Collaborative learning—when people work together in small groups to help each other learn—is considered an effective instructional approach. But research shows that the benefits of collaborative learning, both in-person and in the virtual classroom, are mixed (Kirschner et. al., 2011).
In an effort to discover the cause of these inconsistent results, researchers have been studying the effects of collaborative learning on working memory. Specifically, they examined how cognitive load might contribute to the difficulty or ease of collaborative learning tasks.
A Little Background
It is well accepted that our working memory resources are limited. The term cognitive load refers to the total working memory resources that are required to carry out a learning task (Sweller, 1998). (See What is Cognitive Load for more on this.)
Instructional designers can apply strategies to reduce extraneous cognitive load—the way that information or tasks are presented to the learner. Reducing extraneous load increases the mental resources available for actual learning tasks. Cognitive load theory typically focuses on individual rather than group learning, which is why I found the research discussed here to be of special interest.
What types of tasks cause high cognitive load?
A key to understanding cognitive load is to think in terms of the complexity of a learning task. Cognitive load is higher when there is greater element interactivity in the information to be processed. Conversely, when the information to be processed consists of independent elements, the cognitive load is lower.
For example, memorizing the definitions of 20 parts of the human body is not a complex task because each definition can be learned independently. On the other hand, learning how the components of human anatomy work together is a complex task, because the components interact. Note: the expertise of the learner also affects task complexity.
How might collaborative learning reduce cognitive load?
Collective Working Space. There is a theory that collaborative learning can create a collective working memory, which potentially gives learners an expanded capacity to process information (Kirschner et al., 2011). Theoretically, this occurs because the cognitive load of the learning task can be subdivided across members of the group who share relevant knowledge. Studies found that sharing the load of complex tasks provides an advantage over individualized work.
One way this might occur is in distributed problem solving or learning tasks. The element interactivity for each individual in a group is less than the element interactivity the person might need to manage during individual learning.
A Timing Effect. Related to the collective work space, the timing of information contribution may also be of benefit to collaborative learning. When different group members contribute relevant content, the information is likely to be introduced at the time that it is is needed, which can reduce cognitive load (Kirschner et al., 2018). This means there is no need for each individual to try and hold an excessive amount of information in working memory.
How might collaborative learning increase cognitive load?
Perhaps you’ve felt that group learning was a waste of time and effort when communicating with team members or when organizing team tasks. These activities are considered transaction costs, which require the resources of working memory to pursue (Kirschner et al., 2009). When transaction costs are high, they increase cognitive load. Therefore, the advantages of collaborative learning must be greater than the costs of interacting, organizing and planning with team members.
How to Improve the Effectiveness of Collaborative Learning
Seen through the lens of cognitive load, there are three aspects of collaborative learning to consider during design: the learning task, the individual learners and the group (Kirschner et. al., 2018). By keeping the following principles in mind during design and implementation, you should be able to improve the benefits of collaborative learning and reduce the transactive costs. These principles were gleaned from the article, Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory.
- Collaborative learning is most effective for complex learning tasks and solving problems that are likely to exceed the working memory resources of the individuals. The tasks should be complex enough to justify the additional effort required to organize and coordinate with others.
- It is important to provide sufficient guidance and support for completing the learning tasks so that collaborative learning is effective.
- Novices with a low level of domain-specific knowledge have a greater potential to benefit from the collective working memory than those with high levels of domain-specific knowledge.
- When team members have expertise in domain-specific knowledge, it lowers the cognitive load caused by transactive activities.
- Cognitive load is reduced when group members are experienced in collaborative learning. It allows them to focus their cognitive resources on the learning task rather than the coordinating tasks.
- Team members who do not yet have the skills for dealing with group learning may incur a high cognitive load that could hinder learning. Providing instructions on how to effectively collaborate may help those who are inexperienced with group work.
- Groups of people who have previously worked together will have reduced transactive costs because they have already figured out how to communicate, share knowledge and distribute tasks.
- Team roles may reduce the cognitive load incurred from coordination activities necessary for working in a group. Consider assigning team roles or asking learners to self-assign them.
According to the research, there are advantages to collaborative learning when groups are working on complex tasks. Sharing the work allows individuals to off-load some of the interactive elements to other members of a group. In these cases, collaborative learning is superior to individualized learning (Sweller, 2011).
