Collaborative learning: the science behind it, and why it works

Collaborative learning is a powerful classroom tool. It can take many forms, from classroom games, to project work, to team building activities. Any English language learning activity where students work together in groups provides an opportunity to use it.

The activities you choose have to be carefully designed so that students are working together to achieve shared learning goals. Otherwise, group work can lead to competition, where students work against each other to achieve a learning goal first. Or you might see a scenario where students are working side by side towards individual learning goals.

But when true collaborative learning takes place, the benefits are numerous.

How students benefit from collaborative learning

Collaboration can really boost learning in the English language classroom. When students work together, they achieve more than they do as individuals, and they are more productive. But research on collaborative learning shows that the benefits go beyond academic achievement.

Working collaboratively helps students to form more caring, supportive and committed relationships with one another. This, in turn, builds their self-esteem and leads to more robust social skills and emotional well being.

What’s more, collaborative learning activities provide students with important opportunities to develop crucial skills that they’ll need beyond the classroom.

Working together will give them the chance to practice their oral communication and leadership skills, as well as developing self-management, critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.

Learn more about power skills.

Practical classroom activities which focus on collaborative learning

So, how can you incorporate collaborative lessons into your English language? The good news is, learning a new language provides lots of opportunities. Here are some ideas:

  1. Project work

When you’re designing a project work for your students, it’s important for students to take responsibility, and feel like they have ownership over the project. So, once your students are in groups, get them to choose from a range of four or five different problems. For example:

  • There isn’t enough green space in our neighborhood
  • Students don’t have a climate-friendly mode of transport to school
  • The authentic materials students use in class are very monocultural

It doesn’t matter if more than one group chooses the same problem, as you’ll find they’ll come up with quite different solutions. Once each group has chosen a problem that interests them, it’s time to provide your students with a structured approach to the project with these different stages:

  • Planning
  • Research
  • Writing
  • Presenting

Students can negotiate within their groups about who will take the lead at each stage, depending on each student’s skillset. Working collaboratively at each stage is an important part of the process, giving students the chance to learn from one another and practice their communication skills.

  1. Cooperative games

There are lots of simple cooperative games you can play in class to get your students working together to solve problems and thinking creatively. One fun activity is getting your students to spell out a word using only their bodies.

  • First, split your class into three or four groups.
  • Give them a list of words, eg TIMID or FERRY. It’s a good idea to use words which your students have only recently learned, as this activity will embed the correct spelling for your learners.
  • Get each group to work together to create the word with their bodies.
  • Ask the other groups to guess each letter and identify the word.

This activity builds rapport and a sense of group achievement. It also provides you with an opportunity to review new vocabulary – provided the words aren’t too long of course!

  1. Team building activities

Team building activities are an opportunity for students to develop their collaborative learning skills. They also help students build rapport with one another and have fun at the same time!

One effective activity is to use your classroom furniture to create an obstacle course for your students to navigate:

  • When the class begins, split students into pairs. Try to avoid pairing students who are already friends, as they don’t need help building their relationships.
  • Hand out blindfolds. One student in each pair can put on a blindfold.
  • Their partner must guide them through the obstacle course by giving directions to let them know which way to go.
  • Once each pair has had a turn, get the students to help you rearrange the furniture and then the guider can become the guided.

This activity gets students moving and practicing their communication skills. It’s a strong follow-up class after a lesson focused on body parts or giving directions. It will allow students to use their new vocabulary in context, work on their pronunciation and ask and answer questions.

  1. Creative group activities

When it comes to finding ways for your students to learn together, creative group activities are a good way to provide lots of chances for participation. With role-playing activities and improvisation games, students can work on language skills like active listening and presenting. Here’s an example:

  • Come up with a jumping-off point for students. Give them an age-appropriate scenario, for example, three kids find a purse with £1,000 inside and no ID, or three old friends meet at a school reunion.
  • Split students into groups, and give each group a few moments to come up with some background ideas for their characters.
  • Then, get them to take the stage and improvise their way through a scene. To help them with momentum, you can give them specific words they have to mention during their scene.

This type of activity gets students’ creative juices flowing. It also helps them to get into a rhythm of working and learning together.

All these activities will provide your students with learning goals to work towards in pairs or groups. Collaborative learning will boost their academic achievement, make them accountable to each other and develop their power skills, as well as helping them to build relationships with other students outside of their usual class friendships.


Learn more ways to get the most out of collaborative learning tools.

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