Synchronous Collaborative Online Learning

Collaborative learning is also known as cooperative learning, group work, peer-to-peer, or team work.

Four types of group work

Collaborative Learning Cooperative Learning

Definition: “the focus is on working with each other (but not necessarily interdependently) toward the same goal…Toward the discovering, understanding, or producing of knowledge” (Davidson & Major, 2014)

Examples: Reports or presentations in which tasks are split between group members. 

Definition: “Student work and learn together actively in small groups to accomplish a common goal in a mutually helpful manner” (Davidson & Major, 2014).

Examples: Jigsaw activities, think/pair/share. 

Team-Based Learning (TBL) Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Definition: “TBL shifts the focus of instruction away from the teacher as dispenser of information and instead places the focus on students actively engaging in activities that require them to use the concepts to solve problems …Every aspect of a TBL course is specifically designed to foster the development of self-managed learning teams” (Michelsen, Davidson, & Major, 2014).

Examples: Flipped classroom models

Definition: “PBL fosters the ability to identify the information needed for a particular application, where and how to seek that information, how to organize that information in a meaningful conceptual framework, and how to communicate that information to others” (Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001). PBL is often interdisciplinary with real-world applications.

Examples: Case-method; Simulated client interaction 


Why collaborative learning? 

  • Before considering assigning group work, be clear on the objective for the assignment. What is the clear purpose of the groups and how do they align to the overall course learning objectives? How will you communicate the importance of group work to your students? How will you address resistance to group learning? What real-world value will this group work have? 
    • Facts to share with students: 
      • 81% of Fortune 500 companies are building at least partially team- based organizations, and at least 77% use temporary project teams to perform core work. (Lawler, Mohrman, & Benson, 2001).
      • In 2006, Fortune Magazine devoted an entire issue to teams, June 12, 2006.
  • Example learning objectives (adapted from Linder, 2016). 
    • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to consider the contributions of others.
    • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to contribute questions or concerns in a respectful way.
    • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to develop a common goal.
    • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to apply the problem-based learning cycle (identify facts, generate hypotheses, identify knowledge deficiencies, apply new knowledge, abstraction, evaluation) to a unique situation (see Hmelo-Silver, 2004). 
    • Additional learning objectives and skills learned can be:
      • teamwork skills (working within team dynamics, leadership)
      • analytical and cognitive skills (analyzing task requirements, questioning, critically interpreting material, evaluating the work of others)
      • collaborative skills (conflict management and resolution, accepting intellectual criticism, flexibility, negotiation and compromise)
      • organizational and time management skills.
  • When discussing the value of group work with your students and showing how the assignment will help them meet a learning outcome, and has a clear purpose that is aligned with real-world experiences with working in groups and teams, it may be helpful to have them reflect on their own experiences and how they perform in groups:

Student exercise

 Ask students who have worked in groups before to share their experience. What did they like? What didn’t they? (Sync or Async: assign as a discussion board post, use a Padlet discussion, or group chat).

What am I like when I’m in a group?

Complete the following sentences:

  • In groups I tend to…
  • In groups I tend to avoid…
  • I like groups where…
  • I don’t like groups where…
  • In this group I would like to be…
  • How I’d like this group to be for me…

(Adapted from G. Gibbs (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 20.)


Structuring collaborative learning

  • Collaborative projects (Linder & Hayes, 2018) 
    • Before you begin designing collaborative projects, be aware and consider some challenges to organizing online collaborations. Make sure there is a clear purpose and concrete (measurable) learning objectives before requiring collaborative work.
      • Scheduling – students need to be able to find a common pattern of work. Their variety of availability or different time zones can make things difficult. Procrastination online can also snowball into missing deadlines and degrading group morale. Build in incremental deliverables so that missed work or unresponsive students can be identified early on. 
      • Access – Tools such as email, discussion boards, screen recorders, virtual poster boards, and web-conferencing can assist building communication channels for students. However, these tools need to be learned, be compatible across various types of devices, and rely on stable Internet access. 
      • Communication gaps and misunderstanding – Groups may have dominant or inflexible members who can challenge the cohesive and equal work of the group. The intermediation of screens and asynchronous schedules can also complicate clear understanding of meaning and feelings of trust. Language, culture, and use of humor or other cultural referents may also interfere with understanding or create alienating groups experiences. Assigning specific roles for each person in the group will help mediate some of these issues. 
      • Use the TILT model to structure your assignment with clear purpose, tasks – including step-by-step directions that require progress reports – and clear criteria for each individual and the group as a whole (rubrics). 
      • Assessing collaborative work
        • Require regular progress reports from each individual student and from the group as a whole (formative & summative)
        • Be present – create instructor presence and support by meeting with each groups (formative) 
        • Individual assessment (reflection paper, individual progress reports)
        • Group assessment (final product, meeting of staggered deadlines, evidence of collaboration)
        • Peer Evaluation (confidential rating form (%), reflection on work performed -who did what?)
        • Self-Evaluation (reflection of performance, areas for improvement, strengths of collaborative performance – what did I contribute? What more could I have done to improve the process and final artifact). 
        • Rubrics from Carnegie Mellon
        • Guides on Assessing Group Work from the University of South Wales.
        • Steps from RIT
      • Authenticity – group work often feels contrived and artificial to students. Build in connections to real-world practices related to your course content that requires students to build collaborative skills. 

