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Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty

By Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Ross, and Claire Howell Major
320 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-5518-3
$35.00 (paper)

Reviewed by

Dennis P. Quinn

Interdisciplinary General Education Department
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


When I first started teaching college as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I felt well versed in my subject but troubled over exactly how to help my students learn it. My first semester teaching, I decided to lecture. That is what college professors do, right? One evening, during a ten-minute break in my world history course, a student came to me and asked to see my notes because she had missed a few points. I readily agreed; but while she copied them down, I felt a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was this what learning was all about? Was she learning anything from copying my notes? Should I read them to her again? Might I just photocopy my notes, distribute them to the students, and call it a night? A sense of duty to them compelled me to finish the evening lecture, but a strong feeling remained that something was not right. During my drive home, I saw my undergraduate learning at Cal Poly Pomona flash before my eyes. I realized that the professors who created the best learning environment for me rarely lectured at all. Instead, they gave me the opportunity to read the assignments, get into small groups, and discuss the material with my classmates.

Looking back at my own experiences, I vowed to create an active learning environment the next semester, and have been doing so ever since. What I also should have done was to read a book that lays out the theory of collaborative learning along with lots of hints and examples about how to manage the classroom and improve student learning. The work under review is just such a book. Had it been available, it would have saved me much trial and error.

Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Ross, and Claire Howell Major would have saved me from a large number of pedagogical missteps early in my career. The authors are certainly well-qualified experts. Elizabeth F. Barkley, professor of music at Foothill College, Los Altos, California, was named California’s 1998 Higher Education Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of teaching. K. Patricia Ross, professor emerita of higher education at UC Berkeley, has written numerous works on education. Claire Howell Major is associate professor of higher education administration at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. They bring together great experience and excitement for collaborative learning in this book.

The handbook is structured in three parts: the introduction, “Implementing Collaborative Learning,” and “Collaborative Learning Techniques (CoLTs).” These parts proceed logically from making a case for using collaborative learning to creating and managing group assignments. The third and longest section provides thirty tried-and-true techniques for student collaborations flexible enough to use in many situations.

The introduction makes a strong case for collaborative learning, for which the authors use R. S. Matthews’ definition: a common experience “when students and faculty work together to create knowledge. . . . a pedagogy that has at its center the assumption that people make meaning together and that the process enriches and enlarges them” (6). The conventional teacher-student relationship dissolves, and the classroom, ideally, becomes a “community in search of knowledge” (6). The discussion of numerous arguments for the value of collaborative learning over other methods presents an impressive cache of modern scholarship. I found the most compelling argument to be the demonstration that collaborative learning was better overall than the more traditional, competitive modes of learning since it “motivates students to become more active and more involved in the learning process” (15). Also, collaborative learning seems to benefit both well- and under-prepared students, but for different reasons: “Good students may benefit from having to formulate their own thoughts and knowledge into concepts understandable to others, while academically poorer students may benefit from the explanations of their peers” (21).

The second part of Collaborative Learning Techniques consists of five chapters: “Orienting Students,” “Forming Groups,” “Structuring the Learning Task,” “Facilitating Student Collaboration,” and “Grading and Evaluating Collaborative Learning.” I found these chapters well thought out, taking the reader through a number of step-by-step instructions with numerous examples. I learned much in these chapters, particularly some excellent ice-breakers (29-31). There is a useful section on the pros and cons for various group-making policies, e.g. instructor-determined vs. student-selected (45-52), and various models for constructing educational objectives, especially the inclusion of Angelo’s and Cross’ teaching goals inventory. I found the suggestions for dealing with such group realities as off-task behavior and personality conflicts within groups (72-77) to be extremely helpful. Furthermore, the section dealing with the criteria for deciding how to evaluate the group (85-93) was enormously valuable. It allowed me to rethink my practice of giving everyone in the group the same grade. Instead, it reinforced the importance of the group assignment as a focus of the classroom learning environment. In fact, this part of the book provided just the sort of practical advice I need to help with my group projects this academic year.

By far the most useful part of this book was part three, a gold mine of thirty Collaborative Learning Techniques (CoLTs). Although this section is too long to summarize, some titles of the exercises and the structure might illustrate its immense value. CoLTs such as “Think-Pair-Share,” “Jigsaw,” or one of my favorites, “Send-a-Problem,” are all arranged in categories of techniques such as discussion-based, “reciprocal peer teaching,” and problem-solving CoLTs. Each technique is accompanied by a real world example, showing how it might work in an English, history, or trigonometry class, thus giving instructors in a range of disciplines the opportunity to see how the method might help in their own learning goals for the day.

Perhaps my only criticism of this book is how it handles the issue of selling collaborative learning to the students. The authors do address the issue of orienting students to collaborative learning (37-40) by suggesting a number of activities, such as creating a collaborative learning pro-and-con grid or group quiz, which should reinforce the importance of group collaboration over individual competition. However, this information does not seem to address the larger issue presented in the first chapter of this book. In many instances, students expect the course content to come from the professor “down” to them. Of course, we will never meet the expectations of all students.

Perhaps another method could be to ask students to read a few short but important and accessible works on the subject. In the Interdisciplinary General Education Department at Cal Poly Pomona, students are asked to read such scholars of active and collaborative education as Paulo Freire and Alexander Meiklejohn during their very first quarter. We then ask them to discuss these scholars’ pedagogies in small groups and then as a class, after which students rarely question their value, but rather begin to consider their own learning experiences as individuals and within groups of their peers.

Overall, Collaborative Learning Techniques is a useful resource for professors who already use group active learning in the classroom, and I imagine that it might even convince skeptics. I am, of course, a member of the choir. I certainly wish that this book had been available before I taught my first class, but even as a professor with a little more experience, I still find this book to be of immeasurable value. In all, it is a terrific tool for anyone interested in different ways to use collaborative learning to become a more effective teacher.

Posted May 24, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Dennis P. Quinn.

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