Letting Students Do the Teaching (and Learning) with Collaborative Learning Activities

Symphonie Swift · January 13, 2023

group of students

It goes by many names — cooperative learning, collaborative learning, peer learning, and sometimes just “group work.” These terms are often used synonymously to describe educational approaches that require students to interact with one another to explore, master, or apply course material and concepts. No matter what you call it, students working together toward an academic goal can be an incredibly effective way to learn. 

In this article, we’ll cover…

  • what collaborative learning is and how it might differ from peer learning.
  • the benefits of collaborative learning for students.
  • examples of great collaborative learning activities and tools to facilitate peer learning.
  • a few tips for using collaborative learning in any course. 

What is collaborative learning?

In the 1992 collection, Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, Barbara Leigh Smith’s and Jean MacGregor’s article define collaborative learning as “an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together. Usually, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. Collaborative learning activities vary widely, but most center on students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it.”

Is there a difference between peer learning and collaborative learning?

Terms like peer learning, collaborative learning, and group work are often used interchangeably but some scholars of teaching and learning believe it's important to distinguish between peer learning and collaborative learning. 

They argue that collaborative learning takes place when students work together to solve problems, discuss ideas, and create products as equals whereas peer learning requires that students with different knowledge or ability be paired together so that one can lead while the other learns. Some believe that both collaborative and peer learning describe instances where students teach and learn from one another. Others believe peer learning encompasses many types of collaborative learning activities such as peer instruction or peer work.

Regardless of the terminology and distinction you find most compelling, it’s important to understand the benefits of peer learning and collaborative learning and how to effectively use these tools with your students.

How does collaborative learning support students?

Collaborative learning is considerably well-researched. A recent study found that among students at 17 institutions, collaborative learning had a positive influence on students' academic motivation. 

In part, peer learning is so effective because it is a form of active learning. Learning is understood by many to be an active, constructive process. In their article, Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor described what makes collaborative learning active. 

“To learn information, ideas, or skills, students have to work actively with them in purposeful ways. They need to attach this new material to, or integrate it with, what they already know—or use it to reorganize what they thought they know. In collaborative learning situations, students are not simply taking in new information or ideas. They are creating something new with the information and ideas. These acts of intellectual processing—of constructing meaning or creating something new—are crucial to learning.” - Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor

4 Types of Collaborative Learning Activities 


Think-Pair-Share or TPS is perhaps the most well-known and used collaborative learning activity. They can easily be done on the fly, with very little planning required of instructors. First instructors can ask students a question and give them time to think about it on their own (THINK). Next, students partner up to discuss the question and their thoughts (PAIR). Finally, the groups share what they discussed with the rest of the class (SHARE).

Case Studies

Case studies can be used in any discipline, though they’ve been used by instructors in the professions (business, law, medicine, education, etc) for many decades. While activities involving cases may not inherently be collaborative, discussing cases with an entire class or asking students to work through cases in small groups, makes this an engaging opportunity for peer learning. Teaching with case studies allows students to apply what they’ve learned to identify solutions to a problem, solve a mystery, or generate new ideas. 

Peer Review

Peer review is common in writing courses but is great for any course where papers  have to be written, problems have to be worked, or processes have to be demonstrated. Students may initially feel uncomfortable giving feedback because they may not want to say anything negative about another students’ work. It is important to set clear expectations and guidelines with peer review activities.

Peer Instruction

Peer instruction is a student-centered type of instruction that allows students to learn by explaining core concepts to each other under the guidance of their instructor. There are several types of peer instruction activities. Jigsaw for example can be used to assign a single section of a reading assignment to one student or a small group of students and have them present or “teach” that section to the rest of the class. With the student engagement system iClicker, instructors can create peer instruction activities on the fly by pairing students who’ve picked different answers to a question together to explain their reasoning. 

Tips for Facilitating Collaborative Learning

When implementing any new type of activity or method in the classroom, it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind.

Explain the activity clearly. How you introduce the activity matters, especially when it comes to peer learning. Students might get nervous about the idea of working with peers they don’t know well. Give students clear guidelines and let them know what your expectations are. 

Give them time. Give students the right amount of time. It’s equally important not to give them too much or too little time. If students are rushed, perhaps only one will have the opportunity to present, discuss, or provide feedback. On the other hand, if given too much time, students might get distracted and let the task at hand slide. 

Know what happens next. What do you want students to do after they’ve completed the collaborative learning activity? Think through what goal(s) the activity is working towards and how it will support their understanding of the course material or development of skills. 


Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education 
Cornell University, Center for Teaching Innovation
University of Michigan, LSA Learning & Teaching Technology Consultants