Though peer group work is the most commonly used method for collaborative learning, many instructors employ collaborative assignments in order to reap the benefits of peer learning. Consider, for example:
Collaborative Research Assignments
The collaborative research assignment allows students to work together to explore a topic relevant to the course, but not necessarily covered in class. Working together, students can cover more ground than they can on their own. They can also try out different research strategies and then discuss among themselves which strategies are most useful, and why. Sometimes collaborative research leads to some other collaborative assignment—a group paper or presentation, for example.
Not all collaborative research assignments involve "big" tasks. In the first-year classroom in particular, instructors look for creative ways to introduce their students to the research process through small assignments. For example, some instructors assign students to research groups, give them a set of questions to answer, and then send them to the library or to the Internet to find the answers together. One instructor sends groups of students on a scholarly scavenger hunt, requiring them to explore different databases and to use different search engines in order to accomplish their research tasks. Others provide students with a topic and ask them to create an annotated bibliography together. The point is to get students working and talking together about what it means to do academic research.
Group presentations are common in many Dartmouth classrooms. In these instances, instructors prepare topics or questions for the groups to consider, and then require the groups to prepare a presentation for the class. Sometimes the groups are asked to lead discussion of one of the course's primary texts; sometimes they are asked to come to class with historical or cultural information that can put a particular work in context. Sometimes groups are encouraged to be creative and to use several media when presenting to the class.
Some instructors express concern that group presentations allow weaker students to depend on stronger ones for their success in the course. In fact, this concern can be understood as one of the "positives" of group work, in that the stronger students can model the academic process for their less-prepared peers. If you remain concerned about your students' individual performances, you might begin by having groups prepare the first round of class presentations. The next round of presentations might be managed by pairs, and the final round by individuals. Students learn with each round to become more independent in the research and presentation processes.
Like collaborative research assignments or group presentations, collaborative papers permit instructors to ask students to tackle an idea associated with the course that has not been covered in class. Students are assigned to produce the paper together: they may be asked to write the entire paper together, or they may be permitted to write the paper in sections and then to edit the paper together so that it seems to come from a single author, employing a consistent voice. One instructor allows students to divvy up the bulk of the work but insists that they write the introduction and conclusion together, attending to transitions between sections so that the paper reads seamlessly.
One benefit of the group paper is that it requires students to consider the stages of the writing process as they determine how to divide the labor among the group. For example, will the collaborative writing be most efficiently done if the group does its brainstorming together? Should the paper be divided into sections, with each member responsible for a single part? Can one student write effectively about something that has been researched by another student? As the group considers these questions, they are brought to think carefully and critically about the writing process.
Finally, collaborative writing makes students more conscious of their own writing processes and styles. As they debate strategies and sentences, students must defend their choices. They also come to see other possible ways of expressing their ideas. For this reason, the group papers will likely not be the best papers that students produce, but they may be the most educational.
Some instructors ask students to meet formally or informally in discussion groups, where they can work together to improve their understanding of difficult texts. Whole-class discussions are greatly improved when students have met in smaller groups to discuss the course materials among themselves. Instructors can direct these groups by furnishing them with questions to consider, or they might simply ask the group to meet and to return to class with the questions and observations that have arisen.