Training & Learning

4 Benefits Of Collaborative Learning, Backed By Science & Psychology

Online training has a lot of great benefits and one major disadvantage: It can be very isolating.

Imagine a room full of employees, each watching the same training video alone at their desks. Then they take a quiz to measure retention, move on with their day, and never engage with the material again. Is it cost-effective? Sure. Is it convenient? Definitely. But is it conducive to productive learning? Not really.

Compare that bleak scene to a traditional in-person learning environment where people engage in group work, discuss ideas with their peers, and teach one another skills they’ve mastered.

It’s not enough to upload training videos to the cloud and let employees watch them on their own time. The isolation of learning in a vacuum isn’t just psychologically difficult—it’s also ineffective for deep learning. Now, when employees are feeling more isolated than ever, these tedious, top-down e-learning programs are doing little to help the situation.

There is a solution. We need to bring collaboration and human interaction back to the online learning environment. We need to give employees a chance to learn with—and from—one another. Science has shown that there are many benefits of collaborative learning for both employees and the organization as a whole.

Need more evidence that collaboration is superior to traditional e-learning? Read on.

1. Increased knowledge retention

Let’s start with the most prominent benefit of collaborative learning: It’s more effective than traditional e-learning at helping people understand complex subjects.

Most organizations take a top-down approach to learning and development (L&D). Instructors directly impart knowledge to employees via video lectures, and employees passively absorb that information.

Collaborative learning redefines the student-teacher relationship by putting learners in direct contact with one another. In this bottom-up approach, team members capitalize on the knowledge-base and skills of others to build shared learning experiences.

Collaborative learning example from masterclass
An example of collaborative learning from Masterclass.com

This shift leads to more effective learning because of something called Cognitive Load Theory. The cognitive load is your central processor. It’s your working memory, the information that’s at the forefront of your thoughts (as opposed to the information you’re not currently using, which is stored in your long-term memory). Your cognitive load is limited, and it’s not hard to max out your capacity while trying to learn something particularly complex. When information overload occurs, your brain freezes up like a computer that’s running too many programs, and it’s extremely difficult to learn or retain anything.

But collaborative learning redistributes some of that load across the entire group. The theory, put forth by Kirschner (2018), is that collaborative learning helps teams form a collective working memory. This collective memory is much more efficient than each member holding all the information in their own head. As a result, each individual has more capacity to process and retain new information.

Collaborative learning also lessens the cognitive load of the instructor, as the pressure to share knowledge is distributed throughout the group and not solely on one person.

You can harness the benefits of collective memory by creating online learning exercises that require teams to problem-solve together. Discussion groups, peer review, and group tutorials are all examples of collaborative learning methods that can help free up the cognitive load and aid deeper learning.

2. Higher accountability leads to higher engagement

When employees passively take online courses at their desks, they have to rely on self-motivation to get through the content. While that is enough for some highly motivated employees, many others will slack off or lag behind.

But nobody wants to let their team down. Making learning communal motivates learners to work harder and to help their teammates succeed. This is called Social Interdependence Theory. Social interdependence happens when no one individual can achieve their goals without the success of everyone else in the group. Basically, the group sinks or swims together.

In a learning situation, social interdependence leads to increased accountability as each team member pushes others—and themselves—to engage with the course material. Nobody wants to be the one who drops the ball. And if someone does fall behind, their team members can encourage them to pick up the pace or help fill in knowledge gaps.

A good way to harness the power of social interdependence? Create incentives for groups that reach their goals. The incentives could be as simple as social recognition, or something more elaborate, like a competition. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that a sense of achievement was a more powerful self-regulatory motivator than any grading scale.

Creating positive social interdependence across the entire company is the responsibility of course creators, not just participants. A culture of coaching employs learning coaches who help team members to create individualized learning paths and make sure employees’ learning goals align with their roles and the overall goals of the organization.

Here’s how we incentivize quality course creation and interaction with a leaderboard of learning Champions. Team members earn achievements to rank higher through publishing courses, encouraging learners to complete courses, and getting positive reactions on their activities. An email is sent out periodically recognizing the month’s Champions.

A monthly notification email sent from the 360Learning platform
A monthly notification email sent from the 360Learning platform

3. Company-wide knowledge diversification

Across your organization, you have people who are experts in a wide variety of subjects. You undoubtedly have other people who are completely clueless about those same topics. Systematic collaborative learning can help you consolidate employees’ experiences and unique knowledge bases to make the entire company stronger.

Collaborative learning helps employees step beyond their Zone of Proximal Development. In a learning context, this is the distance between what someone can learn on their own, and what they can learn with help from someone else.

In other words: There’s a limit to what you can teach yourself, but there is no limit to what other people can teach you. It might be very difficult for someone in the marketing department to teach themselves SQL using just a passive online resource. But what if one of the company’s programmers put together a quick course to help them with the basics?

The best way to facilitate this diversification is by decentralizing content creation. Instead of the L&D department pumping out courses based on what they think employees want to learn, let the employees dictate supply and demand. With 360Learning, anyone can request a course on any topic, and anyone else in the company can apply to be the “course champion” who creates the course.

Example of answering to learning needs requested by our team on the 360Learning platform

A study by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences takes this a step further by asserting that the benefits of knowledge diversification extend beyond the material learned in the course itself. As people get to know one another and understand their coworkers’ unique strengths, you begin to see the development of learning communities that build on team members’ base knowledge—and amplify it.

4. Enhanced workplace communication and collaboration

A 2018 LinkedIn Study found that communication and collaboration are two of the most important soft skills employees can learn from L&D programs. In fact, 92% of executives said soft skills are either equal to, or more valuable than, technical skills for employees company-wide.

With a good collaborative learning program, you can help employees learn both occupational skills and social skills at the same time.

Researchers M. Laal and S. Ghodsi did a meta-analysis of hundreds of collaborative learning studies. They found that learning together not only led to students developing better problem-solving skills, but it also built social skills like empathy and social understanding.

You can encourage these benefits by giving team members the opportunity to teach and learn from one another by creating their own online courses. Not only does handing the responsibility for course creation over to team members increase the company’s knowledge base, but it also encourages employees to stretch their empathy and communication skills.

Creating and continuing to iterate on their own courses forces instructors to look at the material from a learner’s perspective. Feedback loops help instructors to better understand their coworkers’ learning needs so they can continue to iterate stronger learning materials. The result is not just better courses, but team members who are better at conveying ideas and complex concepts.

Take advantage of the benefits of collaborative learning with 360 Learning

To build a culture of collaborative learning within your organization, you’ll need the right tools. 360Learning is the first collaborative learning platform in the industry. Anyone can easily create an interactive course that encourages employee engagement and interaction.

Even more important than the right tools is the right mindset. As we go up against an uncertain future, employees are grappling with a lot of unknowns that can lead to stress and lack of focus. Building community, and fighting the feeling of isolation, is more important now than ever. We’ll help you create a learning culture that strengthens not only individual learners but the entire team.