Maximizing the Effectiveness of Online Collaborative Learning

Jill W.

What's your experience of group work? Was it an interesting and engaging learning experience, a waste of time, or fuel for nightmares that haunt you still? What factors make the difference in collaborative learning? Read on to find out how to build a valuable experience for your learners.

Pasting a group activity into an online course isn't enough to ensure collaboration. Collaborative learning occurs when learners work together to complete a project by engaging in higher-order thinking as they gain knowledge, understanding and other benefits from their peers. There are many ways to complete a group project or activity without the analysis and evaluation of diverse ideas that constitute true collaborative learning. Consider the following scenarios:

  • In a class discussion, three or four learners dominate the conversation while the rest go unheard.
  • Learners divide a paper into several sections. Each completes their portion, and someone writes a line or two to connect the pieces.
  • A group of four people is working on a collaborative project. One person does the bulk of the work. Two others add a few ideas. The fourth person contributes nothing whatsoever and spends most of the group meeting times texting their friends or working on other tasks.
  • A pair of learners discuss their project, pleased to find they are in agreement (and without new ideas to consider or analyze).
  • As soon as a group discussion or working group raises a new idea, the conversation degenerates into a mannerless squabble with insults and personal attacks.

Thoughtful design and implementation of collaborative learning activities can reduce the risk of situations like these arising while providing strategies for dealing with problems that do occur.

Key factors in the design and implementation of effective online collaborative learning

1. Synchronicity

One of the advantages of eLearning is that it can be asynchronous, with learners completing their learning when they want at the pace they choose and without real-time interaction with peers or instructors. Unfortunately, this is not an advantage that combines easily with collaborative learning. Some degree of asynchronicity is possible with forum discussions, which can occur over several days whenever learners choose to participate, but even then, there must be a sufficient number of learners at the same place in the course to work together. Other collaborative activities require real-time interactions. Learning programs must be designed with timing in mind to take advantage of collaborative learning.

2. Group composition

Collaborative learning often involves group work. Group size and composition are both factors in learning effectiveness. Groups must be small enough that learners can become acquainted and have the opportunity to hear and consider the views of all members, yet they must also be large enough to incorporate a diversity of thought. Groups of around three to six members are generally recommended.

Diversity of thought is enhanced by differences in member experiences and knowledge. When possible, groups should be composed of members with varied:

  • Experience or knowledge of the field
  • Job positions
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Age

3. Scaffolding

Collaborative learning, like many other learning strategies, is most effective when scaffolding is used. In this context, scaffolding "refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process." Instructors provide more support early in the learning process and gradually withdraw it as learners develop their own skills. Collaborative learning depends on the sharing and analysis of learners' ideas, so it works best when learners have had time to become acquainted with the learning content and develop their comprehension before the collaborative activity. Such activities should therefore be placed later on in a course, although they can sometimes be used nearer the beginning when dealing with advanced learners who have completed prerequisites.

It can be helpful to scaffold group development as well as learning content. Ice breakers and team building exercises offer opportunities for learners to get to know each other and start working together.

4. Instructor role

In collaborative learning, participants gain knowledge from their peers while the instructor is removed from their traditional role as dispenser-of-wisdom. It's a common mistake to assume that this means there is less for instructors to do. Collaborative learning changes the role of the instructor; it does not diminish it. Instructors may be responsible for:

  • Designing activities
  • Monitoring discussions and interactions for appropriate behavior
  • Monitoring the contributions of each group member
  • Mediating conflicts within groups
  • Providing feedback and advice on both the process and the learning content

Designers of collaborative activities must accommodate the need for instructor involvement and oversight. For example, they can:

  • Select technological tools and platforms that allow instructors to watch or record significant group interactions
  • If the group is expected to produce a written product, choose software that tracks each group member's contribution to the document
  • Ensure that group numbers and sizes are such that the instructor can oversee their progress and provide support where necessary

5. Behavioral Guidelines

Setting behavioral guidelines helps to ensure that all participants have the opportunity to benefit from collaborative activities. Adult learners can be encouraged to create their own guidelines or behavioral contracts. Instructors then monitor groups and remain available for consultation if problems arise. They should watch for signs that guidelines or contracts are not effective, prompting intervention to adjust any problematic terms.

6. Assessment

Collaborative learning assessments can be challenging. Approaches include:

  • Individual assessment: After the collaborative activity, learners complete an individual test or project to assess their mastery of the content.
  • Assessment of individual contributions: The instructor bases the assessment on their observation and review of each group member's work. This technique requires close observation and tracking of the activity.
  • Group assessment: The group's product is assessed, and each group member receives the same results. When used alone, this strategy risks inaccurate assessment of members who over- or under-contributed to the project.
  • A combination of some of the approaches above, possibly including self and peer assessments.

An essential component of any collaborative assessment plan is a strategy for tackling the inevitable non-contributor. Some options include:

  • Weighting grades to reflect relative contributions -- weighting can be based on instructor observations or peer assessments
  • Allowing non-contributors to withdraw or be removed and complete an independent assignment


When implementing collaborative learning in your online lessons, it's not enough for group activities to be present. You also need those activities to work well. Maximize your chances of success by considering the timing and synchronicity of the program, the diversity of membership and size of each group, the scaffolding provided to prepare learners for the activity, the need for active involvement by the instructor, behavioral guidelines provided to or created by the learners, and the approach taken to assessing learner performance.

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.