This article is intended to share examples and ideas for how to incorporate collaborative learning activities into STEM classrooms.
Examples are from Collaborative Learning Techniques: A handbook for college faculty 2nd Edition (Barkley, Major, Cross, 2014).
Example: Chemistry course, large lecture, on-site setting
Collaborative learning activity: Learning Cell (2-4 students, single or multiple session)
In Learning Cells, students individually develop questions about a reading assignment or other learning activity and then work with a partner, alternately asking and answering each other’s questions. The purpose of this activity is to engage students actively in thinking about content, to encourage students to generate thought-provoking questions, and to teach students how to check their understanding. It also encourages students to practice interpersonal skills such as giving feedback in non-threatening ways, maintaining focus and developing and sustaining mutual tasks.
As a way to encourage collaboration in this large (300 students) lecture, the instructor began each session with a Learning Cell activity. Students had homework the night before each session to complete a reading assignment and formulate five questions about the reading. Students worked with a partner sitting close-by to complete the exercise and then the instructor debriefed after 10 minutes.
Example: Plant Biology, flipped classroom setting
Collaborative learning activity: Group Investigation (2-5 students, multiple session to all term activity)
In Group Investigation, student teams plan, conduct and report on in-depth research projects. These projects provide opportunities for students to study a topic intensely and gain specialized knowledge about a specific area. Students select the topic and carry out their own research, which helps them to learn that good research is both context-dependent and requires logical, well-organized plans that differ from one discipline to another. They are also given the chance to participate in peer and teacher review of projects, gaining practical experience in both giving and receiving constructive criticism.
Instructors should prepare for this activity as they would for assigning a term paper. Decisions should be made about what parameters should be established in terms of topic choices and what kinds of resources will be acceptable for research. Requirements for student findings and reports should be clearly outlined by allow for flexibility so that each group can use the strength and creativity of its members to convey their findings in new and innovative ways.
In this example, the instructor was a strong user of technology and had a series of websites and online videos and quizzes about plant biology. He wanted to use in-class time to have students investigate a contemporary issue related to plants, people and the local environment. He opted to use Group Investigation in lieu of a normal term paper and gave students general topics from which to choose, focusing on issues the students might see in the world around them: invasive weeds, fire management, pesticides, organic farming, laws protecting rare and endangered plant species, etc. Students completed coursework online using existing digital resources and communicated via discussion boards to identify others with similar interest and schedules. They formed groups of three or four people and informed the instructor of the group’s membership and topic. In-class time focused on completion of the project. The group as a whole submitted a project outline and, once approved, determined references and assigned research tasks among members. Individual team members were required to submit interim progress reports to the group leader, instructor and teaching assistant, and each group wrote a formal final report and gave an oral presentation on its investigation to the whole class during the last week of the semester. (Barkley, Cross, Major 195-197)
Barkley, E., Cross, K., & Major, C. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty (Second ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.