Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is a key aspect of active learning groups of students engage in a range of activities to negotiate their understanding of content, discuss or debate from divergent perspectives and/ or create an artefact or product.

The following case studies from provide advice for academic staff (with downloadable tip sheets) on designing collaborative learning activities such as:

  • Using wikis for student collaboration: a case study that examines how using a wiki can help a teacher effectively facilitate student collaboration with on-campus or distance students.
  • Online teamwork and collaboration: describes how effective teamwork and collaboration skills are considered important to the learning process but that many students find group work challenging and difficult.

Collaborative learning activities can range from discussions, scenario-based learning and role plays:


the continually iterative dialogue between teacher and students is essential if the students are to be sure that they have understood the teacherís concept. (Laurillard, 1993)

Discussion is a useful activity as it can:

  • encourage students to take a more active role in the learning process
  • assist students to be more tolerant of differing viewpoints and better prepared to
    formulate and express their own opinions
  • help resolve small problems or inconsistencies in course related matters in a timely and effective manner
  • assist students to keep in touch with each other and the lecturer
  • provide a forum in which students can voice their thoughts, choosing their own words and knowing that others will be 'listening'
  • improve flexibility by allowing students to contribute at times and places appropriate to them.

In this short video interview, Elicit information from students, Diana Laurillard provides advice on how to encourage students to take part in the dialogic process to enhance learning.

Discussion activities

In this site, Cavanaugh (2001) suggests a range of discussion formats and activites to use in your course.


The following tools are commonly used in online discussions; each links to the UQ Tools A-Z Guide:

What's the difference between blogs, wikis and discussion boards? This resource from University of Adelaide provides clear distinction for use of these tools.

Also see the UQ Social Media for Teaching and Learning website for an overviewof common tools used in teaching and learning such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Useful links

The following are links to videos and tipsheets on the website from UNSW:

What about dialogue? An alternative assessment mechanism for professional learning is an article from the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA).

Evaluating students' participation in on-line discussions looks at theories about, and strategies for, encouraging effective on-line participation, and reviews a range of qualitative and quantitative methods for assessing the effectiveness of students' on-line participation.

Time saving Strategies and Tips for Instructors Using Online Discussion Forums outlines tips from practicing instructors in the Global Educators' Network.

Academic papers

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. Kogan Page, London.

Review: Gilly Salmon has achieved continuity and illumination of the seminal five stage model, together with new research-based developments, in her much-awaited third edition of E-moderating-the most quoted and successful guide for e-learning practitioners.

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Mayes, T. & Neilson, I. (1996). Learning from other people's dialogues: Questions about computer-based answers. In B. Collins & G. Davies, eds, Innovating Learning with Innovative Technology. North Holland: Amsterdam

Abstract: As mass higher education develops, so the need to support individual learners through learning dialogues becomes more pressing. Yet most learning technology has been directed towards the presentation of content, rather than the answering of questions, or the opportunity for discussion and reflection. In this paper we consider how a new kind of courseware might directly support dialogue, instead of simply presenting the initial conceptualisation on which subsequent learning will be built. We describe three approaches to constructing courseware from other people's dialogues, each of which exploits the potential of integrating conventional learning material with the communication capability of the Internet: Ackerman and Malone's ''Answer Garden'', Schank's ''Engines for Education'' and the INTERACT project's ''Answer Web''. These are regarded as examples of ''tertiary courseware'', distinguished from primary courseware, which delivers content, and secondary courseware, which supports the learner in the performance of constructive learning tasks. Finally, we envisage the integration of all three types into a general learning environment.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use ofEducational Technology. London: Routledge Press.

Abstract: Teachers in higher education are slowly accepting the fact that they have to become more professional in their approach to teaching, matching their professionalism in research. The notions of quality audit and teacher appraisal are new, and in their existing forms ill-founded, but they represent a challenge that teachers will have to face.

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Harisim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995). Learning Networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Scenario based learning

Scenario-based learning puts the student in a situation or context and exposes them to issues, challenges and dilemmas and asks them to apply knowledge and practice skills relevant to the situation. The student navigates through by choosing options and is given feedback based upon their choice. (University College London)

Scenario based learning is used to create problem-based and enquiry-based learning experiences for both individual and group activities to 'improve critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and other learning attributes across a range of disciplines' (Norton et al, 2012).

The SBL project at James Cook University provides detailed information about the main types of scenario based learning, embedding graduate attributes  and the reasons why using scenario based learning is effective.