However, if the coordination and sharing of knowledge exceeds a person’s working memory resources to complete a learning task, then group learning is not as efficient or effective as individualized learning. In other words, if collaboration comes at too high a cost, it’s not worth it.
- Kirschner, F., Paas, F., & Kirschner, P. A. Individual and group-based learning from complex cognitive tasks: Effects on retention and transfer efficiency. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 306–314 (2009).
- Kirschner, F., Pass, F., & Kirschner, P. Task Complexity as a Driver for Collaborative Learning Efficiency: The Collective Working-Memory Effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25: 615–624 (2011).
- Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, R. From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory. International. Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13:213–233 (2018).
- Slavin, R. E. Cooperative learning and academic achievement: Why does groupwork work? Annals of Psychology, 30, 785–791 (2014).
- Sweller, J. Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257–285 (1988).
- Sweller, J., Ayers, P. & Kalyuga, S. Cognitive Load Theory, New York: Springer-Verlag New York (2011).
Connie Malamed says
Well, this article was actually about collaborating in order to learn. I think you need to determine if that is really the best work flow strategy and then present it the group to see if they like the idea. You’d need to have some good advantages and an honest discussion. It won’t work if they don’t see the benefits and agree to the strategy.
Connie Malamed says
Thanks for sharing your insights one the differences in collaborative learning between physical and virtual groups. Although I have less experience facilitating virtual collaborations, I agree that as a general rule, the facilitator may need to spend more time preparing people for virtual collaborations if the group members do not know each other. Of course, it will depend on the individuals and there will always be outliers.
How do we get a group of individuals to collaborate on a task rather than simply break it into smaller tasks for division of labour?
Kristen M says
I really enjoyed this article. I think collaborative learning is a great way for individuals to help each other fill in the blanks when it comes to background knowledge and experience. You did mention that there needs to be thoughtfulness when selecting groups and certainly there is a good amount of facilitation by instructors to make sure this method if effective. There is a potentially greater challenge when the form of instruction is virtual. When small groups are together physically it is easier to manage and it is certainly easier for communication between peers. When the learning is virtual and you as a facilitator are having to connect people across all different places and that can make it hard when determining groups. As facilitators we really have to be more hands on to make sure the discussions are meaningful and that everyone is actively contributing. However the positives are that it allows for those who would never be able to connect in a physical setting to work together. I would also argue it may be a better environment to help those mentioned in Sherri’s comment, those who struggle with physical interactions. The effectiveness of virtual collaborative learning really does fall on the instructor. I would argue more so than in a physical classroom.
Connie Malamed says
Thanks for your important point. When I read the research, I wondered that same thing for people who just don’t like interacting much, due to introversion or simply their disposition. This would be a great research topic for a someone working on their doctorate!
Connie Malamed says
I had the same experience as you when I started going through the research! It gave me a new perspective on facilitation.
Connie Malamed says
Thanks so much for sharing your insights and experiences. That was helpful.
Chris Fosdick says
Excellent article! This made me reflect on the last few trainings I facilitated. Principle #5 and #8 bring to mind the need for trainers and facilitators be strategic in selecting specific class members to participate in meaningful ways to help them or their colleagues during the training. This might involve having peers who are experts on certain subjects share relevant examples during the training. Or, it may involve having class participants who are more beginners in the topic share some of their biggest challenges or anxieties with their work or topics. Having a balance can help even out and, overall, lower the cognitive load on the class. Reaching out to class participants before the training to ask for them to contribute information or to ask them to fulfill a role would further reduce cognitive load. Thank you for your post!
Dave U. says
A fascinating article thanks Connie. It allowed me to reflect on some recent workshop facilitation experiences through a new lens. I was able to pinpoint stages in the sessions when the cognitive load was either increased or decreased due to the way that I guided the workgroup. I will be modifying my facilitation approach for future similar workshops based on what I have gained from this reflection.
Sherri Sagers says
Based on what you’ve outlined here, I would also think that learners with lower-level social skills (like those on the autism spectrum, for example) would have a much higher cognitive load when asked to participate in collaborative work. This would explain a lot of what I’ve seen with both adults and children who get completely (or even partially) overwhelmed when asked to participate with a group on a learning activity. The cognitive load of having to figure out how to interact with multiple people must throw them over the edge when the actual learning material wouldn’t otherwise be difficult for them.
This gave me a lot to think about. Thanks!