Collaborative Learning in Science

ALI Research Staff | Published  July 27, 2023

Chances are, you have encountered some type of team project at some point in your educational journey or at a workshop.

And chances are, you groaned at the prospect: interpersonal squabbles, inequitable workloads, unclear purpose, lengthy team meetings, frantically pulling together last-minute presentations, and more.

As a teacher, why would you inflict this on another generation of students?!

Yet with planning and mentoring, collaboration in the classroom can bring your students a rich experience and benefits that go well beyond academic learning.

And it’s particularly suited to STEM subjects and project-based learning (PBL).

So let’s look at what collaborative learning is, how it differs from cooperative learning (if at all), and some of its benefits.

We’ll also cover some collaborative learning strategies for teachers and examples of student collaborative work in STEM topics.


Students working together in science class


What Is Collaborative Learning?

At its simplest, collaborative learning is “any form of learning that occurs due to social interaction between two or more individuals when they are working together on the same task or toward the same goal” (Naji & Croje, 2022).

Unlike traditional didactic teaching, where the teacher imparts information and students receive it passively, collaborative learning requires active student participation to work.

As such, it is a perfect example of a constructive approach to learning, where the learner is in charge of their learning, actively relating concepts and ideas as they construct their knowledge, and drawing on what they already know and their interactions with others.

In collaborative learning, the teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding the learning process when needed rather than the source of all knowledge. 

In the elementary, middle school, or high school classroom, collaborative learning typically takes the form of teams of students working on an engaging problem or project in a group that is student-led, with little reliance on the teacher.

Team members share ideas, build knowledge together by gathering and contributing different information, and present the final product to other teams. 

On a practical level, students are typically introduced to the topic and discuss it as a class. They then break out into groups of 3–5 and choose a problem from a list provided by the teacher or developed by the class.

Each group typically breaks the project into different stages or tasks and divides the work based on their skill sets. They then reconvene, and students with particular skill sets and knowledge teach them to other team members.

Ultimately, the students create a way to present or teach what they learned to their fellow students.

For this approach to learning to be successful, the problem to be solved and the purpose of the work must be clearly defined.

Communication and compromise are essential: the best learning takes place within a culture of respect, trust, and flexibility, where team members explore together, listen, and speak up, changing their minds when new information or perspectives arise.

It is also important that everyone in the team understands each person’s role, the decision-making process, who is accountable for what, and how success will be measured. 

Researchers emphasize that activities should be designed so that students are working together to achieve shared learning goals.

Otherwise, they may compete among themselves to complete goals or work on their own individual goals, losing the benefits of collaborating.

One aspect of the design is to ensure that students teach each other what they know, are held accountable for their individual work, and are assessed both as a group and individually.

Thus the success of the individual depends on the success of the group, and the team has an incentive to make sure all team members learn the material.


Collaborative Learning vs Cooperative Learning

Some educators use the terms “collaborative learning” and “cooperative learning” interchangeably, but others make a distinction between them.

In their view, cooperative learning is a subset of collaborative learning. 

Collaborative learning activities can be formal or informal (structured/unstructured) and either self-paced/asynchronous or done in real-time.

Many people assume that collaborative learning has to be done in person in real-time, but asynchronous team contributions, review, and commenting online can be as collaborative as in-person group sessions. 

Cooperative learning is considered a subset of collaborative learning.

While it can be either real-time or asynchronous/self-paced, it is always on the formal, structured end of the formal/informal spectrum.

It makes use of carefully structured activities and roles that are designed and overseen by the teacher.

Using this definition, most of the team projects and activities that take place in the STEM classroom would be considered cooperative learning.

For the sake of simplicity, however, we use the term collaborative learning here.


Benefits of Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning in small groups has been found to significantly improve academic achievement and cognitive outcomes among undergraduate STEM students.

A well-designed collaborative learning activity checks all the constructivist learning boxes, as it builds on previous knowledge, engages students’ interest, and makes it more likely that students will retain what they have learned since they have discovered it and discussed it with their peers. 

The approach has other, broader benefits, too.

