Designing for Collaborative Learning

Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2015) Prof. Fauzia Farooqui teaches Hindi-Urdu 101 in the PIIRS program

Peer-to-peer learning can occur formally or informally among students when they work in teams or are asked to collaborate on group projects or to review and offer feedback on each others’ work. Such approaches are active learning strategies that help students learn from and with each other.

In what follows, we introduce different approaches to peer review and group work, some considerations to help with planning for each activity, and some different approaches to grading peer review and group collaborations.


Peer Review

Peer Review

Peer assessment, also known as peer review, refers specifically to when students give each other feedback on the quality of their work. Peer assessment can be used to help other students improve on their work, but research also suggests that learning how to give high-quality feedback helps students improve their own work. 

A perennial concern among students is receiving meaningful and timely feedback. By offering students the structured opportunity to provide and receive feedback, students learn how to differentiate between levels of quality of work, how to communicate feedback, and how to evaluate the significance of feedback they have received. In larger classes, peer assessment offers a practical benefit: students can get more detailed or frequent feedback from one another than they would be able to from the instructors alone. 

Examples of peer assessment include students reading and commenting on each others’ essays, blog posts, lab reports, problem sets, or presentations. In the context of group work, students may evaluate their peers’ contributions as well as their own to the assignment. 

Developing Peer Assessment Practices and Guidelines

Instructing students in how to review effectively and constructively is as important as enumerating the criteria students should be assessing. Be clear with students about the feedback process and how it relates to the assignment. Will peer assessment take place in the classroom or on their own time? Should the feedback be written or face-to-face (or both)? If written, will you make use of Canvas to facilitate this process (see our Best Practices Guide to Peer Review with Canvas, if so). How will students use the feedback? Will the peer feedback be evaluative or informational? Is it part of a review or revision process? Consider whether the feedback partners work together once or multiple times across an entire assignment or period of time. 

For some projects, you may consider implementing an anonymous peer review process, which some studies have found to better foster student learning–but also can be perceived by students as less fair than identified feedback. For group work, or assignments that require more sustained peer feedback, creating longer-lasting classroom partnerships might make sense. 

Providing students with models of exemplary work often helps demystify the process and can establish a standard as students review their peers’ work. You can discuss this example in class to provide further clarity and direction as they begin to provide feedback to their peers. Similarly, modeling the review procedure can minimize the potential qualitative variance between student reviews. For instance, you may want to hold a draft workshop in class about how to give constructive feedback. 

Sharing a rubric with evaluation criteria and standards of performance clearly listed may be an effective means to focus student attention on the most essential components of the project. For an example of a rubric, see the document, Collaborative Work Assessment Rubrics.

Group Work

Planning for Group Work

As many of us discovered with Zoom breakout rooms during the pandemic, group work is a wonderful way for students to engage our course content, learn from each other, and break up our longer class sessions into more engaging segments. 

Group work is most effective when guided by a specific prompt with a clear goal, detailed instructions, and a list of tasks. In the physical classroom, you can create handouts with all of the information and prompts for the group activity (much as we did using Google documents on Zoom). Alternatively, you can project the prompt and instructions if you are using slides, or write them out on a blackboard or whiteboard. Students can work on their own documents, or you can let them use the blackboard or whiteboard as collaborative spaces.

Models of Group Work

  • Think-pair-share or think-group-share introduces a prompt and then allots time for students to think or write on their own to develop a response. They then pair with another student or join a small group to share and further refine their response. The activity ends with a full-group discussion during which students share their more complete responses. This approach can help allay anxiety about generating a response immediately.
  • Different tasks can be assigned to individual groups that relate to a larger question. After a designated amount of time, the groups rearrange to include one member of each group. These group “experts” then present their work; all the responses together then respond to the larger question at hand. This is usually referred to as the Jigsaw model.
  • A real-world scenario or problem can be the main prompt with which students engage. Each group can share their solution to the class. This is usually called problem-based learning or scenario-based learning.
  • Splitting the class into two groups can be an effective way to stage a debate about concepts or questions that arise in your course. It is important to review and model respectful modes of debate for students to follow.
  • A group of students can act as a cadre of experts on individual topics within your course. The position can rotate allowing all of your students to fill this role at least once. These students can receive guidance and leading questions in advance of class to help them lead smaller group discussions.

