The role of collaboration in higher education

Although collaborative learning is a popular teaching strategy, it is often underutilized in actual classroom settings. Therefore, it is necessary to establish the significance of several elements supporting efficient collaborative learning. Five distinct undergraduate life sciences courses with positive outcomes for collaborative learning were chosen for the present investigation. This research focuses on elements that the students claim made teamwork in these courses more successful. The analysis of nine focus group interviews was done. According to the findings, the combination of student autonomy and self-control with a difficult, open, and complicated group assignment that challenged the students to produce something fresh and creative was what led to successful cooperation. The course’s design elements encouraged a feeling of shared ownership of the collaborative process and the final outcome of the group assignment. Students also noted that there were no free riders in these group projects. A curious finding was that students seemed to appreciate their feeling of accomplishment, their learning processes, and the goods they were producing more than their grades. It is stated that demanding and pertinent assignments should be used to create shared ownership with students while designing collaborative learning in higher education. Although students may gain a lot from working in groups, collaboration’s learning potential is underutilized in reality, especially in scientific education (Johnson et al., 2007). (Nokes-Malach and Richey, 2015 ). Although they are sometimes defined differently, collaborative, cooperative, and team-based learning are often thought to reflect the same notion (Kirschner, 2001). For the sake of this research, we will refer to these concepts together as “collaboration.” Students engage in small-group activities where they share their knowledge and experience in collaborative learning. The instructor often serves as a facilitator in these student-driven activities (Kirschner, 2001 ).

The beneficial correlation between collaborative learning and student accomplishment, effort, tenacity, and motivation has been shown by empirical studies over many decades (for reviews, see Slavin, 1990 ; Webb and Palinscar, 1996 ; Barron, 2000 ; Johnson et al., 2007 ). When students connect with one another in a positive way, such as by debating knowledge that is conflicting, collaborative learning may increase deep learning (Visschers-Pleijers et al., 2006 ). In order to comprehend concepts and intricate processes in science education, a deep learning strategy is essential (Van Boxtel, 2000 ). Understanding these ideas requires a conceptual transformation process, which is especially active in collaborative learning, as students engage in critical explanation and questioning of one another (Van Boxtel et al., 2000 ; Linton et al., 2014 ). In earlier works, we have investigated and emphasized the value of group work in undergraduate biology courses (Wiegant et al., 2012 , 2014 ). Linton et al. (2014) found that students in group settings performed significantly better with respect to conceptual understanding than students in courses with an individual setting. This was determined by comparing university students’ performance in a biology course in individual and group settings. Along with these cognitive advantages, collaborative learning develops the social skills necessary for future career advancement in the scientific field.

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But simply creating groups does not guarantee improved learning and motivation (Salomon and Globerson, 1989 ; Gillies, 2004 ; Khosa and Volet, 2013 ). Raidal and Volet (2009) discovered a resounding preference for individualized learning in their investigation on college students’ preferences for collaborative learning. Because of the possibility of “free riders,” practical difficulties, or interpersonal disputes, students are reluctant to participate in group projects (Livingstone and Lynch, 2000; Aggarwal and O’Brien, 2008; Pauli et al., 2008; Shimazou and Aldrich, 2010; Hall and Buzwell, 2012). As a consequence, students may decide to take a calculated approach by splitting the work and just “integrating” their contributions into a group paper using a stapler. The term “pseudo learning groups” is used by Johnson and Johnson (1999) to describe groups that exhibit this kind of surface activity. For teachers, the lack of synthesis that results can be disappointing. Since the effectiveness of student interactions determines how much students gain from working with one another, dividing work indicates that students lose the potential learning impact of collaboration (Van Boxtel et al., 2000 ; King, 2002 ; Palinscar and Herrenkohl, 2002 ; Volet et al., 2009 ). Understanding the elements that encourage collaborative learning is essential to realizing the value of collaboration in higher education. As a result, we examine in the current study factors that enhance the quality of collaboration using instances of successful group work from five different life sciences courses.

