7 Online Collaborative Learning Strategies to Keep Students Engaged While At Home
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7 Online Collaborative Learning Strategies to Keep Students Engaged While At Home

8 people putting their hands together in a circle

As thousands of universities across the United States and abroad gear up for another semester (or more) of distance learning, instructors are struggling to adapt in-person classes for remote education. And a lot of them could do a much better job. They’re stuffing courses with passive learning activities that will bore the students who initially opted for a more active in-person learning experience.

The slapdash Zoom lectures that got us through the spring semester are not going to cut it long-term. It’s too easy for disconnected, lonely students to disengage and tune out.

Get students to tune back in by adopting dynamic, collaborative learning strategies that encourage them to get involved with the material and each other. Studies have shown that online collaborative learning increases academic performance, knowledge retention, and interpersonal skills.

Here are seven of our favorite collaborative learning strategies that can easily be adapted to or enhanced by online learning.

1. Jigsaw Technique

The jigsaw technique builds on one of the most effective ways to process and retain informationteaching others. To utilize the jigsaw technique, ask each student to learn just a piece of the material, then teach it to the group. The group then works together to synthesize the information and create a presentation about what they’ve learned.

The jigsaw technique works best with small groups (five or six students) and complex topics. Divide the lesson or required reading into five or six separate sections. Each student is responsible for researching one part. For example, if you’re studying different countries' approaches to healthcare policy, one student could research societal views of healthcare, one the countries' overall health and demographics, one the healthcare systems, and one the economic impacts of those policies.

Once the students have completed their research, bring them back together to meet in small discussion boards or private video meetings to share what they’ve learned and to develop a greater understanding of the concept. Assess the group on their knowledge of all the materials with a group presentation, project, or essay.

Check out our jigsaw exercise template for an idea of how to run this activity online.

This classic technique has been used for over 40 years to strengthen interdependence, build communication skills, and even reduce racial conflict. In a jigsaw group, all members have equal importance, as they all must work together to learn the entire concept.

2. Think-Pair-Share

The think-pair-share technique is a classroom collaborative learning staple that instructors can easily reproduce online. Students work together in pairs to analyze, evaluate, or synthesize a topic and then share their findings with the rest of the class.

To enact the think-pair-share technique, you have to — you guessed it — pair off students (groups of three also work). The instructor poses a question at the end of class; before the next session, the groups meet and discuss their responses. The question should be open-ended to provoke thoughtful discussion. Then ask the students to share their answers either during class or on a discussion board thread.

Having students talk through their answers with another person before bringing them to the class boosts the quality of the discussion. Unlike in a traditional classroom where only volunteers who raise their hands get to participate, every person in the class gets a chance to reflect and share with another person.

3. Brainwriting

Two things often happen in class discussions: only the loudest, most confident students participate, and only the most obvious ideas are shared. Classroom brainstorming sessions are a helpful way to surface new ideas, questions, and concepts from even the quietest students. Brainwriting is a simple strategy for encouraging students to generate ideas before a discussion while ensuring that everyone has a chance for thoughtful participation.

The instructor introduces a discussion topic ahead of the class. Students brainstorm ideas on their own time, then anonymously submit them (this is easy to set up using Google Surveys). Before class, everyone can read over the submissions, and those ideas provide a jumping-off point for classroom discussion.

Brainwriting levels the playing field, allowing even shy students to participate and potentially shedding light on more creative and exciting answers than students would dare to share in the classroom.  It also prevents a phenomenon called anchoring, where early suggestions greatly influence the direction of the discussion.

4. Daily Discussion Questions

Online discussion boards are among the simplest ways to facilitate student engagement while also enhancing the learning process for everyone. Post daily, or weekly, discussion questions to spark conversation and encourage students to think about the course materials in new ways.

The key to an active and interesting online discussion is thoughtful, open-ended discussion questions that promote divergent thinking. Ask students to analyze sources, provide opinions, maybe even stir up a little controversy. Check out our blog post on how to write engaging discussion questions for more tips on crafting really effective questions.

5. Break-Out Group Discussions

Not everyone is comfortable speaking up in large groups, particularly in classes with hundreds of students. You can segment your class into smaller break-out groups to make sure everyone has a voice.

Separate students into smaller discussion groups of 20 people or less. Each group should have a moderator to help facilitate the discussion and monitor the group for any conflicts or issues that arise. This could be a teaching assistant or even just a student volunteer. You can give them guided discussion questions as above, or simply let them discuss and ask questions about course materials.

Small-group discussions can make a large class feel more manageable. Students can ask for help when they’re struggling, and in turn, help and teach each other.

6. Peer Review

Having students review each other’s work is a great way to make sure each student benefits from individual feedback and attention, even in a large group.

To facilitate a flawless peer review, you’ll need to anonymously pair students to review each other’s work. Give students the tools they need to perform a successful review: sample reviews, assessment rubrics, and guidelines on giving constructive feedback. Check out Eduflow’s peer feedback template to help you get started.

Studies have shown that the peer review process has numerous benefits for both the reviewer and the reviewee. Giving and receiving  in-depth feedback from their peers helps students deepen their knowledge of the subject matter and improve their writing skills.

7. Scaffolding

Scaffolding isn’t a strategy unique to collaborative learning, but it is a useful general strategy for structuring your collaborative course.

You can’t build a house without construction scaffolding, and you can’t expect students to do complex group work without supporting materials to guide them. Instructional scaffolding is a learning strategy where you build harder concepts on top of simpler ones. In the context of group work, this involves providing examples, setting community guidelines, and even doing trial runs together as a class. Use scaffolding to support students as they learn how to work together, then remove the restraints and let them stand on their own merits.

To properly scaffold, set expectations for students early on. For example, if a large part of your students’ grades hinges on discussion board participation, share examples of good comments and follow-up questions, and discuss their characteristics. As a group, set guidelines for discussion board behavior. The 7 Norms of Collaboration is a good jumping-off point for deciding what you want class discussions to look like.

You can also scaffold individual discussion topics by requiring students to read and complete activities before they are allowed to post about the topic. This guarantees that students come to the discussion informed and ready to make a meaningful contribution. Over time, decrease the amount of oversight and let students lead discussions on their own by developing their own discussion topics.

Collaborative Learning Strategies Turn Remote Learning into an Opportunity

The sudden shift toward remote learning hasn’t been easy, but collaborative learning techniques can help students feel involved and engaged even through a computer screen.

Online collaborative learning doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It requires careful planning and the right tools to make participation smooth and simple. Eduflow can help with our premade templates and flows designed to help you engage learners, even from a thousand miles away.

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