Collaborative Learning

Chapter 6
Collaborative Learning

Elizabeth Tudor, Laura Dooley and Elise Boller

Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne, Australia


This chapter will examine the role of collaborative learning activities within the veterinary curriculum. Although numerous studies have demonstrated the value of collaborative activities in achieving learning outcomes of great relevance to veterinary education, collaborative learning activities are commonly perceived to be difficult to implement. Many students and educators are largely accustomed to individualistic forms of learning, assessment, and achievement, and this has led to some reluctance to implement collaborative learning tasks in curricula. Here, we will discuss the nature of collaborative learning, why its inclusion is of benefit in veterinary curricula, and, most importantly, how collaborative activities can be integrated into each level of veterinary education.

Defining Collaborative Learning

Defining collaborative learning has proven challenging, with authors from wide-ranging disciplines providing varied perspectives, as described by Dillenbourg (1999). Most broadly, a collaborative task can be viewed as any task that involves the contributions of more than one person. Many authors have utilized the following definition of collaborative learning, as noted by Roschelle and Teasley (1995):

a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem.

In a veterinary context, collaborative learning has been described as something that occurs “when small groups of students help each other to learn” (Klemm, 1994). Klemm goes on to describe collaborative learning in the veterinary context as “the process whereby each member contributes personal experience, information, perspective, insight, skills, and attitudes with the intent of improving learning accomplishments of the others.” Other authors argue that students working in groups may work independently on individual aspects of a group task that are then collated, and that this represents cooperative learning rather than true collaborative learning (Dillenbourg, 1999). By this definition, when groups work together but learning tasks are divided and then compiled, students may well produce the assessed outcome of group work, without any engagement in collaborative processes. A review of the literature reveals that these terms are variably defined. Davidson and Major (2014) provide an excellent review of the origins of the terms collaborative, cooperative, and problem-based learning, explaining that differences appear to lie along disciplinary lines, and that, to some degree, the distinction between them is semantic.

For the purposes of this chapter, we will examine collaborative learning in the broadest sense and within the veterinary context, drawing on illustrative examples of collaborative learning approaches from different countries. We will focus on activities that involve learning through the co-construction of knowledge and understanding that are developed together via social interactions between and among groups of peers and educators, and carefully designed, collaborative learning activities that can transpire through both face-to-face and virtual interactions. In this process, each individual student contributes their perspective to create new knowledge that the group as a whole then possesses.

Collaborative Learning: Why Do It?

Collaborative Learning Aids in the Development of General Professional Attributes

Becoming a veterinarian demands not only the acquisition of a large body of knowledge and practical skills, but also the process of gaining entry to a professional community of practice. Professional learning is often collaborative in nature, therefore students must be equipped with the skills to participate effectively in, and learn from, collaborative opportunities that may present themselves within and outside of the workplace (Eraut, 2007). The recent NAVMEC Roadmap for Veterinary Medicine Education in the 21st Century lists collaboration as a core professional competency for graduate veterinarians (Shung and Osburn, 2011). Indeed, many veterinary colleges reference the ability to engage in lifelong learning as a key graduate attribute. We must therefore give explicit consideration to how students will acquire these skills through the course of their veterinary program. It has been argued that the learning and teaching of professionalism in veterinary medicine should be reframed as a sociocultural construct (Scholz, Trede, and Raidal, 2013). Early learning in the form of collaborative preclinical activities and clinical and extramural rotations may strongly support enculturation into the profession. Thoughtfully crafted collaborative learning activities may back up this process of professional socialization, the evolution from knowing how to “do” veterinary medicine to “being” a veterinarian. This is addressed in more detail in Part Two, Chapter 7: Teaching Interprofessionalism.

Working with peers also provides an opportunity for students to develop and exercise professional skills in the early preclinical years, when they may have limited access to clinical contexts. For example, communication (verbal, non-verbal, and written), listening, and reflection skills are required to interact effectively with peers. Through collaboration, students also have the opportunity to develop cultural awareness and build friendships across ethnic and sociocultural boundaries. This understanding is directly applicable to the work environment of many veterinarians who service ethnically diverse communities. Collaborative work can result in conflict and disagreements associated with differences in expectations between peers. These experiences mirror the types of disputes that may arise in the workplace between colleagues, or between a veterinarian and a client. The challenges associated with collaborative work therefore also provide an opportunity for students to develop and try out strategies to manage conflict, and the leadership and management skills required to move the group forward.

