How can I organise collaboration in teams of students?

Example from teaching and learning practice

How to develop in a multidisciplinary team a multimedia production commissioned by a company or organisation in your region? That is the starting point for the course Multimedia at Delft University. Apart from learning to develop multimedia products, students  from different backgrounds learn to work in a team.

What is collaborative learning?


Collaborative learning is a type of active learning in which students learn by doing a group assignment collaboratively. Students gain knowledge by exchanging ideas, dividing work to be done, finding solutions to problems together and cooperatively creating a product.  The teacher either structures the collaboration or guides the students to structure their cooperation themselves.

Cooperation in an educational context has some specific aspects. For example guiding the collaboration between students, organising individual student responsibility and assessing the contribution of individual students against the required quality of the collaboration process and product. Johnson & Johnson (1994) identify five essential elements for developing successful cooperative learning assignments:

  • positive interdependence;
  • individual and group accountability;
  • stimulating mutual interaction;
  • attention towards interpersonal and small group skills, and;
  • attention towards group processes.


What is the purpose of collaborative learning in your teaching?

Collaborative learning has a positive impact on both cognitive and social development of students related to learning results and self-esteem. Students learn to solve problems by integrating their knowledge and insight in practice.  In this approach, learning is seen as a social and situated process of knowledge construction. Furthermore, collaborative learning stimulates the recognition of individual differences between students.



Getting started: preparation

  • Divide the project into different phases, e.g. analysis, design and realisation. Determine which products have to be delivered in each phase, e.g. analysis report, design (including the script) and the final product. Ask the students to think about how they can monitor the quality of the project and the products that will be delivered. This will be drawn up in a quality plan per phase.
  • Before you start, think of a workable method for the project groups. Work with different roles that can be changed per phase. Examples are: an organiser (keeping an eye on the broad outlines), an editor (responsible for contents and quality of products) and a secretary (arranging meetings and writing reports).
  • Provide an outline for team supervison. The three most important parts are: communication agreements between tutor and team, specify quality plans and the team assignment .
  • Have authentic assignments ready before the project starts. Identify clients in need of practical solutions to their problems and willing to act as a customer and expert.
  • Make clear how you will evaluate. It is not just the quality of the products per phase (analysis, design and final result) that should be assessed; the product realisation process is also taken into account. The course mark awarded to a student is a weighted average of the scores received so far (for example you can use a ratio of 20% – 30% – 50% over the three phases).
  • When setting the course objectives, make sure to include objectives that are relevant to team work. This will enable you to assess your students on these objectives as well.
  • Make sure that you organise the input of external experts and lecturers yourself, e.g. arranging thematic and guest lectures.
  • Divide the students into groups, with each group preferably comprising students from different disciplines. Let the students sign up individually or in pairs for a particular team based on the description of the assignment (starting from a group size of 6 students).
  • Enable exchange of information between the groups, for example, through an electronic discussion forum in a digital learning environment.
  • To manage the available tutoring time efficiently, you can tutor more groups at the same time. One group can learn from the feedback you offer to others, while the different groups can also comment on each other’s contributions. These meetings can be alternated with group supervision and group tutoring sessions to discuss the specific projects of the individual groups.


Getting started: application

  • Include course information in your digital learning environment, such as a description of the project structure, the project procedures (different phases, quality reports, division of tasks), the supervision method and times of the (guest) lectures and supervision sessions.
  • Make sure that the students understand that the assessment (and, therefore, their marks) will be based on the product as well as on the process: (1) State clearly how the product will be evaluated and explain in detail what evaluation criteria will be applied. (2) The assessment of the process will be based on the quality plans and on the supervision sessions.
  • During the first lecture, pay extensive attention to the structure and the organisation of the project (phases, products and supervision/tutoring). Indicate what products are expected to be delivered and how these will be evaluated.
  • Refer to the quality control plans in the supervision sessions, and at the end of each project phase, ask students to reflect on their own product and process based on their own plans.
  • Create a virtual group venue for each group of students in the digital learning environment. Give access to all group members to their group venue.
  • At the beginning of every phase, make sure that the students draw up a good division of tasks between the team members in their quality control plans for that phase.




Further reading

  • Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1994) Learning together. In S. Sharan (Ed.), Handbook of cooperative learning methods (pp. 51-65). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Slavin, R.E. (1996) Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21(1), 43-69.
  • Stevens, R.J., & Slavin, R.E. (1995) The cooperative elementary school: Effects on students’ achievement, attitudes, and social relations. American Educational Research Journal, 32(2), 321-351.
  • Veldhuis-Diermanse, E. (2002) CSCLearning: Participation, Learning Activities and Knowledge Construction in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning in Higher Education. Proefschrift. Wageningen: Grafisch Service Centrum Van Gils (