Forming and Assigning Groups

  1. Group size – this depends on the assignment: small projects or in-class, synchronous groups may benefit from smaller groups (3-4); bigger projects may benefit from bigger groups (5-7). 
  • Assigning groups or letting students form their own?
    1. Randomly assign – using Break-Out Rooms in Zoom or Canvas Conferences will allow you to randomly assign groups during synchronous class meetings. Other methods would be to use Canvas Groups to randomly assign, or, during a synchronous class meeting, to have them count off by 4s or 5s to form groups. 
    2. Intentional Assign – assign using specific skills, experiences, perspectives, and strengths so that groups are heterogeneous. It will be useful to survey students first to determine a good mix, and to set aside time to orient students to their groups and allow them to get to know one another. The following exercise for students may help both you and they determine how to assign or select groups:

Deciding on group membership

Things to consider:

  • Selecting group members isn’t just about getting together with friends. In fact groups of friends can sometimes work poorly together on projects because they may not feel they can be tough enough with each other.
  • Neither is it simply a matter of choosing the brightest or those who get high marks. Bright students might be incompatible and very poor at cooperating with each other.
  • Effective groups contain a balanced range of types of group member whose different strengths complement each other. For example, it is no good having a group of creative people with no one who is good at project management.
  • It can also be a disaster to have a group full of leaders with no workers.
  • It is useful to consider your personal strengths and preferences so that you are clear on what you might bring to a group. This will help you to select group members so that you get a balanced pattern of strengths and preferences to help determine group members’ roles and responsibilities.
  • Source: University of South Wales
  1. Let students form their own groups for groups where students who are interested in the same topic, have mutual goals or students with compatible timetables can work together. For online courses, you might use an ice-breaker or activity to help students discover which of their class members they might like to work with. This may result in students forming groups with friends only or more homogenous groups, and students may not benefit from the diversity of experiences that their peers have to offer. The worksheet above may help guide your students when forming their own groups. 

Preparing students & helping them plan

  • Decide or Assign Specific Roles Review different roles and rotate them (for large projects and from session to session) so that students are able to practice different collaborative skills;
Six Common Group Roles (Barkley, Major & Cross, 2014) – revised and adapted
  • Facilitator – Moderates all team discussions, keeping the group on task for each assignment and ensuring that everybody assumes their share of the work. Facilitators strive to make sure that all group members have the opportunity to learn, to participate, and to earn the respect of the other group members.
  • Recorder – Records any assigned team activities. Recorders take notes summarizing discussion, keep all necessary records (including data sheets such as attendance and homework check-offs), and complete worksheets or written assignments for submission to the instructor.
  • Reporter – Serves as group spokesperson and orally summarizes the group’s activities or conclusions. Reporters also assist the recorder with the preparation of reports and worksheets.
  • Timekeeper – Keeps the group aware of time constraints, works with the facilitator to keep the group on task, and can also assume the role of any missing group member. The timekeeper is also responsible for any set-up of communication channels, and the scheduling of regular, consistent meetings or deadlines.
  • Critic/Skeptic – evaluates all work for any gaps or confusing content. The critic or skeptic serves as the principal reviewer of all content developed by the group, conducts evaluation (and may create a rubric or use a rubric assigned by the instructor) of all assignments or reports before they are submitted. Checks that all criteria of the assignment has been met and raises questions or concerns about any missing or incomplete work.
  • Wildcard – assumes any group member’s role or fills in however needed. 


  • Review check-ins and progress reports – what should they contain? Will you give them rubrics?
  •  Review helping groups create a plan (topic selection, communication channel, meeting schedule, troubleshooting plan, specific tasks & roles, progress reports, medium of final product). This guide for students may help them organize, plan, and assess their work as a group. 
  • Scaffolding Examples for Collaborative Learning to Assist with Team Learning Beliefs, Values, and Skills (Linder & Hayes, 2018) 
Collaborative Project Scaffolding How it Works Intended Collaboration Effects
Two Truths and a Lie Activity In small-group discussion, each member shares three personal “facts,” two of which are true and one a lie. Group members post their guesses about which facts are actually lies. After a fixed interval, members self-disclose which was a lie.  Builds social connections, demonstrates accountability, models the use of interim milestones in longer projects, and begins to establish psychological safety. 
Valuing Constructive Conflict Teams share examples of conflicts from past experiences with group work, perhaps from childhood, professional, or college experiences. Teams discuss which conflicts have yielded positive outcomes and then compare and contrast constructive and destructive conflict.  Builds group potency, establishes boundaries for acceptable communication, creates group value of diversity, identifies benefits of constructive conflict, and creates shared and nuanced vocabulary about conflict. 
Reflecting on Strengths and Challenges of Group Work Before the project begins, group members brainstorm a collaborative document expressing strengths and challenges of group work, noting specific challenges for online collaborations. Teams generate a list of strengths and concerns and then collectively prioritize them based on degree of severity.  Builds task cohesion, increases psychological safety, establishes the value of proactively avoiding problems, builds awareness of role responsibility, and establishes group values about which behaviors are most undesirable for the team. 
Preventing and Addressing Team Problems Building on the prioritized list of concerns, teams discuss strategies for preventing problems and dealing with them if they do arise. Teams produce a strategy document that helps teams agree on a plan for preventing concerning situations and responding to concerns as they arise.  Reduces apprehension, builds team and task cohesion, increases psychological safety, creates a shared understanding of team dynamics, and builds team interdependence. 
Advice for Future Groups At the conclusion of the project, teams can create a letter or video message for students in future teams providing advice for approaching collaborative work productively. These artifacts can be used for future teams to orient students to collaborative work. Provides authentic student-to-student feedback on collaborative work, introduces nuances specific to the context of the class itself, and normalizes collaborative work as a valuable educational practice. 



Barkley, E.F., Major, C.H. & K.P. Cross. (2014) Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Gibbs, G. (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 9.

Linder, K. (2017) The Blended Course Design Workbook: A Practical Guide. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Linder, K. & Hayes, C. M. (2018) High-Impact Practices in Online Education: Research and Best Practices. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight A.B. & Fink, L.D. (2004) Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.