Collaborative Learning Is Consistent with Adult Learning Styles

A growing body of research indicates that adults learn differently than children, and are differently motivated to learn. Kolb’s experiential learning model has shaped our understanding of how adults learn (Kolb, 1984). According to Kolb, adults learn through a series of cycles of experience, reflection, and planning (see Figure 6.1). In this model, it is the dissonance between the concrete experience and the prior knowledge/experience of the learner that provides the stimulus for new learning. In this way, the prior knowledge of an individual shapes their perception of an experiential task. Collaborative learning tasks provide an opportunity for students to expose and discuss their pre-existing knowledge or assumptions of relevant content, and to experiment actively with applying concepts in new situations. Collaborative activities therefore create a new experience on which to reflect. Within a single collaborative task, students can undertake multiple iterative cycles of experience, planning, and reflection.

A diagram of the experiential learning model with four text boxes connected by arrows.

Figure 6.1 Experiential learning model.

Source: Kolb, 1984. Reproduced with permission of Prentice Hall.

Collaborative Learning Allows Students to Leverage the Knowledge and Experience of Peers

Collaborative learning activities provide an opportunity for students to uncover new knowledge by leveraging the varied experiences of their peers. Luft and Ingram (1955) designed the Johari window through a study of personality traits and interpersonal skills (see Figure 6.2). This construct highlights that for any individual there are characteristics that exist that are not known to them, but are known to others. It emphasizes that interactions with others can enable the uncovering of knowledge beyond that which is known to individuals. Through peer interactions, students can discover new approaches and expose gaps in their understanding. Perry (1999) observed that college students progress from a learning approach of “duality” (clear right and wrong, with direction from teachers) toward “multiplicity” (recognition that solutions may be uncertain, context is important, and peers can be a relevant source of experience). At each stage of their veterinary education, students will be variably progressed along this spectrum. Collaboration with peers provides an opportunity for them to reveal and discuss their individual approach to a task, and come to a collective understanding that builds on the individual knowledge base. This is particularly relevant in graduate-level veterinary education, where students begin the program with varied undergraduate experience and knowledge. There is a clear opportunity for veterinary students to learn from each other, and one method for harnessing this opportunity is through the delivery of well-designed collaborative learning tasks.

A diagram of a square split into four text boxes with rows and columns labeled for the Johari window.

Figure 6.2 The Johari window.

Source: Luft & Ingram, 1955. Reproduced with permission of UCLA.

Collaborative Learning Is Central to the Development of Self-Regulation of Learning

Collaborative learning shifts considerable responsibility for learning onto the learners themselves. This models the reality for qualified veterinarians seeking continuing professional development, whereby they are required to identify their individual development needs, and to identify strategies by which to achieve their stated learning goals. Self-regulation of learning involves planning, performance, and reflection, thus the “self-regulated” learner is able to regulate their thinking, their motivation, and their behavior during the learning process (Pintrich and Zusho, 2002). A study by Sungur and Tekkaya (2006) demonstrated that students undertaking a problem-based program of study in small collaborative groups showed higher self-reported levels of self-regulated learning than those exposed to a traditional teacher-centered mode of delivery. However, a study by Raidal and Volet (2009) demonstrated that veterinary students show a strong preference for teacher-driven learning experiences. Therefore, the integration of student-centered collaborative learning tasks within a veterinary curriculum can be challenging. The importance of developing the skills of self-regulated learning for future career progression must be clearly articulated to both faculty and veterinary students.

How Can Collaborative Learning Be Integrated into Veterinary Curricula?

