From 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.

Group formation

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.

Preliminary explanations

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.

Group assignments

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 scale.

The journal

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: jcromney@acs.ucalgary.ca

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