Working together can help students learn disciplinary knowledge as well as important life skills. But there are several different models for structuring group work in a college course, and each one has distinct benefits and challenges.

Cooperative Learning and Collaborative Learning

There are two general models for how students work together, cooperative learning and collaborative learning. In the cooperative learning model, faculty establish the roles that students will have in the activity, closely monitor how they behave toward each other, and intervene whenever students deviate from the instructions. In a collaborative learning model, faculty give students a task to accomplish, but students negotiate with each other to determine the roles they take and the process they use to accomplish it; if students ask faculty to intervene, the faculty redirect student concerns back to the group whenever possible.

The point of cooperative learning activities is for students to practice a set of cooperative skills and learn the value of working with others. In these kinds of activities, students are directly assessed on their interactions with each other, and positive evaluations from peers or faculty serve as a reward to reinforce their newly learned cooperative behaviors. 

The benefit of collaborative learning, on the other hand, is that all students have the autonomy to interact with each other as they choose and must devise their own strategies for collaboration. In these kinds of activities, students are not directly assessed on their interactions with each other; usually, faculty assess students on an individual assignment that follows the group activity. This way, students have the opportunity to benefit from group interactions but only contribute to them voluntarily; if the group cannot work together successfully, individual members must fall back on their own efforts.

Both models of group work require faculty to provide basic standards of conduct and clear expectations of what the group is trying to accomplish. The models differ in the freedom given to students to meet their goals, the degree of intervention required by faculty, the responsibilities toward the final product, and the skills developed by the activity.

Varieties of each model have been developed and practiced over the past few decades, but cooperative models tend to reward students for good behavior while collaborative models allow them more freedom. One example of collaborative learning are consensus groups, in which several students must negotiate with each other to make a decision; faculty then facilitate a discussion between the different groups about the decisions they chose to make and how they compare to decisions made by experts in the field.

Cooperative learning activities, on the other hand, include scenarios in which students assume different specified roles in the completion of a task and are evaluated on their effectiveness in the performance of that role as well as on their interactions with other students in the group.

Problem Based Learning: A Variable Model

Some forms of group work also vary between collaborative and cooperative aims or incorporate both into different stages. A common form of small group work is Problem Based Learning, where students are asked to find a solution to a real world problem. These kinds of activities can lean toward the direction of cooperative or collaborative learning. One form of Problem Based Learning involves a seven step sequence in which participants clarify the expectations for solving the problem, establish roles, carry out individual work, and bring back individual contributions to the group. Following this process teaches them a set of social skills specific to problem solving. Other Problem Based Learning models are more open ended and allow for more freedom in the interactions between the participants. In order to make these activities work, faculty must take care to develop problems well suited to collaborative work.

Team Based Learning: A Phased Approach

Team Based Learning is a complex approach that uses structured interactions between participants to teach social skills but does so with the long term goal of developing self-sufficient teams. In this model, students are rewarded for cooperating with teammates in different ways. Students are tested on their preparation both individually and as a group so that they can see the value of making personal contributions and participating in a collective. Furthermore, students are evaluated by both peers and faculty so that they are encouraged to behave well toward other participants. The problems that these groups solve together also involve questions about how teams work together to achieve their ends.

But the Team Based Learning approach uses the same teams for a series of modules, and over the course of a semester, the teams should require less intervention from faculty as their members learn how to work together and come to value each other’s contributions. Faculty also facilitate interactions between different teams so that they can compare group dynamics and learn to work better together through a model-rival dynamic.


Bruffee, K. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davidson, N., & Worsham, T. (1992). Enhancing thinking through cooperative learning. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus

Schmidt, H. G. (1983). "Problem-based learning: Rationale and description". Medical Education. 17 (1): 11–6.