New Currents 3.6 December 1996
The benefits of collaborative learning
Dr. Claude Romney,
French, Italian and Spanish
What is collaborative learning?
Most people will agree that two - or more - heads
are better than one, and that group work is beneficial to problem
solving. Collaborative learning (usually called cooperative
learning at the elementary and secondary school levels) is
a well-established group work method that provides a useful alternative
to teacher-fronted classes. Its various techniques follow a certain
number of set rules. Instructors who use the method believe that
learning is essentially a social process, that their role is not
simply to impart their own knowledge to their students, but that
the acquisition of knowledge comes mostly through discussion and
negotiation. The instructor's role is that of a facilitator, organizer,
and occasionally of a resource person. The method also implies
a belief in the democratic process: all team members are equal
in their pursuit of a common goal and their contributions are
all equally valuable. (Of course, in order to reach a consensus,
participants will have to compromise and recognize that their
own solution is not necessarily the best.) Indeed, the seemingly
responsible positions within the teams, such as those of chairperson,
recording secretary, or spokesperson, are rotated to ensure equality.
The optimal number of members for groups to function
successfully is usually between four and six, and heterogeneous
groups - with regard to gender, ethnic and social origin, personality,
life and work experience, proficiency in the subject, etc. - generally
function best because students complement each other. The physical
setup of the classroom is also important: students should be able
to form a circle and face each other during group discussions.
The Collaborative Learning Method in a translation course
My decision to apply the Collaborative Learning Method
to a translation course arose mostly from a desire to innovate
and to increase student participation. The course is a two-semester
introduction to translation offered to third- and fourth-year
French-language students and is not compulsory. Most students
enrol in it because they think it will improve their French language
skills and not because they want to take up translation as a career.
Most of these students have English as their first or dominant
language and have learned French in high school. Usually, however,
the student population comprises one or two native speakers of
French and also a number of recent immigrants whose first language
is neither French nor English. The resulting class is usually
mixed, with various degrees of proficiency in French.
The groups, made up of five students, are formed
by the instructor three weeks into the term, so as to enable her
to get to know the students, and after two assignments have been
corrected. Factors taken into account are:
The resulting groups are as heterogeneous as possible
so as to expose students to a variety of opinions.
- gender (the vast majority of language students
are female, so no group contains more than one male),
- language proficiency in both English and French
with each group comprising one individual with native or near-native
skills in French and one whose first language is neither one of
the Canadian official languages,
- personality (for instance, not more than one argumentative
or shy student is placed in each team),
- age, work, and life experience, etc.
The first two classes after the groups are formed
are devoted to introductions to ensure that team members are comfortable
with each other. The class is also introduced to a description
of the Collaborative Learning Method. This is because the technique
will only be effective if participants know exactly how it works
and what to expect, and if they realize that they will have to
cooperate with one another in order to obtain optimal results.
The instructor has to stress the advantages to be gained on an
academic level, as well as from individual and social points of
view. Advice is also given on how to conduct the discussion. A
chairperson leads the debates, ensuring that they run in an orderly
fashion and that all participants contribute equally. A recording
secretary takes notes and can also act as the team's spokesperson
during whole class discussions. These functions are rotated weekly.
Students are reminded that they must be courteous and tactful
with one another, especially when disagreeing on points being
discussed. The text to be translated is always given to the students
a week in advance so that they have time to prepare it: they are
required to arrive in class with their own translation of the
passage after having solved comprehension and terminology problems.
Lack of preparation leads to a waste of valuable discussion time.
A typical class
The technique used is an adaptation of the Co-op
Co-op method (see sidebar). Depending on the year, classes are
either 50- or 75-minutes long. Longer periods are preferable,
however, because they allow more time for a profitable discussion
to take place. The teams first choose a chairperson and a secretary/spokesperson.
An orderly discussion takes place during about two-thirds of the
period, with each team member presenting the translation s/he
had prepared and the others voicing their opinions. The goal is
for each group to produce its own translation, which, during the
last third of the period, will be presented by the spokesperson
to the whole class. A plenary discussion then leads to a single
translation being adopted, which incorporates the best suggestions
from all the teams. The general discussion can be chaired either
by the instructor or by one of the students. When I first heard
a description of the collaborative learning method at a conference
from a History professor, I was surprised to hear that students
preferred him to stay away from the group discussions. In my own
classes, however, I found that students expected me to help them
solve problems and even complained if I inadvertently spent more
time with one group than with another. On the other hand, care
must be taken by the teacher not to inhibit the discussions by
his or her presence.
One assignment per term out of three is done collaboratively.
The students usually have no objection as almost all of them receive
higher grades for their collective papers. In order to ensure
equal contribution from all participants, students are asked to
provide an account of the way their discussions proceeded and
also to grade their team-mates' share of the work on a five-point
In this course, students are asked to keep a journal
in which they record translation problems and the various solutions
proposed by group members, as well comments on the discussion
itself. At the end of the term, they evaluate the Collaborative
Learning Method as applied to the translation course.
The advantages of collaborative learning
Comments made by students coincide with research
findings, such as the ones reported in the literature. On a personal
level, students are pleased to be able to share their difficulties
with others. They gain confidence from observing that if their
team-mates can solve problems, they will also be able to overcome
them. Speaking in front of a small group with which they are familiar,
rather than in front of the whole class, is also less stressful.
In addition, participants are better able to accept criticism,
since they themselves are also allowed to criticize. On a social
level, the students' level of tolerance and acceptance of other
people's viewpoints is increased, a skill which no doubt is beneficial
in real-life situations where one also often has to be prepared
to compromise. They also form close friendships with their team-mates,
and many stress that for that reason they look forward to coming
to class. Last but not least, on an academic level, there are
definite gains in conformity with Johnson and Johnson's findings
that "cooperative learning experiences promote higher achievement
than do competitive and individualistic experiences" (1985,
p. 104). To be sure, the drawback of the method is that it is
slower than traditional ones since it obviously takes longer to
reach a consensus than to be handed the right answer by the instructor,
but the discussion itself is much more profitable.
Claude Romney welcomes questions and comments
from colleagues who have experimented with the Collaborative Learning
Method or who would like to try it, with a view to forming an
interest group on campus. She can be reached via e-mail:
- Aronson, E., Bridgeman, D.L., & Gefner, R. (1978).
"The effects of a cooperative classroom structure on student
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in the classroom: Research in desegregated schools. Hillsdale,
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Baltimore, MD: Center for Social Organizations of Schools, Johns
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