What Is Collaborative Learning & Why Does It Matter?
Eduflow logo
min read

What Is Collaborative Learning & Why Does It Matter?

A laptop screen shows an online meeting room shared by with other participants.

Bosses and decision makers often think of collaborative learning as a costly, inconvenient training format that requires everyone to be in the same place at the same time. 

That perception limits the ways that learning practitioners can implement collaborative learning practices. Our 2022 report on the State of Collaborative Learning found that 26% of learning practitioners had trouble getting buy-in from decision-makers to implement collaborative learning. 

In reality, there are many different kinds of collaborative learning, and most don’t require an expensive setup. You see examples of collaborative learning when employees work together to troubleshoot a problem, or when someone shares resources to help a struggling peer. 

As L&D professionals, it’s our job to change the outdated perception that collaborative learning is difficult so that we can channel our employees’ desire to learn together. 

Want to learn more about collaborative learning? Join our free Cohort Based Course about Designing Social Learning Experiences

Apply Now!

What is Collaborative Learning?

Collaborative learning is an umbrella concept that covers many different types of interactive group learning. At Eduflow, we understand it broadly: 

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.

In traditional classroom settings like lectures and instructor-led training, learning is passive. It often involves a teacher imparting information to learners who are supposed to "absorb”. Collaborative learning on the other hand requires active student participation in order to work. 

You might be surprised to learn that collaborative learning encompasses much more than traditional group exercises in a live classroom setting. This is definitely one option, but it’s far from the only one. Collaborative learning can be formal or informal, and it can take place online asynchronously, with everyone logging in on their own schedule, as much as it can in person:

An image of a matrix. The horizontal axis is labelled "Informal" on the left and "Formal" on the right. Vertically, the axis is labelled "self-paced" on the bottom and "Real time" on top.
Most decision-makers associate collaborative learning with the top-right quadrant, even though there are many other options

*Note: The Informal - Formal axis in the matrix is inspired by Guy W. Wallace's Social Learning Continuum

When students work in groups or review each others’ work in an online course, that’s collaborative learning, even if students never meet in person or log on at the same time. 

And when an employee calls a teammate over to their desk to help them figure out what to include in an important presentation, that’s collaborative learning too. 

A Brief History of Collaborative Learning

You probably remember sitting in a classroom during your school days, trying to absorb the contents of a lecture. This form of top-down instruction—where the teacher shares information and the student receives and memorizes it—is called passive learning.  

Two important early education theories focused on passive instruction for individual learners: 

  • B.F. Skinner’s work in the field of behaviorism explored how positive and negative consequences could reinforce certain behaviors. In 1950, Skinner demonstrated this theory by teaching pigeons to play ping pong
  • A short time later, cognitivism emerged as a direct reaction to behaviorism. Where behaviorists focus on observable learned behaviors, cognitivists were more interested in the internal mental process of learning. They looked at how information is received and stored in the mind, and often compared the brain to a computer that processes and manages information. 

Behaviorism and cognitivism are useful for understanding how people learn, but both theories focus on forming and transforming information to make it easy to absorb for a passive learner.

Over time, education theory has started to embrace methods that encourage learners to become more active in their own learning processes. One of the most important theories of active learning is constructivism. Constructivists argue that learners actively form relationships between concepts and ideas as they construct their knowledge. In this paradigm, what learners already know (their past experiences) and how they interact with others are key factors in their development. 

Instead of being responsible for imparting wisdom, constructivism positions teachers as facilitators there to help the learner, who is now in charge of their own active learning process. 

Lev Vygotsky, an influential social constructivist, posited that social interactions and assistance from “more knowledgeable others” help people learn more than they would be able to alone. For Vygotsky, there are three “zones” of potential learning: 

  • What the learner can do by themselves
  • What the learner cannot do
  • And in between these two, the Zone of Proximal Development: what the learner can do, but only with guidance. 

An image of three concentric circles. The outside is labelled "learner cannot do" he middle is labelled "learner can do with help". The inside is labelled "learner can do"
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

According to Vygotsky, learning with others increases an individual’s learning potential by expanding the learning they can access into the zone of proximal development. 

The following video is a great example of the zone of proximal development. In it, you can see a kid trying to learn to backflip. His instructor, the “knowledgeable other,” is literally creating scaffolding to help him learn.

In the last few decades, teachers and L&D professionals have used the insights gained from this evolving research to shift away from passive learning towards more active and collaborative learning practices. 

