Book Review: Collaborative Learning Techniques

CoLTHere is a review of another practical guide for teaching:

Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Collaborative Learning Techniques is organized much like Classroom Assessment Techniques and in fact there is some overlap in terms of content.

Methods presented in the book that I had used before required adjustment and iteration before they met my expectations. From this perspective I think that the book is most useful as a starting point for experimentation.

For example, in the technique of “Test-Taking Teams,” students (1) study course content as a team to prepare for an exam, (2) take the exam separately for individual grades, (3) discuss the exam among themselves, and (4) take the same exam together for a group grade.

I see the technique’s general applicability, but to me the initial joint study session is problematic for two reasons. First, given students’ wildly conflicting schedules, a joint study session will have to be held in the classroom to avoid inconvenience, which eats up time that might be more productively used in other ways. Second, some students have much better study skills than others and those students should not be required to devote time and energy on their lower-performing peers prior to an individually-graded exam. A better option might be for students to (1) study individually before the initial exam, (2) discuss how they studied with their teammates after they know their exam scores and are more receptive to altering how they study, and (3) collectively take the team exam. 

“Grading and Evaluating Collaborative Learning” was the most thought-provoking chapter for me. The authors state that:

“[s]ince achieving individual accountability while still promoting group interdependence is a primary condition for collaborative learning, it is most effective if grades reflect a combination of individual and group performance. One way to achieve this is to . . . ensure that individual effort and group effort are differentiated and reflected by a product that can be evaluated” (84).

I still haven’t quite figured out how to do this efficiently. Students often default to chopping up group tasks into discrete chunks. No real collaboration takes place and the final product can be disjointed and of uneven quality. Or there are free riders. Teammate evaluations help address this problem to some extent, but this assessment mechanism is summative rather than formative — it occurs at the end of the semester when it’s too late for a student to change his or her behavior. 

Leave a Reply