The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Involving Students in Online Collaborative Learning

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by Emtinan Alqurashi, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Technology and Leadership at Duquesne University. Her research interests include online teaching and learning, student learning experience, and instructional technology.

Working collaboratively in a group is an important skill to learn. Nowadays, many college students participate in online collaborative learning, especially if they are taking online courses. This type of learning teaches them how to become responsible for their learning as well as their peers’ learning. While collaborative learning is appealing, there are some issues that need to be addressed. Some common issues that appear in empirical studies (see references below) regarding collaborative learning in online learning environments are as follows:

  1. Students don’t know how to work collaboratively online.
  2. Students don’t have the understanding of how to construct knowledge together within an online environment.
  3. Grading and assessing individuals in an online collaborative work.collaborative-wok

These problems of online collaborative learning are interrelated. For example, when students don’t know how to work collaboratively online, they won’t be able to construct knowledge together, and this in turn may cause problems for the assessment of individuals within the groups. These problems occur because students don’t seem to have the knowledge and the skills needed to work in an online group. This post discusses the three common problems with online collaborative work with ways to overcome them.

Simply putting students together in groups and asking them to work together online doesn’t necessarily result in having collaborative work. For example, I had an online class where the instructor asked students to work collaboratively on a topic related to ethics in education. We divided the work so everyone had a piece to work on; however, we ended up working more cooperatively than collaboratively (click here to read more about the difference). It seemed easier to discuss ideas, suggest change in content, edit peers’ work in face-to-face than in an online environment. Students avoided editing or commenting on their peers’ posts and writings to avoid hard feelings.The absence of face-to-face communication and interaction, facial expression and body language are only some of the limitations of collaborative work in online learning settings. However, if students master those skills and have the required knowledge, group work can allow students to play an active role in the learning process.

One way for instructors to encourage and support collaborative is to provide a rubric to help student understand what is required from them. This can allow students to provide constructive feedback to their peers without worrying about criticizing their work because simply they are following the rubric. Another way is to ask each group to write their own goals of their projects, each member of the group be responsible for one goal to work on, but they also provide feedback to at least one or two other group members about their work to meet their goals.

The foundation of group work (collaborative and cooperative) is to learn to construct knowledge, and students need to understand this learning process. Constructing knowledge can happen by “activating already existent cognitive structures or by constructing new cognitive structures that accommodate new input” (Dooly, 2008, p. 22). In this process, students become independent learners and responsible for their own learning as well as their peers’; and as a result, knowledge will be constructed, and transformed, by students themselves. Technological tools can be a good way for students to exchange information online whether synchronously or asynchronously. However, it is important for instructor to understand that there is no best method for doing this; it depends on many factors as identified by Dooly, which include: group personality, local constraints, age of students, objectives of the overall project and many other contextual factors.

Finally, grading and assessing individuals in collaborative work is another critical issue associated with group work. The purpose of the assessment is to evaluate group productivity and to determine how well students worked together as effective members of a group. Therefore, assessing individual’s contribution to the group is as important as the final production of the group. The idea of evaluating students in a group work can seem challenging simply because individuals are not working individually but they are working with others.

To ensure fairness in grading individuals in online collaborative work and to ensure participation by all group members, the instructor can use (1) individual assessment, (2) assess individual contribution, and (3) use self, peer, and group assessment techniques.

Individual assessment. While learning and skills are built by group work, it is appropriate to assess students individually through tests or assignments throughout the semester. The downside of this is that student’s work within an online group is not directly assessed. However, the instructor could assess students on the learning that has occurred within the group setting.

Assessing individual contribution can be done in both face-to-face and online learning environments. In online environments, however, the instructor and students can keep track of all their assigned work. Students are able to record video or audio conferences, and store online chats or writings, providing greater opportunity to reflect on their individual contribution within the group work and submitted at the end of the group project.

Self, peer, and group assessment techniques are very beneficial in online collaborative learning for both instructors and students. Generally, students who work and learn in groups are very aware of their own and peers’ contributions to the collaborative work. This awareness of knowledge can be used during the assessment. There are different techniques used to assess oneself and group members. Students can provide anonymous assessment of self and other group members such as creating a pie chart to show how much each member contributed in the group. If the majority of the group members reported someone as a not working member, that person’s grades can be affected. The instructor should provide guidelines to students for self and peer evaluation. Some examples of guidelines for the assessment report: participation (i.e. quality and quantity), preparation, punctuality, respect, contribution of ideas, creativity, and commitment. Ultimately, the instructor remains responsible for students’ final grades, but he/she could utilize the student’s recommendations when deciding how to reward individual contributions.


Carnegie Mellon University – Teaching with Technology – Collaboration Tools.

Dooly, M. (2008) Constructing Knowledge Together. In Dooly, M. (ed.) Telecollaborative Language Learning: A guidebook to moderating intercultural collaboration online, pp. 21-44. Bern: Peter Lang.

Figueira, A., & Leal, H. (2013). An online tool to manage and assess collaborative group work. Paper presented at the 112-XIII. Retrieved from

Morgan, K., Williams, K. C., Cameron, B. A., & Wade, C. E. (2014). FACULTY PERCEPTIONS OF ONLINE GROUP WORK. Quarterly Review Of Distance Education, 15(4), 37-42.,%20williams,%20cameron,%20wade%202014.pdf

Stanford University – Yes Virginia, There Is A Big Difference Between Cooperative And Collaborative Learning Paradigms.

Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

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