The Benefits of Collaborative Learning

The benefits of collaborative learning are well documented. In their 2014 textbook Collaborative Learning Techniques, authors Barkley, Major, and Cross conducted a thorough overview of studies on collaborative learning to date. They found a mountain of evidence documenting the positive outcomes of collaborative learning, both in the classroom and online. 

Let’s take a look at a three key benefits they cover: 

Students who learn collaboratively perform better

A meta-analysis conducted by Springer, Stanne, and Donovan in 1999 found that undergraduate STEM students who learned in small groups had significantly better outcomes than students in traditional learning settings—the average equivalent of moving a student from the 50th to the 70th percentile on a standardized test. 

Several other studies have tied collaborative learning to improved student cognitive outcomes for both in-person and online courses. 

Students who teach benefit even more from collaborative learning

According to Collaborative Learning Techniques, there is strong evidence that in collaborative learning situations, the student doing the teaching is actually learning more than the student receiving it. Organizing knowledge to explain it to others can help learners process and contextualize it more thoroughly themselves, so everybody wins. In peer review exercises, for example, the reviewer benefits from the exercise even more than the reviewee. 

Collaborative learning helps students feel less isolated in online courses 

Learning online can be an isolating experience, and students can struggle to feel a sense of community when they are in different locations, learning at different times. This feeling of isolation impacts student motivation.

But collaborative learning pushes students to work together, which reduces these feelings and helps them build a learning community. This is also why we’ve seen a rise in online cohort-based courses in recent years, where students share the same learning schedule and deadlines.  

Several studies have also found that getting to know other students in an online course can improve students’ overall experience. 

Create an Environment Where Collaborative Learning can Flourish

The benefits of collaborative learning are clear. In spite of this, many L&D professionals face obstacles that make it difficult to implement in their workplace. 

Resistance from employees, lack of leadership investment, and technological challenges can make it hard to build a collaborative learning culture. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common roadblocks, and some tips to help you overcome them.  

Challenge 1: Identifying specific workplace obstacles to collaborative learning 

Each workplace is unique and faces its own barriers to creating a collaborative learning environments. Some of those barriers can be technological (an outdated LMS) or organizational (employees based in different timezones, no corporate learning culture). 

Overcoming the challenge

The first step is identifying the specific challenges your workplace faces. Here are some questions to ask yourself: 

Does your LMS support collaborative learning? 

An LMS that supports collaborative learning will have features that allow students to review each others’ work, collaborative on projects, and participate in discussions together on the platform. 

If you’re LMS doesn’t support social learning, your L&D team can put together a list of “must-have” and “nice-to-have” features and look at different solutions that match your criteria. 

What does learning currently look like at your organization?

Look at the training and learning opportunities you already have in place. Do colleagues often collaborate on projects? Do employees resent mandatory training, or do they feel like they are learning valuable skills? 

Use informal interviews or employee surveys to get feedback from employees to understand how they see the learning opportunities at your organization. Culture doesn’t change overnight, but understanding how things currently stand is the first step to any collaborative learning effort. 

Challenge 2: Getting buy-in from decision-makers 

As we mentioned at the beginning of our article, getting buy-in from decision makers is one of the biggest challenges that learning practitioners face.   

Overcoming the challenge

Start by identifying a specific learning gap at your organization and create a set of learning goals. Going to your leadership team with a concrete proposal and built-in solution is more effective than bringing general ideas to the table, especially if they aren’t familiar with education theory and the concepts behind collaborative learning. 

Use research to support your position: The meta-analysis we cited earlier is a good place to start, and this study looks specifically at collaborative learning in the workplace. 

Once you’ve identified the learning gap you want to address, submit a proposal to use collaborative learning to reach that learning objective, using your research to support your argument. 

Challenge 3: Creating a learning community

To build a collaborative learning environment, you need to foster a sense of community. This increases student engagement and accountability, which can in turn help improve student outcomes. 

Overcoming the challenge

One way to start building community is to have students work through a cohort-based course together. Working and collaborating toward the same goal over the same period of time is a great way to feel part of a group. It’s also important to provide informal spaces where employees can make connections, whether that’s virtually (like “watercooler” Slack channels) or in person. 

If you want to start building collaborative learning into your company culture, check out our course on collaborative learning for L&D professionals.


Cassandra Naji | EdTech Marketer & Director of L&D 

William Cronje | Instructional Designer & Program Manager at Eduflow Academy

Quick navigation

Request a demo
Get on the waiting list for Eduflow's free course on social learning
Join the waitlist

Talk to us the way you prefer

Interested in exploring our product on a demo, getting a quote or do you just want to send us an email?
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.