If well facilitated, it teaches them how to work effectively within a team, learning first-hand how work can be divided up, completed more quickly, and synthesized so that everyone learns from each other.

They learn a skill set that will support them in academia and the workplace, including oral communication, leadership skills, self-management, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

They also learn the value of considering other viewpoints and approaches, an important foundation for building diversity and inclusion in the workplace and other settings.

At a social-emotional level, collaborative teamwork helps students form more caring, supportive, and committed relationships.

It can help the shy or solitary student to get out of their shell, and it exposes students to new perspectives and working styles.

The self-esteem they develop from this process can be the foundation for more robust social skills and emotional well-being. 

Finally, experiencing collaborative learning first-hand can demonstrate to students that the outcome of the team’s work can be greater than the sum of its parts.

As NSTA contributor Beth Murphy comments, “Collaboration done well opens the doors for new possibilities and amplified impact.

This is what is meant by the concept of emergence—the idea that parts of a system working together in a unified way take on properties that the parts don’t have on their own.” 


Applying Collaborative Learning Activities In The Science Classroom

As mentioned earlier, the sciences provide rich ground for collaborative learning since they lend themselves to problem-based learning, inquiry, and scientific discourse.  

One educator-blogger describes three possible ways to structure student collaboration: 

  • “STAD” – After the teacher presents the material, small student groups work together to answer questions, complete a worksheet, or do a project. Each student then takes a test to assess their knowledge of the material. 

  • Jigsaw – Each student is part of two types of groups: experts and teams. Each team is a mix of experts from different expert groups. Each expert group studies the same material, and then each expert returns to their team and teaches them about their subject. Students are all assessed at the end for all the material.

  • Co-op – All students are introduced to a topic and discuss what they want to know about it. Groups are formed based on student interest in different subtopics; each group then breaks their subtopic into component mini-topics, and each student researches one of them. Each group collaborates to create a presentation presented to the rest of the class on their subtopic. Students are then all individually tested. 

Two very different examples of collaborative learning in the sciences are briefly summarized below.

Biology: assign each of the systems of the human body to a group. The group studies their system and identifies a mini-topic, like an organ or some aspect of the system, to study and present to the rest of the class.

Chemistry: the teacher presents on stoichiometry: what it is, how it is used, and how it works. Student teams are given a set of problems to solve together. The teacher then evaluates each team’s answers and reviews the material again if necessary. Individuals are then tested for their knowledge. (Miami)


Final Thoughts

As many of us have learned from years of team projects in high school or college, there are plenty of pitfalls to collaborative learning: team members being disrespectful or domineering, the work being done by one person so the others don’t learn from the experience (or simply get out of having to do the work), some team members preferring to work alone, shy teammates being sidelined or, worse, bullied, and lack of clarity about the purpose of the project or what success might look like. 

The responsibility for steering teams past these rocks falls on the teacher in the role of facilitator and model of good interpersonal collaboration skills.

During team sessions, the teacher needs to monitor interactions and step in if necessary. In advance of teamwork, the teacher can also set expectations and teach positive interaction skills.

For example, the teacher might start by setting meeting ground rules, teaching collaborative language and language that encourages creativity (“how might we…?” “what are some ways that…?”), teaching respectful discourse—including how to disagree politely—and helping students practice techniques for brainstorming, discussing, or analyzing a problem.


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Miami Teaching University (2018). Collaborative learning: Not just working in groups. Miami Teaching University Exemplary Science Teaching blog.

Murphy, B. (2020). Why collaborate? NSTA Connected Science Learning.

Naji, C. & Cronje, W. (2022). Collaborative vs cooperative learning: Explained.

Naji, C. & Cronje, W. (2022). What is collaborative learning and why does it matter?

Spence, C. (2022). Collaborative learning: the science behind it, and why it works. Cambridge University Press, English Learning blog.  

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21–51. Cited in Naji, C. & Cronje, W. (2022). What is collaborative learning and why does it matter?

Workshop: Cooperative and Collaborative Learning (n.d.). WNET Education website, “Concept to Classroom.” 


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