Useful links

The Scenario Based Learning Interactive (SBLi) team at UQ shared some useful information in a seminar where guest speaker, Carl Sherwood, a UQ business statistics Lecturer, gave a very interesting talk on the development of his scenarios.

Academic papers

Jinks, Audrey, Norton, Geoff, Taylor, Matt and Stewart, Terry (2012). Scenario-based learning: Experiences in the development and application of a generic teaching software tool. In Dale Holt, Stephen Segrave and Jacob L. Cybulski (Ed.), Professional education using E-Simulations: Benefits of blended learning design (pp. 346-369) Hershey, PA, U.S.A.: IGI Global.

Abstract: The aim of this chapter is to share experiences involved in designing, developing, and implementing e-simulation software for achieving scenario-based learning objectives. It does this by focusing on our work with Scenario Based Learning-Interactive (SBLi), a software tool developed at The University of Queensland, Australia to provide lecturers and teachers with an easy-to-use tool for creating and deploying interactive multi-media scenarios on the Web or CD. While a number of authoring tools are capable of creating simple, interactive scenarios, SBLi has been developed to provide a tool with the functionality and transparency that allows scenario authors to easily create and modify complex and realistic scenarios that engage learners in acquiring specific knowledge and skills. This chapter describes the main features of this e-simulation tool, what is involved in creating SBLi scenarios, and how scenarios have been developed and used in Australia and overseas to provide problem-based and enquiry-based learning experiences. Examples are listed to show the range of learning objectives and the diverse and novel ways in which SBLi is being used to improve critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and other learning attributes across a range of disciplines in secondary and tertiary institutions and in continuing professional development. Important lessons concerning the development and sustainable application of this specific e-simulation tool are also discussed.

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Seddon, J. M., McDonald, B. & Schmidt, A. L. (2012). ICT-supported, scenario-based learning in preclinical veterinary science education: Quantifying learning outcomes and facilitating the novice-expert transition. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(2), 214-231.

Abstract: Problem and/or scenario-based learning is often deployed in preclinical education and training as a means of: (a) developing students’ capacity to respond to authentic, real-world problems; (b) facilitating integration of knowledge across subject areas, and; (c) increasing motivation for learning. Six information and communication technology (ICT) supported, scenario-based learning (SBL) problems using case studies that integrated information across subject areas were implemented in a second-year genetics course for undergraduate veterinary science students and linked to educational outcomes. On a post-implementation questionnaire, students appreciated the use of authentic scenarios but login records indicated variable engagement among students. Comparison of learning outcomes from SBL-supported and non-SBL-supported content (within and across student cohorts) indicated that exposure to SBL generated quantifiable improvements in learning in both high and low ability students. Despite this, students did not perceive that the SBL activities improved their learning. Thus, ICT-supported SBL have the potential to reinforce connectivity of content across a range of pre-clinical courses, but to facilitate a genuine novice to expert transition may require consideration of students’ perceptions of scenario relevance, their confidence, and how students of differing learning styles engage with such activities.

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Sorin, Reesa, Errington, Edward, Ireland, Lynette, Nickson, Amanda, and Caltabiano, Marie (2012) Embedding graduate attributes through scenario-based learning. Journal of the National University of Singapore Teaching Academy, 2 (4). pp. 192-205.

Abstract:Traditionally, tertiary educators have followed models of teaching in which they were themselves taught, and which are still expected by many students: 'in large part limited to teacher-directed, transmission-style pedagogies' (Sorin & Klein, 2002). In this model, students are passive recipients of knowledge given to them through direct instruction, and print resources such as textbooks are often implemented (Damoense, 2003). There are problems with this passive, rote-learning approach, in that students often report a lack of connection between what is learned in university and what they come to encounter in 'real life' situations (Sorin, 2002). This lack of connection leaves many students feeling they are unprepared for their future roles. Active learning, however, including problem-based and inquiry learning, leads to 'increased motivation, better critical thinking, and the integration of knowledge and problem-solving skills' (Norton, Taylor, Stewart, Blackburn, Jinks, Razdar, Holmes & Marastoni, 2012, p. 1083). Scenario-based learning (SBL) is an important component of a number of active learning strategies (Norton et al., 2012). The following article documents the collaborative efforts of a team of educators who have challenged traditional teaching methods by implementing an approach known as SBL, a technique which affords learners a more active role in their learning. Norton et al. (2012) note that as active participants in the scenarios, learners 'are required to make decisions, which can offer penalties or rewards and open up, or close off, various future options' (p. 1084). Specifically, the paper examines how the authors adapted their teaching repertoire to include scenario-based situations, incorporate the university's graduate attributes and, in doing so, enhanced both teaching and learning in their subjects.