The evidence and argument are there: there is an imperative to create a curriculum and employ a pedagogy that foster collaborative learning practices in our students, that enhance their interpersonal skills of teamwork and communication, and that discourage competitive behavior. At its core, collaborative learning involves a shift in focus from instructor-centered learning to student-driven and student-shared learning. As such, collaborative learning is not an “add-on,” provided as a supplement to an existing course, but rather an approach to be embraced and owned at the highest levels of the faculty leadership and teaching teams and to be applied throughout a program. The adoption of this approach should be fostered through the professional development of educators and in the design of learning spaces, and should be encouraged and made visible to students.

Student-Centered and Collaborative Learning Practices Must Be Embraced at a Whole-Faculty Level

When in 2008 the University of Melbourne (UoM) embarked on a major curriculum renewal project and development of the graduate Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), a first step was a process of faculty consultation that led to redefinition of graduate attributes. From these, the goals of curriculum renewal emerged. Foremost among these were:

  • To develop a curriculum that enhanced opportunities for developing transferable skills in problem-solving.
  • To develop a more integrated and systems-based approach to the curriculum.
  • To create more time within the teaching program for students to cogitate and to develop intellectual curiosity.

Collaborative learning approaches were identified as central to the attainment of these goals. At the UoM, our approach to collaborative learning is grounded on several premises:

  • Graduate learners come to the classroom with valuable prior knowledge, and students can learn from the prior knowledge and experience of others.
  • Deep understanding requires mastery of the language of veterinary science; opportunities to use the language in conversation will aid in that mastery.
  • Veterinary students are inherently vocationally focused, and they will learn best when learning is placed in the context of the vocation to which they aspire.
  • The learning context must embrace the elements of Kolb’s experiential model of adult learning, with opportunities for:

    • experiencing and doing → clinical problem-solving
    • watching and reviewing → listening to and observing the thought patterns of others (peers and instructors)
    • thinking and theorizing → applying current knowledge to a new situation or context
    • active experimentation → testing understanding against peers’ knowledge and understanding, and against formative feedback tasks.

Throughout the development of the new curriculum, an increased focus was maintained on the progressive acquisition of the attributes of a graduate veterinary scientist. This focus was formalized through the definition of student learning domains, strands of learning (and assessment) that traverse every subject area of the DVM program, and that are used to describe the student’s progressive acquisition of the graduate attributes of a veterinary scientist: the technical, the academic, the professional, the ethical, and those relating to population health and biosecurity. Collaborative learning practice is woven as a vertical, integrative pedagogical element through each of these domains, throughout the curriculum (see Part Two, Chapter 5: Integrative Learning).

Progressive Attainment of Graduate Outcomes, Including Attainment of Professional Collaborative Skills, Must Be Explicit and Visible to Students

Consistent with our commitment to student-centered learning, we needed to find ways to make these learning domains visible to students, so that they could see that each learning activity in their program was a further step toward acquisition of the skills, knowledge, and aptitudes relevant to them as a graduate veterinarian.

Icons were developed for each of the five learning domains (see Figure 6.3): clinical skills; scientific basis of clinical practice; personal and professional development; ethics and animal welfare; and population health and biosecurity.

Five icons with schematics for technical skills; scientific basis of clinical practice; personal and professional development; ethics and animal welfare; and population health and biosecurity.

Figure 6.3 University of Melbourne student learning domains: clinical skills; scientific basis of clinical practice; personal and professional development; ethics and animal welfare; and population health and biosecurity.

Students “see” these icons in study guides and notes for didactic, collaborative, and practical learning activities, and there is visible and constructive alignment of learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and feedback and assessment that relate back to one or more of these domains. Teamwork and collaboration are fundamental elements of the personal and professional development learning domain.

Professional Development in Teaching and Curriculum Design should be Encouraged and Supported

In their studies of the factors influencing seminar learning for veterinary students, Spruijt et al. (2012, 2013, 2015) identified teacher factors (see Box 6.2) as a key to successful learning outcomes. The ability of the teacher to facilitate group discussion with an appropriate questioning style, to encourage students to participate actively, to stimulate deep thinking, and to guide students toward a case outcome will have a substantial impact on what students learn. This requires appropriate preparation by the teacher for each learning activity, but also professional development in the form of formal training in small-group teaching. One approach to the provision of preparation is the “tutor briefing session” and “tutor study guide” often provided in problem-based learning programs. Many veterinary colleges now recognize the need for more extensive and formal training of faculty.