Approaches to Self-Assessment

You also may want students to reflect on their own contributions to the group product. You may have students rate themselves on relevant team-work skills such as listening to others, collaborative problem solving, and finishing individual tasks by the agreed-upon time. You could have them assess the percentage each member contributed to the finished product. These ratings could contribute directly to individuals’ grades or could be used as a way to differentiate the grades for individual students, especially if there is a conflict in reporting of contribution. For instance, Student A in a five-person group may rate themselves as having contributed fully to the project (20%) but the other members agree that Student A contributed far less, giving you evidence to downgrade Student A.

For an example of Grading Methods for Group Work, see Collaborative Work Assessment Rubrics.

Assessing Group Work

Developing clear criteria and a rubric can make assessing group work easier and fairer. In addition, consider how you will grade. Will the entire group get the same grade? Is there a way to differentiate between individual contributions? How will you track them? In addition, will you assess how well the group worked together? 

Including students in the grading process can make it less fraught. Creating a reporting system can keep students accountable for their contributions and allow them to credit peers for their work. These reports can be done individually or as a group before they are submitted to you.

Key Insights

Key Insights

  • Consider allocating different roles to each student in a group to ensure that everyone participates fully (e.g. “reporter, skeptic, facilitator” as Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan suggest in The Chronicle of Higher Education). If assigning groups repeatedly, ask them to shift roles each class. 
  • For group work on longer term projects, you might ask students to start by analyzing their strengths and opportunities for growth, as individuals and as a group. This helps students to think about what they individually and collectively hope to accomplish through the group’s work, which can make the assignment more meaningful. It also can help the group members to get to know each other and lay the foundation for supporting each other’s growth. 
  • It is important to establish what students are asked to do and how long they will have to do it. It is essential to determine how large the groups should be for every student to contribute. 
  • Think about the time needed for students to physically move into new configurations in your classrooms and settle into conversation. It might be helpful to think about your classroom space as you plan.
  • Because everyone is sharing ideas in the same space, group work can get loud, quickly. It might be a good idea to have a strategy to transition back to a full-class discussion or back to lecture. Each group can nominate a timekeeper, who can keep the group on task and can help with that transition or you can project a countdown timer on your classroom’s screen.
  • Consider when it might be opportune to circulate, provide additional guidance to individual groups, or leave the classroom to allow students to focus on the task independently.
  • Some courses may be well-suited for students to work in the same group over multiple classes. Known as team-based learning, this can be an effective way for students to feel comfortable sharing with their group and learning from one another. If you create lasting groups, it is a good idea to create a system of reporting so you can moderate as necessary, suggest a series of positions with unique tasks that students rotate through, and have a plan in place to grade individual work. 
  • It can be a good idea to prompt students to reflect or report on their group’s work and their own contributions. These reflections can give you more insight into working dynamics within your classroom and they can help you to track participation.
  • When planning for group work in your physical classroom, make sure the activity aligns with your learning goals, that you have clear instructions, and that your students have specific tasks that are achievable in the time you have allotted for the activity.

References and Additional Resources

References and Additional Resources

“Books and Basics.” Team-Based Learning Collaborative. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.

Li, Lan, et al. “Assessor or Assessee: How Student Learning Improves by Giving and Receiving Peer Feedback.” British Journal of Education Technology, vol. 41, no. 3, Apr. 2010, pp. 343-536, E39-E65, 

Lin, Guan-Yu. “Anonymous versus identified peer assessment via a Facebook-based learning application: Effects on quality of peer feedback, perceived learning, perceived fairness, and attitude toward the system.” Computers and Education, vol. 116, Jan. 2018, pp. 81-92, 

Mulder, Raoul A. et al. “Peer review in higher education: Student perceptions before and after participation.” Active Learning in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 157-171, 

Nichol, David, et al. “Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 102-122, 

Sathy, Viji and Kelly A. Hogan. “How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: Advice Guide.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed 12 April 2023.

Topping, Keith J. and Stewart W. Ehly. “Peer-Assisted Learning: A Framework for Consultation.” Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, vol. 12, no. 2, 2001, pp. 113-132, 

Topping, Keith. et al. Effective Peer Learning: From Principles to Practical Implementation. Routledge, 2017.

Wagner, Rachel. “Peer Review Reviewed.” Inside Higher Ed, 26 Nov. 2018. Accessed 12 April 2023.