Potential elements that could improve the efficacy of collaborative learning
Social interaction is essential for productive teamwork (Volet et al., 2009 ). The quality of student discussions, which include argumentation (Teasley, 1995; Chinn et al., 2000), explaining ideas to one another (Veenman et al., 2005), and incorporating and building on one another’s ideas, has been found to affect the learning outcomes of collaborative learning groups (Barron, 2003 ). It is believed that these peer interactions will aid in students’ cognitive restructuring (Webb, 2009 ). Speaking about a topic and explaining things to one another can help people understand it better, catch misconceptions, and make stronger connections between newly learned material and what they’ve already learned (Wittrock, 1990 ). It is crucial to figure out how to set up collaboration in a way that encourages these kinds of interactions.

Numerous factors that may improve the efficiency of collaboration have been identified through decades of research on group work. These variables can be classified as primary variables (design attributes) and secondary or mediating variables (group-process characteristics). For meaningful interaction regarding primary factors, groups should be small (three to five students) (Lou et al., 2001 ; Johnson et al., 2007 ). Mixed-ability groups have been found to improve performance for students of lower ability, but this composition may not always benefit students of higher ability (Webb et al., 2002 ). However, it has been shown that equal involvement is more crucial for students’ success than group composition since they are more likely to fully use one another’s knowledge and talents when they all contribute to the same degree (Woolley et al., 2015 ). Learning has been shown to be enhanced by heterogeneity, or the range of viewpoints and approaches, especially in groups working on activities that call for creativity (Kozhevnikov et al., 2014 ). It has been shown that the task’s nature is also a significant influence. More so than closed tasks, open and poorly organized activities encourage higher-level engagement and enhance critical, applicative, and evaluative thinking (Gillies, 2014 ). Furthermore, complicated activities result in more in-depth interactions than simple jobs (Hertz-Lazarowitz, 1989 ).

Positive interdependence theory is one of the best-supported theories explaining the quality of interaction in collaborative learning when it comes to secondary or intermediate factors affecting group work (Slavin, 1990 ; Johnson and Johnson, 1999 , 2009 ; Gully et al., 2002 ). According to this theory, collaboration is enhanced when positive interdependence exists among group members. This is achieved when students perceive the contribution of each individual to be essential for the group to succeed in completing the assigned activity (Johnson and Johnson, 2009 ). (Johnson and Johnson, 2009 ). Positive interdependence results in both individual accountability and promotive interaction. Individual accountability is defined as having feelings of responsibility for completing one’s own work and for facilitating the work of other group members. Free riding, which happens when one or more group members are thought by other members to be failing to contribute their fair share to the group effort (Aggarwal and O’Brien, 2008), can be avoided by having a sense of mutual accountability (Johnson and Johnson, 2009). Promotive interaction has been defined as when students support and aid one another in order to achieve group objectives, both in terms of group dynamics and subject matter.

Reward-based or task-based techniques are used to promote positive interdependence interactions. Reward-based interdependence structures the reward so that each student’s grade is based on the team’s success as a whole. Slavin (1991, 1995) asserts that without group rewards, collaborative learning is rarely successful. However, research on the effects of reward-based interdependence in higher education is conflicting. The main worry is that rewards may undermine intrinsic motivation because they increase extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated put forth effort because they are interested in the task at hand, as opposed to those who are motivated by a reward or grade. Strong incentives, like grades, may cause students to focus more on the reward than the task at hand, making the task nothing more than a means to an end. However, Serrano and Pons (2007) discovered that using incentives (individual grades) increased positive interdependence in group work at the university level. They came to the conclusion that while the task continued to pique students’ interest, the reward structure did direct motivation toward final grades. However, Sears and Pai (2012) discovered that rewards did not significantly influence group behavior. Their research revealed that groups continued to work even after the incentive was taken away, whereas students working alone saw a reduction in effort.