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Errington, E.P., Ireland, L., Nickson, A., Sorin, R., and Caltabiano, M.L. (2011) Embedding graduate attributes into four discipline areas using scenario-based learning. CDTL Brief, 14 (2). pp. 15-19.

Abstract:Scenario-based learning (SBL), based on situated learning theory incorporating contextual knowledge, may provide one approach for getting students nearer to the realities of their intended workplace through the construction and analyses of authentic learning experiences and the conscious embedding of graduate attributes - as the building bricks for employability. SBL is not used to replace work-based experiences but rather to supplement them. This brief article summarises the journey made so far by five colleagues from four discipline areas and Teaching and Learning Development at James Cook University (JCU), whose collective aim is to embed graduate attributes into their four curriculum areas using scenario-based learning.

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Errington, Edward (1990) Seeking a consensus of meaning in drama: a critical perspective. NADIE Journal, 15 (1). pp. 18-21.

Abstract:The article explores notions of meaning and consensus in drama classrooms and argues for a recognition of differences among people explored via a socially critical approach to drama pedagogy.

Role plays

Educators throughout multiple disciplines and educational levels have used role-playing activities to teach political science, history, economics, psychology, and the natural sciences. (Jackson, 2000). This paper from Penn State provides a brief overview of how to develop role play exercises.

Online (and blended) role plays are designed to increase understanding of real life human interaction and dynamics where participants:

  • assume a role in someone else's shoes or in someone else's situation,
  • do authentic tasks in an authentic context,
  • engage in substantial in-role human interaction such as collaboration, negotiation, debate.

Project EnROLE by the University of Wollongong aims to promote the use of role-playing in university education and has extensive resources such as online guides and learning designs, platforms, communities, journals and academic papers.

Exemplar learning designs from the University of Wollongong describe detailed learning plans from various disciplines with a role play focus.

Assessing with Role Play and Simulation is a resource from UNSW that provides useful information about the benefits, challenges and strategies for using role plays. There are also video case studies of how role plays are being used in some UNSW courses.


Academic papers

Nygaard, C., Courtney, N., (2012), Simulations, Games and Role Play in University Education, Libri Publishing.

Abstract:This anthology advances a radical agenda for those in higher education, arguing that teaching activities should focus not primarily on knowledge acquisition but behaviour, because institutions of higher education now 'have become the training centres of the professional practitioner'. Today’s students, the knowledge workers, professionals and leaders of tomorrow, face a double challenge. They will have to survive organisations and they will have to help organisations survive. They will be called upon to help organisations find and realise innovative strategies for a sustainable future. Consequently, higher education curricula must focus on key components of professional behaviour and experiential learning must be central to this strategy.

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Russel, C., Shepherd, J. (2010), Online role-play environments for higher education, British Journal of Educational Technology, v41 n6 p992-1002

Abstract: As online environments and tools have evolved over the last 15-20 years, their use for role-based learning has expanded. This analysis draws on work for an Australian project that has been sharing and developing knowledge about the use of online role-plays in higher education. We describe the learning needs that online role-play can meet, and give examples of solutions--some using custom-built software and some using standard online learning environments. We use these examples to develop a framework for evaluating how new technologies can support role-based learning activities in universities, taking into account the needs of both learners and teachers.

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Colquhoun, Derek, and Errington, Edward (1990) Critical health education and the possibilities of role-play: part 2. ACHPER National Journal, 127 (Autumn). pp. 19-21.

Abstract: In the first paper in this series we suggested that traditional school health education tended to focus on the individual as opposed to wider social/economic and political determinants of health. In addition, we put forward a model of role-play which we feel has the potential in teaching what we are calling 'critical health education'.

Consider the following list of elements when developing a team activity:

  • Does the activity consist of more than just question and answer?
  • Is it content-focused?
  • Does it require learners to respond to each other and build on each other's thoughts?
  • Does it require team members to demonstrate critical thinking?
  • Is the team required to produce a synthesised response or end product?
  • Are team members held individually accountable for their contributions to the discussion or project?

Source: Adapted from Conrad, R. M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2004). Engaging the online learner.