What’s the secret weapon the best students use to learn?

At some point, everyone has to revise something. Whether that’s for a school test, university exam or a professional qualification, revision is at the heart of a lot of what we do. And while the methods of teaching in class and even of examining have changed over time, revision appears to be exactly the same today as it was for scholars in the Middle Ages.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, by taking some lessons from the teaching method known as collaborative learning, you can turn revision into something that’s both more interesting and more rewarding.

What is collaborative learning?

As the name suggests, collaborative learning is any occasion when two or more people attempt to learn something together. However, it’s also a lot more than this, and has an entire body of academic work behind it, beginning with the theories of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the early 20th century.

Vygotsky theorised that learning is fundamentally social, something that people do best together, rather than as isolated individuals. What’s more, Vygotsky put a lot of emphasis on practical activities helping people to learn – in other words, learning collaboratively involves people working actively together towards a goal.

However, collaborative learning isn’t the same thing as cooperative learning. In cooperative learning, different people work on different parts of a problem at the same time, whereas with collaborative learning the collective simultaneously works on the same issues. The point of collaborative learning is that the process of working together helps you to learn more effectively, not just efficiently.

Typically, collaborative learning in the classroom involves splitting a class into groups who work together on a problem or problems, with continual mutual engagement from all participants. This means that teachers have to work to ensure that groups don’t become dominated by one or two individuals, and that everyone participates – making the teacher a kind of moderator, rather than simply someone who doles out knowledge.

Does collaborative learning work? Studies suggest that it does. A 2004 study by Michael Prince of Bucknell University found that collaborative learning delivered significantly higher levels of student engagement and retention of information than conventional learning methods. Other studies have found much better comprehension of texts and critical thinking skills from groups that used collaborative learning in school.

Collaborative learning and revision

Of course, students revising together is as old as the hills, but most of the time it’s also not particularly effective. Either you spend your time sitting in silence, punctuated only by occasional questions about notes, or you spend your time talking about anything other than what you’re supposed to be revising.

If collaborative learning is mostly about the classroom, how does it relate to revision? In fact, many of the techniques that teachers use to run collaborative learning sessions in class can be extended to revision – as long as you do things in a disciplined way. So what should you do if you want to revise using collaborative learning techniques?

1. First, find your group

It sounds obvious, but it’s also important: to collaborate, you need a group. This group can be as small as just two people, or larger, but you probably don’t want to make the group so large that it becomes unmanageable. A group of three to five people is probably optimal.

2. Agree your goals

One of the most important principles for any kind of collaboration is to understand what your goals are from the start – and this is doubly important for collaborative learning and revision. Know what you’re going to revise, and make sure you don’t stray too far from this aim.

3. Give yourself time and tools

Collaborative sessions work best when they’re not open-ended. Don’t get into the mode of thinking “we’re going to stay here until we’ve done everything” – block off sessions of an hour or two at a time, break and regroup. Importantly, make sure that you have the tools you need at your disposal, whether those are low-tech tools such as a flipchart or advanced tools such as a digital whiteboard. Technology, in particular, can often really help with collaboration.

4. Use a pre-test and a post-test

One classic collaborative learning technique is to use a short test prior to the start of the session and repeat this test after the session has finished. This can be as simple as “Write down the five key points about X” – don’t make it long and involved. The aim is to understand the things you don’t know and to work on them.

5. Structure your interactions and session

Think about ways you can apply structure to your revision. In particular, consider the following:

     Who initiates discussions?

     Clarify points as you go along

     Summarise what you’re learning regularly

     Challenge assumptions at regular intervals

     Research as you go

6. Always reach a consensus

The end of the session should involve a big summary where each individual contributes and the group reaches a consensus about the most important points of the topic. Ideally, everyone in the group should be certain about all of these points, and have them committed to memory.

7. Start with a summary of the consensus

Finally, if your revision is spread out over multiple sessions, start with a summary of the consensus you reached in the previous session. Not only does this help to fix things in your minds, it also helps stop you from going over the same ground again and again, and ensures your revision moves on.

“This is an independent guide from the Alphr editorial team. This content was produced to the same impartial standards as the main content on our site but paid for by SMART kapp because they like people who like this topic. Thank you, SMART kapp!”

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