Student interaction in online courses creates benefits that are worth taking the time to consider. From the value of social learning to the real-world application of communication and teamwork, collaborative assignments can target important higher-order thinking skills needed for learning in school and beyond.
Integrating social components in courses has been stressed through theory for a number of years. Social learning theories help us relate human interaction with the process of learning. Expanding on basic forms of learning through observing and imitating, Lev Vygotsky examined how learning is shaped through communication with others, including peers and teachers. Jean Piaget viewed learning as a constructivist process in which people learn by creating individual connections to make sense of their world and experiences. This makes learners active contributors to the learning process, rather than passive participants.
The potential benefits of group-work for students can be significant when meaningful consideration to the goals of the group assignment, detailed expectations, and instructor support are present. Student interaction can be incorporated into all types of subjects, even helping predict the success of students taking STEM courses. Some benefits of well-developed group assignments allow students to:
- Break down complex tasks
- Develop time management skills
- Give and receive peer feedback
- Strengthen communication skills
- Find new approaches to solving problems
Types of Collaborative Group Assignments
Learning, whether it takes place in a face-to-face or online setting, can be enhanced by incorporating social aspects to the learning process. A mix of individual and group assessments can be used to achieve a scaffolding of skills, helping students move progressively toward a mastery of the material. Three examples of collaborative assignments include:
Many online faculty and students are familiar with online discussions. A benefit of this type of assessment is that all students in the course can participate, making the discussion equitable in a way that is not always possible in other settings. Discussion forums provide a clear space for this type of assignment, but creative use of other tools such as video blogs or course wikis can also be used. To encourage active discussions, the assessment should not only be graded but count for a significant portion of the overall grade. Clear expectations about the quality of postings, the number of times a student is expected to interact, and grading rubrics are also recommended.
Small Group Collaboration
Collaborative learning involves two or more students who work together to create a finished assignment or project, such as a case analysis or presentation. Students can collaborate to find consensus on how to solve a problem, build upon ideas, and reflect upon their own work. Approaches for keeping students accountable include breaking up the larger assignment into smaller tasks that are also assessed. To mitigate a common issue of students not contributing to the group, self and peer-assessments can be used when grading to provide feedback on the performance of each group member and the group’s collaboration as a whole.
This type of assessment gives students the chance to have a say on how they are assessed by collaboratively creating a course exam. Collaborative exams are formed through the input of students who create and critique each other’s questions based on a set of rules (such as a rubric) made by the instructor. The instructor has control over the quality of questions that are ultimately used for the test and the final grade. Detailed instructions are needed as students may be unfamiliar with this type of assignment. Evaluation of participation throughout each step, including the quality of the questions submitted and individual grade on the exam, can help encourage students to participate.
Collaborative assignments promote student interaction with other members of the course and also the course content. With consideration to the learning goals of the course, these types of assessments can provide valuable learning benefits for students.
What are the Benefits of Group Work? – Carnegie Mellon University
Assessment and Collaboration in Online Learning – Swan, K.; Shen, J.; Hiltz, R.