Physical Spaces for Collaborative Learning Must Accommodate and Encourage Small-Group Interaction

In recent years we have seen a progressive shift in curriculum design away from more traditional delivery modes like the lecture to more active modes of learning, and in addition the inclusion of a range of information technologies in learning and teaching. Nordquist and Laing (2015) argue that the curriculum must be aligned with learning spaces and that learning spaces must be designed so that collaboration can be achieved. They illustrate this in the cognitive map that they refer to as the “hybridization of learning spaces” in their networked learning landscape model (see Figure 6.4). On the X axis is the direction of change in provision of learning spaces, from single-purpose didactic teaching spaces such as lecture theaters to increasingly flexible-use spaces with multiple applications for both formal and informal learning.

A plot with three curves and an arrow diagonal to the axes plotted for hybridization of learning spaces. The regions in the plot are labeled in the plotted area and along the axes.

Figure 6.4 Hybridization of learning spaces.

Source: Nordquist & Laing, 2015. Reproduced with permission of Taylor and Francis Ltd.

At the UoM our goals for the degree, the premises regarding collaborative learning, and key elements of activity design helped to determine the requirements for the learning spaces where collaborative learning takes place and for the size of student learning groups. Effective collaboration requires the following:

  • Dialogue, a space for which will be facilitated by proximity, visibility, face-to-face contact, and appropriate acoustics.
  • Visualization of prior knowledge and of new theories and concepts, which can be facilitated in many different ways that are not necessarily technologically advanced or expensive, such as chalkboards, whiteboards, smart whiteboards, shared computer monitors, and so on.
  • Hybridization” (Nordquist and Laing, 2015) of the physical and digital learning space, with access to information technology for presentation, simulation, data, and virtual forms of collaboration, such as wikis and blogs.

The efficacy of a learning space is not necessarily directly related to its sophistication. Many examples are now available of more sophisticated interpretations of collaborative learning spaces that bridge the formal and informal learning landscapes, but spaces do not have to be sophisticated or technologically advanced as long as the key elements required for effective dialog and collaboration in a digital world are provided. At the UoM our small-group work in the pre-clinical years takes place in open pods and small meeting rooms in the library; learning materials for case studies are delivered electronically through the Blackboard Learning Management® system, and large wall-mounted computer screens and white boards are used to facilitate group wiki work. In the Chemistry Learning Laboratory at UoM, a traditional tiered lecture theater has been transformed into a collaborative learning space, where sharing of knowledge within and between groups and with instructors is facilitated by a range of digital technologies (see Figure 6.5).

Two digital captures of small-group work of people in a classroom. At the left, the classroom has a whiteboard and a shared flat-screen monitor. At the right, the classroom is technologically advanced with more monitors and equipment.

Figure 6.5 Small-group work with a whiteboard and shared flat-screen monitor for group wiki work in case studies at the University of Melbourne (left); a technologically advanced classroom for small-group work in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne (right).

Visualization Is a Key Element of Collaborative Learning

The whiteboard, and its predecessor the blackboard, plays a critical role in promoting teamwork and shared thinking. The role of shared visualization has been formalized in recent years by the Lean Enterprise Institute. In lean practice, the visual management board (VMB) is designed to enable all members of a team to see work in progress, recognize impediments to progress, create common information for shared understanding, improve communication between team members, and enhance collaboration. More simply, in our collaborative learning setting at UoM, whiteboards help students to visualize one another’s thinking: exposing different points of view, clarifying points of confusion, or summarizing shared progress and understanding. In Figure 6.6 you can see a group of first-year students using a hybridized environment for learning. There is electronic delivery of content on a virtual case with the use of physical tools (e.g., the whiteboard and collaborative discussion) to reinterpret what they have viewed on the radiograph; in doing so, they are sharing their knowledge of urinary tract anatomy in the dog as it relates to their understanding of a case of urolithiasis.

Oct 15, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Collaborative Learning

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