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Many of us know by now that didactic lecture is incongruent with student learning: receiving information passively tends to disengage students, which is likely to result in undesirable learning outcomes. Even though lecture remains the predominant form of teaching, collaborative learning has been a popular educational approach representing a significant shift away from the traditional lecture-centered setting in college classrooms. In collaborative learning, students work in groups, focus on exploring the course materials, and search for understandings and solutions, all of which are effective ways to motivate and help students engage in effortful thinking and active learning (Laal & Ghodsi, 2012). But it is also common that students in collaborative learning may have off-topic discussions, frustrate themselves, and even feel like they’re wasting their time. To overcome such drawbacks, the instructor can step away from the lectern and move around the classroom during collaborative learning.

  1. The instructor listens for trends emerging from the group discussions, responding to any questions or concerns students raise. This provides the opportunity for an open exchange of ideas between students and the instructor. Students will receive timely and supportive feedback, which promotes their personal connectedness and competency in learning materials, thus resulting in increased conceptional gains.
  2. The instructor will also be able to determine what students are struggled with and what their misconceptions might be. It provides valuable feedback about students’ understanding and helps the instructor decide when to move forward. The instructor can then address these misconceptions directly when the class reconvenes as a full unit.
  3. When high-quality interactions occur between students and the instructor during collaborative learning, the instructor increasingly supports students’ autonomy for learning and engagement in a coordinated effort to solve the problem collectively. This improves student-student and student-instructor connections and establishes a positive learning atmosphere. In addition, the instructor can bring disengaged students back into the discussion by encouraging and talking with them, which increases their self-esteem and helps them develop positive attitudes toward the class. 

While many faculty may already do this and might see it as their responsibility to circulate among groups, some might still stand back and leave groups alone, afraid of interfering group functioning. If you prefer a more hands-off approach, you can devote some time for students to work on their own before getting involved, giving them some instructions or hints as needed to accomplish the task, without providing answers right away.

Involvement in learning, involvement with other students, and involvement with the instructor are key factors that make an overwhelming difference in student retention and success in college.  By circulating through the classroom during collaborative learning, instructors involve students more actively in the learning process, which also invites students to build closer connections to their peers and the instructor. The classroom becomes more of an interdependent community for students in which everyone is welcome to join, participate and grow, and this can boost students’ participation, engagement, and achievement.


Laal, M., & Ghodsi, S. M. (2012). Benefits of collaborative learning. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 31, 486–90.

Yunteng He, PhD, is a chemistry instructor at Central Community College in Kearney, Nebraska.