Our interactions with our peers are often prolific opportunities to learn, and this is even more valid when they are done in a collaborative mode. That’s why it’s a good idea to integrate “collaborative” learning into the range of pedagogical approaches, a model that is particularly suitable for adult learners and that can also be adapted to online training. Let’s demystify it in 3 questions.

In short, what is collaborative learning?

Here is a definition of collaborative learning from France Henri and Karin Lundgren-Cayrol (2003) that can be used in both face-to-face and distance modes:

“Collaborative learning is an active approach in which the learner works on building his or her knowledge. […] The learner is committed to working with group members towards a common goal while balancing personal interests and objectives […]. Exchanges with the group and the regulation of a collective task allow the learner to share his or her discoveries, negotiate the meaning to be given to his or her work and validate his or her newly constructed knowledge.”

Here the teacher or trainer takes turns as mediator, facilitator and resource person, depending on the needs of the learners and their sub-group (ideally four to six members). He or she sets out the common goal to be achieved, explains the rules for the exercise and ensures that they are followed. He or she guides, motivates and questions learners so that they can get the most out of the exercise. He or she also assesses — ideally formative — the learners while informing them about the learning processes and metacognitive strategies they have implemented.

Finally, a variety of tasks or activities may lend themselves to collaborative learning. These may include exploring a topic in greater depth, communicating knowledge or ideas, developing presentations, and so on.

How is collaborative learning different from cooperative learning?

Collaborative learning is often confused with cooperative learning. Both are about learning by achieving a common goal through the participation of all members of the group. However, their pedagogical objectives and modalities are not the same. The pedagogical objective of cooperative learning is to ensure that everyone learns planned, structured and compulsory content while improving their collaborative skills. Collaborative learning, on the other hand, aims to help learners achieve a common shared goal and personal objectives, as well as to allow them to learn “in their own way” by exploring, discovering or developing content or a structure.

In cooperation, tasks and responsibilities are divided among group members, whereas in collaboration, each member is responsible for carrying out his or her task in his or her own way — a task that, although carried out differently, is essentially the same for everyone, unlike tasks divided in a cooperative approach. Collaborative learning, which is more flexible and well suited to adults, therefore requires more autonomy and control on the part of the learner, who makes more decisions and assumes more responsibility.

What role does the group play in collaborative learning?

In this collaborative approach, the group becomes a dynamic agent of learning for each of its members, so the quality of relationships and interactions is paramount. Unlike cooperative learning, in collaborative learning “the group allows the individual to build new learning through the confrontation of ideas,” as explained by Isabelle Senécal and Claire Blondel in their guide on collaboration (2018, Collège Saint-Anne).

However, encouraging the confrontation of ideas is not the only function of the group, which must also be a source of information, mutual support and motivation for each of its members. At the time of the evaluation, each learner is invited to share his or her observations and appreciation of the functioning of the group, particularly in terms of cohesion and productivity.

Finally, it should be noted that the rich and dynamic exchanges with peers that collaborative learning fosters have collateral benefits: “Through the social ties it implies, it encourages the construction of strong relational skills: communication, the ability to convince, listening, the ability to question oneself, questioning, etc.”, explain Senécal and Blondel. And these benefits are considerable, as the importance of social and communication skills in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace is recognized more than ever before. (see The 4 core competencies of the 21st century and 7 Principles of 21st Century Learning and eLearning).

Van Djijk A., Réinventez vos formations avec les neurosciences : Tout comprendre du cerveau et de l’Apprentissage des adultes, ESF sciences humaines, 2019.
Henri F. et Lundgren-Cayrol K., Apprentissage collaboratif à distance, téléconférence et télédiscussion, Rapport interne no 3 (version 1.7), Montréal : LICEF, 1997.
Henri, F. et Lundgren-Cayrol, K, Apprentissage collaboratif à distance. Sainte-Foy, Canada : Presses Universitaires du Québec, 2003.
Sénécal I. et Blondel C. (2018), « La collaboration ».
Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.