Collaborative Learning and Group Projects Overview


What is Collaborative Learning?

A well structured collaborative learning or group project activity can increase student participation and increase retention of course material. Group projects promote teamwork and collaboration, skills that are used most everyday at work and in any activity that involves groups of people.

Many of the ideas and concepts shared in this guide come from Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty 2nd Edition (Barkley, Major, Cross, 2014) who write, “collaborative learning has its home in social constructivism, which assumes that knowledge is socially produced by consensus among peers.” In this article, the term “collaborative learning” is used to describe any group projects or learning activities.


Characteristics of Successful Group Projects

According to Barkley, Major and Cross, characteristics of successful group projects include three main components:

Intentional design

Often, instructors think of group work as little more than giving students a chance to break off into groups and discuss a given topic or idea. Collaborative learning, however, encourages a heavier focus on intentional formation of assignments and groups to drive instructional outcomes and students’ personal senses of responsibility and contribution to the group’s shared success. The structure of these group assignments should be as important as the structure of the group itself.


One aspect of collaborative learning that is essential is the idea of co-laboring. In collaborative learning, all participants must engage actively in working together towards the stated objectives. If one group member completes an activity while the other simply watch, then it is not collaborative learning. Co-learning activities should be based on the idea that each student contributes equally to the success or failure of each project, and roles within the group should be outlined accordingly.

Meaningful Learning through Collaboration

As students work together on a collaborative project, each student’s experience and role in the group should deepen his/her understanding of the the course content. This is accomplished by allowing each student to assume some authority and control over the process by which intended instructional goals are achieved. This requires instructors to create measurable achievements and be flexible enough to recognize for planned and unplanned emergent learning.


Designing the Group Project

“It is best not to think of group work as something to be added onto an existing course structure, but instead something that helps shape the design of the syllabus and helps synthesize specific course objectives.” (Speaking of Teaching, Newsletter)

As with all assignments, group projects need to have clear objectives, instructions, expectations, and performance assessments. Group projects should closely align with the course objectives to ensure that the group project will help students achieve course objectives while working in groups. In addition, design the group project so that it helps students develop skills that they will use in the future.

Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence nicely outlines how to design group work assignments. The article includes how to form the groups; how to ensure students are productive; and what the students do.


Preparing Students

To help ensure students work well together within their groups prepare the students for the group project. Take time to explain why group projects are important not only to achieving the course outcomes, but also how what they are learning will relate to social, volunteer and work projects. The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center describe a variety of strategies to help students develop their team working skills.


Forming Groups

How to do you determine the group membership? There are a many options available for determining group membership. For ideas take a look at the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center page “How can I compose groups?” on how to form groups. This article covers how to configure groups, individual characteristics, and contingency plans for when group performance is challenging or unsuccessful.

For more information on this topic, review the article Forming Successful Groups for Collaborative Learning.


Establish Ground Rules and Roles

Have each group establish their own ground rules to complete the project. For example, have teams create a Team Contract that outlines contact information, skills, roles, goals, expectations and consequences.

Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence offers excellent guidance on helping students establish ground rules for their group project.



When assessing group projects there are many decisions to be made as there are many components that can be assessed such as the project itself, group collaboration, individual students, or assessments based on the group activities. No matter how the students are to be assessed ensure that the performance criteria are clearly articulated to students prior to the start of the project. Consider using rubrics to help students achieve the expected project and outcomes. 

The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center explores the topic of assessing individual and group learning performance (via tools such as quizzes, tests, or reflection papers) as well as the group project itself. For additional resources, Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence has some excellent resources for self and peer assessments.



Collaborative learning and group project activities can range from a simple in-class discussion held for part of a single session to a complex, semester or quarter-long project. 

Example, single-class discussion group activity: Three-Step Interview (for groups of 2, 15-30 minutes)

In the three-step interview activity, student pairs use interview questions developed by the instructor prior to the class session and take turns interviewing each other. Then, working together, they summarize and report what they’ve learned to another pair. The three-step interview creates the opportunity for students to network and improve specific communication skills like active listening and succinct expression of thoughts.

Instructors should craft interview questions in such a way that they can use the information gathered through the interviews to assess understanding of course content, achievement of course objectives, or as the basis for whole-class discussion on trends in student responses.


Example, semester-long project: Case Study (for small groups of 3-6 students)

In the case study, student teams review a written study of a real-life scenario containing a field-related problem or question. Materials provided for students should include a historical account of the situation and present a question or challenge that must be overcome. Team members apply concepts and ideas presented in the course to identify and evaluate the situation, identify the data needed to recommend a solution and the methods by which solutions will be evaluated.

Instructors should carefully craft case studies to ensure students will have an opportunity to draw upon key learnings presented throughout the course. Depending on the size and duration of the activity, it may be best to distribute more than one case study per class to ensure measurement of all course objectives is possible. Instructors should also clearly define the deliverables each team is responsible for and provide opportunities for presentation of the team’s work to the larger class.

For more information on specific examples of collaborative group projects, review the articles, Collaborative Learning in an Online or Hybrid Classroom and Collaborative Learning in a STEM Classroom.



Barkley, E., Cross, K., & Major, C. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (Second ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Additional Resources for Collaboration

Additional Resources for Students

Additional Resources for Faculty

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