitive and individualistic efforts, collaborative learning typically results in higher achievement and greater productivity, more caring, supportive and committed student relationships and greater psychological health, social competence and self-esteem. Furthermore, collaborative work promotes trans-disciplinary competences.

What are some examples of collaborative learning?

Some well-known examples of collaborative learning in action include the following methods:

  • Problem-based learning is a student-centred approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem (Weber 2007, ). At ETH several lectures use this method, e.g. in the biology curriculum (
  • In case studies students are provided real-world examples and apply skills and knowledge to arrive at conclusions thus bridging the theoretical and practical aspects within a field of study (examples in Hattie, Masters & Birch 2015).
  • In interdisciplinary projects students from different disciplines work together to solve a problem, complete a task or create a product that needs knowledge and skills (ETH example in D-BAUG:
  • Eric Mazur’s peer instruction approach is a well-known example of collaborative learning: peer instruction involves students explaining their understanding of underlying concepts to each other during lectures which focusses their attention and enhances understanding (Mazur Harvard Group).
  • Project work in small groups provides opportunities for critical thinking and problem-oriented, experience-based learning. Prof. Mirko Meboldt won the KITE award 2016 with just such a project (
  • Students write a lab report together online.
  • Students discuss and develop topics for term papers independelty of the lecturer.
  • Students research and connect topics with lecture materials together in a concept map.
  • Students do their exam preparation together in an online tool (texts, mindmaps, pictures).

How can collaborative learning be assessed?

There are several assessment methods suitable for assessing collaborative learning. These include oral group presentations, written group reports, peer assessment of each individual’s contribution to the group, observation, and interviews by lecturer or tutor. Each of these can be supplemented with individual assessments (

For more information about different ways of grading by instructors and peers, we recommend Winchester-Seeto (2002) (cited in Her list includes advantages and disadvantages of the different ways of grading.

How does information technology support collaborative learning?

Technology has opened new possibilities of how knowledge and skills can be acquired. Computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) focusses on collaborative learning facilitated by information technology (e.g. computer, tablets, networks). CSCL can occur in several different ways, synchronously by using technology to connect people accross geographic locations simultaneously and asynchronously by connecting students who log on to a specific chat programme at different times to conduct conversations.  Modern technology has been supporting collaborative learning at ETH for many years in the form of forums in Moodle and ELBA (E-Leraning Baukasten). Currently, there are efforts underway to improve online collaboration workspaces at ETH.

What can I do if I want to implement collaborative learning in my course?

If you set up a collaborative learning setting, please keep the following essential concepts in mind:

  • Create positive Interdependence (meaning all students are required to contribute in order to reach the stated goals.)
  • Hold individuals and groups accountable
  • Give appropriate course credits
  • Be conscious of group size (in general 4-5 members (and gender equal) work best)
  • Give time for group processing
  • Use real world problems

But one of the most important components is to foster a sense of participative safety, to set up an environment, which promotes participation and an open discussion culture. There is much more information and many tips for setting up collaborative learning available (e.g. Undergraduate Teaching Fellows, University of Maryland or Miriam Clifford (2014)).


Clifford, Miriam (2014): 20 Collaborative Learning Tips And Strategies For Teachers.

Dillenbourg, P. (Ed.) (1999a). Collaborative learning: Cognitive and computational approaches. Amsterdam: Pergamon, Elsevier Science.

Hattie, J. A., Masters, D. & Birch, K. (2015). Visible Learning into Action: International Case Studies of Impact London, UK: Routledge.

Laal, M. & Ghodsi, S.M. (2001). Benefits of collaborative learning.

Office of Undergraduate Studies (2012): Group Work and Collaborative Learning: Best Practices. The University of Maryland,

Stahl, Gerry, Timothy Koschmann, and Daniel Suthers. “Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning”, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Ed. R. Keith Sawyer. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.  479-500. Cambridge Books Online. Web. 22 August 2016. .

Stahl, G. (2006). Group cognition: Computer support for building collaborative knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weber, A. (2007). Problem-Based Learning. Ein Handbuch für die Ausbildung auf Sekundarstufe II und auf der Tertiärstufe. Bern: hep-Verlag.