Another Look at Active Learning, Part 3: Peer & Collaborative Learning In The Classroom

Dana Dawson, Ph.D. and Jennifer Zaylea, MFA

In Another Look At Active Learning, part 2 of this series, we put forward several easy to implement active learning activities. Here we will focus on activities geared towards accomplishing depth of knowledge through peer and collaborative learning – encouraging a space for synthesizing rather than memorizing. Peer learning allows students to teach one another while expanding and solidifying their knowledge. Collaborative learning is similar to peer learning, but the students are grouped and work towards a common goal, all the while developing communication skills, learning from each other, and sharing their own unique perspectives. 

Benefits of Peer and Collaborative Learning

One of the biggest benefits of using intentional peer and collaborative learning in the classroom is that it promotes a sense of belonging, self-efficacy and community among our students. Several decades of empirical research have demonstrated the positive relationship between effectively implemented collaborative learning and not only our students’ emotional health, but their achievement, effort, persistence, and motivation (Scager, 2016). Students get to know one another and to forge connections. Their discussions help challenge false beliefs that get in the way of learning, such as the belief that they are the only one who doesn’t understand a particular concept or is struggling with material. A student’s peer may find ways of explaining a concept that is more comprehensible than the explanations or examples we use. And the process of peer learning promotes the development of so-called “soft skills” such as empathetic listening, communication, collaboration and problem solving.

Teaching Students How to Do Group Work Successfully

Learning with and from peers requires skills that our students are often still developing. It may be necessary to teach students some of the skills required for successful peer learning such as assigning tasks, asking follow-up questions or expressing disagreement. Here are some suggestions and activities to develop peer learning skills:

  • Talk explicitly with students about skills required for successful group work, particularly where they are tasked with completing a longer term project (more on that in the next blog). Discuss what active listening looks like in practice. Point out to students how you model these skills in your teaching. Stephen Brookfield’s “Conversational Moves” activity, described in Brookfield and Preskill’s Discussion As A Way Of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, can be a great way to introduce students to strategies for promoting effective discussion.
  • Explore the role of emotion in peer learning. How do students feel when a teammate drops the ball? How does disagreement impact the experience of working in teams?
  • Address specific approaches to managing disagreement and communicating when another student’s point is not clear. Discuss ground rules for discussion early in the semester and consider asking students to participate in the creation of guidelines. The Hopes and Fears Protocol can be a helpful tool for this process. You might also provide examples of language to use in order to disagree respectfully (“What I hear you say is… The way I think about this topic is…”). 
  • Help students develop skills pertinent to collaboration by assigning roles such as leader, recorder, reporter, devil’s advocate and/or time-keeper. Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning encourages the use of the role of Analyst or Reflector, which is an individual who considers and periodically reports to the group on how successfully the group is communicating and collaborating.

Considerations When Implementing Peer/Collaborative Learning Activities

  • Articulate the “why” of the activity and how it relates to larger goals within the course and within students’ respective professions. For example, explain that a job in advertising is not an isolated work space; rather it is a highly collaborative work space where ideas and tasks are shared. Each person brings their own knowledge and skills, and participates in a reliable fashion. A manager will select group members as they deem appropriate, and it will often not be the grouping of friends that the students might be thinking. Remind students that developing collaboration skills in the classroom will hone their skills so that they can be more effective and successful professionals.
  • Clear instructions are essential when it comes to active learning and it is especially important as individual activities build into peer/collaborative activities. Early on you might need to help students by breaking out the tasks associated with the activity so that they can determine the most useful path to follow in order to achieve the goal. Providing the students with the opportunity to write out a few of their task-related skills on an index card before groups are formed might help to ensure that students do not get stuck trying to figure out who can contribute what. Ensure students know whether the activity is part of their grade for a course, if that grade is individual or a group grade, and how the grade is determined.
  • Make the deliverable something that is meaningful to the course and to the peer/collaborative groups. If the deliverable is considered “throw away” material, then the students are less likely to put much effort into the activity. Ensuring that the deliverable is something of value, like publishing their project on a public facing website, will encourage the students to actively participate as a whole rather than letting one or two students do all the work.
  • Regular group check-in’s are a necessity in peer/collaborative work. However, feedback can also create negative division within the group dynamic. To keep the group dynamic healthy, there might be a regular meeting at the start of each class where the group members identify items on a checklist that have been, or need to be, completed and by whom. Then, at the end of each class, the task list is revisited to ensure that all tasks are listed. This might mean that group members are adding to the list as they find they need additional work in one area or another to achieve the goal. The task list keeps each member accountable for their contribution and acts as a reminder of that accountability. In addition to a group task list, encouraging students to offer one another constructive feedback during their sessions is a great way to further build healthy communication skills.

