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Collaborative Learning

Sociology, Criminology, and Criminal Justice

 What is Collaborative Learning?

Collaborative Learning encompasses many educational approaches, but simply put it is an active-learning approach that creates small group activities for learners, where they collaborate to solve problems, complete tasks, learn/synthesize new concepts/theories, and engage knowledge in new ways. The goal is to shift away from only using teaching-centered or lecture-centered approaches, which focus on knowledge command/compliance, memorization, and recitation, to using more collaborative approaches that build different skills. Using collaborative based approaches instructors can develop learning environments that foster and harness New Learning and other theoretical approaches/philosophies to teaching/learning: collaborative intelligence, productive diversity, problem-solving, active-knowledge-making, metacognition, self-directed learning, continuous assessment, etc. Collaborative learning might include a variety of active-learning strategies, such as cooperative learning, problem-based learning, mentors, community-based learning, etc.

Opening Lecture

With any collaborative-based learning activities, it is best to spend the first day discussing what active-learning is, why it's important, and how they will benefit from it. This will help reduce barriers in terms of student interest and engagement. Potential challenges with collaborative-based activities may appear with the assignment of group work, or in smaller classes, enough students to partner together. Make sure and do adequate planning and deal with these potential issues head-on in your design, as discussed below. In addition, at the beginning of the semester, I do a lecture on how to find scholarly online resources for their research. Another option is having someone from the library come in a show students how to conduct an academic search using your college library database. However, I like to include my own lesson on how navigate online searches, generally, to look for legitimate resources and understand why some sources are not reliable or academic. 

Making Groups

While you can have students randomly draw numbers to form groups, I like to give students a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester that asks questions about their interests, backgrounds, and career goals. I then strategically matchup diverse groups of students to maximize the opportunity and power of productive diversity. In a smaller, graduate level course, you may already have knowledge about student backgrounds/abilities you can employ for group design.

Group Design & Formation

But it should also be noted that in some environments, students may find more excitement/intrinsic motivation in selecting their own groups. The problem, however, is homophily. One of the cornerstones of collaborative-based approaches is harnessing the power of diversity in groups. Therefore, if you let students choose groups, they may self-select into less diverse groups without even realizing it. Also, consider group membership duration. While every course/set of objectives are different, it may or may not be beneficial to keep the same groups through the duration of the semester. 

When the groups first form, ask students to get to know each other and exchange information, and of course, always discuss the benefits of collaborative learning in your first lecture so students have an understanding of what will occur throughout the semester. You might also consider mapping out scheduled in-class meetings throughout the semester so that students can meet in class and can plan ahead to be involved in the group. It’s important that students are given the opportunity to discuss the subject matter, problem, etc. together and reach a consensus about the question, hypothesis, solution, etc. At this point, you've had an opportunity to create a learning environment of collaborative intelligence and productive diversity in their learning.

Group Formation Strategies in Action:

  • Questionnaire-Based Grouping: Use questionnaires to understand students' interests and majors for diverse group formation.

  • Self-Selection with Caution: Allowing self-selection can lead to homophilic groups, reducing diversity. Encourage students to form diverse groups.

  • Group Dynamics: Discuss the value of collaborative learning and schedule regular in-class group meetings for consistency and engagement.


Assignments & Assessments

To create lateral knowledge flow and a more discursive/interactive experience, it is ideal to incorporate peer-to-peer assessments to encourage feedback between students. Also self-assessments are a great way to foster critical thinking/metacognition, valuable skills that learners can apply in other contexts. Using rubrics to guide self-/peer-assessments is beneficial and can include attendance at group meetings, exhibiting a positive attitude, and various contributions to the project. Frequent peer-to-peer assessments can also help identify students who are not carrying their weight for quick motivation/encouragement to stay on track or otherwise be removed from the group. Again, explain upfront the benefits of the collaborative design as well as consequences/alternatives should the students not participate adequately. 

One of my favorite approaches is having the students work together on a multimodal research project/report that includes traditional essay/text components, as well as primary/secondary supplemental audio and/or video components. In addition to writing, students may use record audio/video for part of their projects themselves or in a group; or they may use existing audio/video resources online. The primary rationale behind this approach is to create "active knowledge producers" who not only produce knowledge themselves (learning how to learn) but also co-create knowledge with peers, instructors, and sometimes experts, depending on the course. Considering collaborative intelligence/productive diversity is key. 


 Students then present their project at the end of the semester and prepare it for publication on the Student Portfolios and Projects section of my website. The long-term goal for myself is to build my own "knowledge ecologies" around different subjects/topics, where students, educators, and community stakeholders can collective see the ideas and knowledge created by students in one place. This may foster further collaboration and creation of better knowledge/solutions to complex social issues relevant to sociology, criminology, and/or criminal justice. 

I let students pick topics, problems, or issues that are of great interest/passion to themselves individually and as groups. This creates differentiated instruction/learning, because students collectively pick subjects that are passionate to them, they can work  on them at their own pace, and creates something that can be involved in and show others for the rest of their lives. You may go formal with your projects by requiring specific outlines/bibliographies, citations styles, etc.; however, if you're new to active-/collaborative-based learning, it is okay it is okay to be explorative/unstructured in some of the design. But conscious/explicit attention in design should be paid to reducing group work barriers and maximizing the use of groups in creating deeper/richer learning experiences. 

Assignments and Assessments in Action:

  • Peer-to-Peer Assessments: Encourage feedback exchange among students and include self-assessments to develop critical thinking skills. Use rubrics covering participation, attitude, and contribution.

  • Multimodal Projects: Introduce projects incorporating text, audio, and video elements. This approach nurtures "active knowledge producers" who co-create knowledge with peers and instructors.

  • Final Presentations and Publications: Encourage students to present their projects and prepare for publication, fostering a communal knowledge ecology.

  • Differentiated Learning: Allow students to choose topics they are passionate about, promoting self-paced learning and long-term engagement.

Design Considerations:

  • Balancing Structure and Flexibility: While it's important to have clear guidelines, be open to innovative ideas from students that can enhance learning objectives.

  • Preparing for Surprises: Be adaptable and receptive to unexpected positive outcomes and student-driven enhancements to the project.

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