Corporate training has changed a lot over the last several years. But perhaps the most significant change is a move away from the traditional employee-trainer model. Instead of a single trainer in front of a room, lecturing employees and passing along a steady stream of facts and figures, most training programs have adapted to take advantage of something known as collaborative learning.
While the employee-trainer dynamic can still be helpful in some situations, collaborative learning strategies offer advantages that other learning models can’t match. But what exactly is collaborative learning, and how can you incorporate it into your professional development programs
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into collaborative learning, giving you the information you need to understand and implement these learning strategies. We’ll start by defining collaborative learning, including the factors that make it an effective training method. We’ll also identify some specific strategies you can use to implement collaborative learning effectively.
Finally, we’ll cover some of the tremendous benefits you’ll experience through collaborative learning, both on an organizational and an individual level.
By the end of this guide, you should feel comfortable starting the process of building collaborative learning in your workplace. You might even discover that you’re already using some of these strategies!
What is Collaborative Learning?
To put it simply, collaborative learning happens when two or more people work together as a group to learn something. Of course, this definition is pretty broad, so let’s take a few moments and unpack exactly what that means.
Collaborative learning can take many forms, including large groups, one-on-one peer learning experiences, and models that involve varying levels of trainer engagement.
On one side of the scale, you may have a large group that has been given a task with minimal guidelines, while on the other, you may have teams working in pairs, looking to accomplish a specific goal with self-explanatory parameters.
No matter which direction you go, the focus should be less on transmitting information and more on how you can practically use that information.
Trainers in collaborative learning are not so much sharing knowledge as they are acting as guides for learning, using their knowledge and expertise to help shepherd employees through the process of absorbing and using new skills.
Goals and Evaluation
In traditional training methodologies, trainers would, for the most part, feed their trainees various quantities of information, usually in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
Employees would take notes and ask questions to clarify specific concepts or discover how to deploy the information in particular situations.
At the end of each training session, the employees would then test to verify that they retained the information—at least for that short period of time.
Collaborative learning strategies are still focused on transmitting information, but instead of treating knowledge as an end in itself, the goal is to learn how to use this training in a practical context.
While trainees will still likely take notes, the primary goal of collaborative learning is to work together to complete specific tasks, solve complex problems, or gain a practical grasp of an underlying concept.
While many collaborative learning sessions will still involve some form of testing, this evaluation is not the focal point of the training. Instead, the primary learning tool is communication within each group, resulting in more “active” learning than the “passive” learning associated with lectures.
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
While several theories have led to the development of collaborative learning, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is probably the most important—and certainly the most applicable to corporate training.
According to Vygotsky’s theory, each person exists in two different zones, defined by what they can do and can’t. So, for instance, playing the piano might lie in something you can do, but winning a chess game against a grandmaster is something that you probably are not capable of.
The critical part of Vygotsky’s theory is a third zone, which exists in between the two other zones. This third zone, known as the zone of proximal development, contains skills that you may be able to learn but that you can’t master on your own.
To learn these skills, you need guidance and encouragement from someone more knowledgeable, who can give the learner the help they need to master a skill.
While the “More Knowledgeable Other,” as this helping hand has been called, was traditionally a mentor, collaborative learning suggests instead that peers can train each other these skills.
Bringing peers together to learn from each other can often be a much more effective way to train employees — especially when it comes to retention.
Every person on a team brings a unique, diverse set of skills, knowledge, and experiences, including skills and knowledge gaps that need to be filled.
By bringing learners together, peers can learn from each other, sharing their knowledge and perspectives through open, respectful communication.
The role of the trainer in these situations is to be a facilitator. While they are available to provide their insights into a topic, their main goal is to help employees discover answers for themselves, usually in the context of an applied situation or problem.
This allows trainees to build their knowledge organically, making them more likely to retain information long after the training program.
Collaborative Learning Strategies You Need
There are several ways to incorporate collaborative learning strategies into your workplace, from structured professional development to everyday experiences.
There’s a good chance that you’re currently using some of these strategies already—but viewing them through the lens of collaborative learning can help you make these practices even more effective.
The Buddy System
One of the easiest ways to build collaborative learning into your workplace is to pair up new employees with workers who have been with the company for a longer time. Often referred to as mentoring, this buddy system should be seen as more than a one-way street.
While much of the value of pairing off employees flows from the more experienced partner, there’s a lot of value to be had from the other direction, as well.
By mentoring a new employee, an established worker reinforces their knowledge in a given process. Even more valuable, when the trainee asks questions, it can lead to improvements in how work gets done, potentially identifying inefficiencies and redundancies in existing systems.
Mix and Match Your Teams
When it comes to training your employees, it’s easy for companies to keep the same teams together throughout the entire training process. While these teams may work well together, you will lose some of the benefits of collaborative learning if you don’t mix your teams up from time to time.
You can create specific training modules that are intended to bring groups from different teams and departments together, especially when those groups typically don’t work together.
These exercises work best when you give the team a specific goal or objective, like creating a new product or designing a strategy to reach a new market. Then, establish a plan, set clear parameters like a time limit, and let the team work together to find a solution.
After the teams have finished, each team presents its work, including an overview of the process they used to arrive at their final product.
Evaluating these results should include discussions about the end result and the process of working together, what they discovered, and how they might approach a similar problem in the future.
Any time you come across a specific need, whether it’s bringing a new product to consumers, entering a new market, or devising a more affordable mode of production, you can leverage collaborative learning to make the process more effective.
By creating a group that is focused on achieving a single objective, you can encourage team members to work collaboratively to solve the problem laid before them. In addition, these teams can marshal their relevant skills, using each contributor’s strengths, skills, and knowledge to ideally come to a solution that reflects the entire team’s best work.
You can then have the team present its results, allowing members to explain their product or process. Again, this is a great chance to offer constructive feedback that they can use to refine their ideas further.
This process can continue as long as you feel it is necessary. The results you’re likely to see from this process are typically much stronger than those produced in isolation.
Teams Training Teams
Bringing collaborative learning strategies into your workplace practices can make ongoing learning a major focus of your organization.
One simple yet effective way to help this process is to have different teams or departments within your company train other groups what they do.
These sessions — which can range from formal presentations to brown bag lunches — allow teams to share their roles with the rest of the company.
For many employees, their range of knowledge is focused on their own functions and responsibilities. By sharing their experience with other departments, each employee can help to present a deeper understanding of the way that all team members contribute to the company’s success.
These sessions should include a question-and-answer component, as well. This gives other departments the chance to gain clarity on each person’s role and allows the speakers to provide insight on ways to solve issues that may involve their area of expertise.
Collaborative Learning Communities
While mixing teams up from time to time is always a good idea, it can also be useful to establish learning communities within your company.
It’s best to think of these communities as groups of employees that are all around the same level of experience. They should usually be comprised of around three to five people that will work together throughout their time at the company, training together and building bonds that will help to facilitate future communication and collaboration.
These collaborative learning communities may take many forms. Some groups may hit it off, carrying their relationships beyond the training room and into the social arena.
Working together, these groups can develop a kind of shorthand, which can lead to especially effective peer training relationships, with each member actively contributing to the group.
Of course, you can also adjust groups as needed, based on what you’re observing over time. For example, some groups don’t click, while others may need extra members when employees leave for other opportunities.
The goal for these groups is to enhance collaborative learning, so know that you can make whatever adjustments you need to in order to achieve that objective.