Activities that encourage peer and collaborative learning

Investigating AI 

  • Compare output – Students work in small groups using their own prompts to see how differently they might approach researching a topic.
  • Work on prompts together – Students work in small groups to co-write prompts to get the best (most closely related) response to a question they know the answer to.
  • Play “spot the AI generated content” – Faculty provide pre-generated content to student groups and ask the groups to vet the content.
  • Prompt Engineering – Students compete to engineer prompts to generate a result you’ve tested and obtained beforehand.
  • Prompting Competition – Have students compete in creating the best prompt to elicit the most complete, useful, or interesting output to a course-related question or topic. Formulating a useful prompt requires clear articulation of the student’s own understanding, and comparing results allows students to practice their analytical skills. (This one comes from our Survival Guide to AI and Teaching pt.4: Make AI Your Friend.)

Role play: Involve students in activities where they assume different roles and play out scenarios that you or they have created. Students might shy away from this activity if the focus is only on one group at a time, so you might consider having several groups role playing in front of one other group rather than the class.

Interpreted lecture: Ask individual students or small groups to provide a short summary of your professor’s lecture in varying increments (every 15-20 minutes). This works best if you inform students ahead of time that you will be calling on them for this purpose so that they will be prepared for the next study session. You may need to call on other students to fill in any gaps, or fill in the gaps yourself. 

Case studies: Provide students with a case study or problem. Break students into groups of 3-5. Students work through the problem and present a proposed solution to the class. Note: students can be working on the same problem, or each team can receive a different problem. 

Debates: Form teams of students. Each team takes a particular stance on an issue. Ask debaters to debate an issue based on evidence, to clearly state points, to logically organize their argument, and to be persuasive. Those not on a team are the judges. 

Create a study guide: In pairs or groups, have students review their notes and create their own study guide. Review with the class as a whole.

Create possible board questions: In pairs or groups, have students draft questions that might appear on their board exams or other high stakes assessments.

Rotating Stations: Four to six white boards or poster-sized sticky notes are arranged around the room. Each has a different prompt at the top. Students circulate around the room, reading responses and adding their own. 

Teach each other / Update your classmate: In groups, have students take turns trying to teach the rest of their group a section of material. This will help them (and you!) gauge the depth of their understanding on a particular topic/concept. You may also ask students to write a memo to a real or fictional student who missed the last class session. In the memo, they describe the missed content and anticipate why the information might be important for understanding new content. 


Step 1: Organize students into a group of 4-6 people. 

Step 2: Divide the day’s reading or lesson into 4-6 parts, and assign one student in each group to be responsible for a different segment. 

Step 3: Give students time to learn and process their assigned segment independently.

Step 4: Put students who completed the same segment together into an “expert group” to talk about and process the details of their segment. 

Step 5: Have students return to their original “Jigsaw” groups and take turns sharing the segments they’ve become experts on. 


Step 1: Have students work in pairs for a few minutes to discuss a response to a prompt that you’ve given them. 

Step 2: Direct each pair to sit with another pair and now share amongst the four of you. 

Step 3: Repeat to form a group of 8. 

Step 4: Repeat until you have your whole class as one group discussing the issue. 

Formulate a report: Individually, students draft a report such as an incident report, a project report, meeting minutes, or progress reports, etc.. In small groups, peers review the report and suggest improvements. Individuals revise their reports and submit them. This activity is based on formulating Incident Reports, but the reports could be on a variety of subjects such as meetings, projects, medical reports, or other activities. 

Peer review: In pairs or small groups have students peer review student-created materials such as documentation, treatment plans, exercise programs, or discharge recommendations. Students can meet as a group to discuss the findings. Once feedback is provided students revise the materials before submitting.

Operate a tool: In groups of 2 to 4, students practice operating a tool or piece of equipment. As each student takes a turn the rest of the group provides them with feedback on their use of the tool.  

Pass the Answer: Students write the answer to a prompt on an index card. They then swap answers with a nearby colleague. Turn and repeat swapping with someone else. Then swap one more time with someone else nearby. The instructor then calls on students to read the answer they are holding. This makes it easier for students to speak out in a large lecture hall, because they are offering someone else’s answer rather than their own.

As we mentioned in blog post 2 of this series, you do not need to implement all of the activities listed above. We encourage you to use an activity or two during your class sessions and to select activities that are designed to meet the learning goals of your course. Once the activities are completed, reflect and determine if those activities helped to accomplish peer and collaborative learning. Peer and collaborative learning are learned skills just like any course content you might be delivering. Students have a similar learning curve when it comes to communication. Build in the time for this learning when you are creating peer/collaborative learning activities.


Scager, Karin et al. “Collaborative Learning in Higher Education: Evoking Positive Interdependence.” CBE life sciences education vol. 15,4 (2016): ar69. doi:10.1187/cbe.16-07-0219
Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. Discussion As A Way Of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. 2nd Edition. Jossey Bass, 2005

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