Should College Teachers Use Collaborative Techniques?

Do college students deserve refunds for working with each other?

Posted Feb 21, 2020

A while back, I wrote that college students should learn skills in addition to knowledge, and that instructors should be clear about teaching skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and professionalism. Lots of authors call these soft skills.

A reader of my blog, Craig Zach, responded to my post and suggested that “these skills,” specifically collaboration, not be taught. He makes several interesting and important arguments—with which I disagree, or at least have questions. Let’s take a closer look Mr. Zach’s entire comment, sentence by sentence:

“The problem with teaching these [collaborative] skills is that the students who already possess them don't understand why they are paying someone to ‘teach’ it to them.”

Actually, I agree that many students might not understand the rationales behind their group projects and other collaborative learning techniques. However, lack of understanding rationales is not an argument against teaching the skills—it’s an argument for instructors to be more clear about their rationales.

Let’s not fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking:  It’s not the case that people (students included) either have or don’t have skills. Students obviously come in with a range of skills. College can help all students develop and improve their level of skill.

Another response:  Students who already know the information instructors convey have the same problem!  Once again, that’s not an argument not to teach that information. Students who already know some information might feel fortunate to (a) have a refresher, and (b) continue on their path to even greater learning.

“Plus, they end up doing most of the work in the collaborative groups, which makes them justifiably angry and incentives them to leave.”

Here, Mr. Zach makes three assertions about collaborative techniques. If we look at these critically, we find three empirical questions:

(a) Do students who already possess collaborative skills end up doing most of the work in classroom groups? (My own experience is that I had good collaborative skills but didn’t do most of the work in that groups I was in. But one person’s experience is not the best evidence!)

(b) Do students who do most of the work in collaborative groups end up angry? Or, more precisely, what percentage of students who do what percentage of work wind up angrier than other students—or angrier than they would have been otherwise?

(c) Do students who leave (College? The course?) do so because they are angry at having done most of the work in collaborative groups? Among the many reasons college students leave, what role do collaborative techniques, anger, and anger about collaborative techniques, play in those decisions? And, by the way, what percentage of students who stay, and become alumni contributors, give what percentage of their giving to their schools because of the collaborative skills they learned or enhanced while in college? 

One values question underlying these empirical questions:  Does the learning and enhancing of collaborative skills by some percentage of students justify the negative effects of such techniques on another percentage of students?  We can ask similar questions about lecturing, multiple-choice tests, tiered classrooms, yellow walls, office hours, dorm food, and many other aspects of college.

“Colleges should stick to teaching information and individual critical thinking skills and let the collaborative aspect come about later as students naturally develop relationships with employers and co-workers.”

This is a clear and eloquent statement of Mr. Zach’s value. I disagree with this value on two levels:

First, there are data to suggest that collaboration is one of the skills that employers, graduate schools, and professional programs desire in the college graduates they hire or accept. I think it’s worth teaching those skills if we can (which leads to the empirical question of the effectiveness of how we currently teach teamwork). Teaching such skills might help a wide range of students (including some for whom collaborative skills don’t come naturally) compete for, and maintain, jobs, spots in training programs, and other opportunities.

Second, collaboration is not only an end in itself, but a means to an end. There is evidence that collaborative techniques help students learn content and “individual thinking skills” (see Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).

“Academic institutions are unable to sufficiently replicate a work/life environment such that the observations made by faculty about soft skills they are ‘teaching’ is not meaningful.”

This statement leads to some wonderful and more general questions. For example, what can (do) students learn in college that generalizes to their future places of study, employment, etc.?  Are colleges obligated to teach soft skills (no need for quotation marks) just because employers have found them desirable in the people they hire? And, to what extent are faculty observations meaningful?  If you believe that faculty observations have at least some meaning, read on….

“Or perhaps students who do more work should have a percentage of their tuition refunded since they are effectively doing the job of instructors.”

I believe that students who engage in collaborative learning are not doing the job of instructors. Rather, they are doing the job of students!  The job of instructors is to facilitate the learning of their students, which is often accomplished by having students be active—writing, collaborating, discussing, thinking—and some more writing.

I hear a related argument from students in my courses when I have them collaborate on jigsaw exercises, in which they take turns teaching each other parts of a reading they’ve all done. They say things like, “When others students teach me, I’m not getting information from a professor, so I should get a refund of my tuition.”  My response goes something like this:  “You are still doing all the reading, so you are getting information from professionals. On top of that, the data suggest that you are learning the information you are teaching a lot more effectively than you would via other means. Thus, because your learning is more effective, you owe us extra tuition!” Upon reflection, students see that reading while preparing to teach it is a different (more effective) experience than reading while thinking about how many pages are left.

Thank you, Mr. Zach, for being so articulate and for inspiring us to think through some important issues. What do the rest of you think?


Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.