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5 Collaborative Learning Strategies from a Teamwork Researcher

To build the soft skills that businesses seek, Professor Kevin Engellant uses a series of exercises that foster communication and cooperation.


Kevin Engellant, EdD

Associate Professor of Business, The University of Montana Western in Dillon

EdD and MEd in Curriculum and Instruction; BS in Secondary Education and Teaching, Business Administration

Kevin Engellant, EdD, knows the value of teamwork. He saw it over and over when he coached the women’s basketball team to victories at the University of Montana Western. And those experiences on the court have shaped his approach in the classroom on the same campus, where he teaches business and technology.

The skills that create good teamwork can lead to success in the workplace, says the professor, who has been teaching courses on- and offline for 10 years. “Businesses want graduates who know how to collaborate well in small groups.”

Engellant’s views on the subject crystallized while he was working with a fellow researcher on a 2014 paper—A Quantitative Study with Online Collaborative Learning in a Computer Literacy Course—which compared the learning outcomes of students who studied in a collaborative manner (in groups of two or three) with those who followed a solo path.

The findings were unmistakable: Collaborative learners clearly outperformed the individual learners. Collaboration had three advantages, Engellant concluded: It increased student motivation and encouraged students to explain their understanding to peers, and, in turn, that peer explanation helped students organize, reify, and elaborate on their knowledge.

Those insights have also greatly influenced the way Engellant teaches students today in offline courses, including Introduction to Web Design. He has found that, in addition to the benefits mentioned above, adopting a more collaborative approach has sparked interest, enthusiasm, and intellectual curiosity within a traditional classroom.

Not surprisingly, Engellant extends his team spirit to include academic colleagues. To help fellow professors benefit from his research and current classroom practices, Engellant has developed five collaboration models that improve business skills, which he details below.

“As a former coach, I tend to think about teamwork a lot,” adds Engellant. “I always say: Good coaches make good teachers.”


Using collaborative learning in the brick-and-mortar classroom

In the classroom, Engellant assigns hands-on projects that build communication, along with technical and problem-solving skills. In keeping with his academic research, his classroom approach requires students to work in small teams, encourages equal participation, and prompts students to use computer technology to create group projects.


“Today’s students are very creative and visual, but it’s important for them to have written as well as oral communication skills. This doesn’t come naturally to some. We also talk about how introverts prefer not to work in a group. But they come to realize that differences of opinion help them to learn.”

— Kevin Engellant, EdD

Course: Coms 212 Introduction to Web Design

Description: This project-based course introduces students to the basic concepts related to designing websites. Students will be creating sites with website development software and HTML. They learn and follow the steps to create a website by planning, designing, and developing. Students will be evaluated by hands-on projects and examinations.

See materials shared by Kevin Engellant, EdD

See materials

Lesson: 5 activities that improve collaboration

Although earlier research had shown that team projects actually hampered individual learning, Engellant theorized that the problem was not collaboration itself—it was that educators have not been taught how to use collaborative approaches in the classroom.

To address the issue, he has devised a set of learning exercises that require his students to collaborate as they go through his courses in business and technology. They are challenged to work together and participate in ways that may come more naturally to some than others.

“Today’s students are very creative and visual, but it’s important for them to have written as well as oral communication skills. This doesn’t come naturally to some,” says Engellant. “We also talk about how introverts prefer not to work in a group. But they come to realize that differences of opinion help them learn.”

The activities he assigns can build on each other, enabling students to improve their skills with practice. These exercises also foster a supportive environment in which students can be encouraging to each other and gain confidence to take charge of their learning.

Students who develop these “soft skills,” says Engellant, will find them extremely helpful in their careers.

1. Collaborative classroom norms
  • Divide the class into teams of three or four.
  • Have each team identify three or four norms (standards or behaviors) for the class. If needed, sample norms can be suggested, such as “be on time” or “be respectful of your classmates’ beliefs.”
  • Have each team share their list.
  • Type items on a computer to display them on a smart board.
  • Put a check mark by items that were identified by more than one group.
  • Have the class vote on which norms will be the “official” class norms, and post them (Engellant typically posts in Moodle).

The takeaway: Students feel empowered by the opportunity to determine the norms for the class, which deepens their engagement in what is being taught.

Collaborative vs. Cooperative Learning: What Is the Difference?

One of the initial challenges with promoting collaboration in business curricula—or any subject—is that experts have a difficult time agreeing on what that means. Professor Engellant shares this summary explanation:

Cooperative learning is often used to describe an approach in which team members are expected to achieve certain educational goals on their own. Team members may work concurrently, often independently from the rest of the group. For example, each group member may be responsible for solving a portion of a larger problem. Students learn from each other, based on the knowledge each has gained through individual research.

Engellant describes his approach as “collaborative learning,” which differs from cooperative learning in important ways.

Collaborative learning requires students to work interactively on the same task, not independently. It can be done in the classroom or virtually, with digital tools such as Google Docs and Microsoft Word Online. Communication and cooperation among team members are vital. The objective is for students to learn together and work together in a productive, inter-reliant manner.

While cooperative and collaborative learning are different, notes Engellant, they do share some common values. Each approach recognizes the importance of inclusiveness, student participation, and respect for others as ingredients that promote learning and success.

2. The Jigsaw
  • Divide the class into teams of three or four.
  • Assign a topic to each team.
  • Teams prepare a presentation on their topic using a digital medium (Google Slides, Prezi, PowerPoint).
  • Each team gives its presentation to the class.
  • Each team that is watching the presentation must ask at least one question of the team of presenters.

The takeaway: This lesson’s name gives an idea of its point: Each group works on one topic, or “puzzle piece,” which becomes part of a whole when all the presentations are given. It also shows that changing people’s minds often begins with a small group of people who challenge each other’s ideas. Presenters learn that being prepared to answer questions clearly will help mobilize more people to adopt their ideas.

3. Think-pair-share
  • Assign students a topic or question to think about on their own. (They can take notes on a computer, if desired.)
  • Have each student pair up with another student to compare thoughts and/or notes.
  • Ask each pair to shares their ideas with the class.

The takeaway: Students learn more through active engagement with the material and with each other. Think-pair-share encourages deeper thinking and enables students to help each other identify any errors or misconceptions they may have had. It also shows students that adding more people to the thought process results in a greater number of ideas.

4. Pair and compare
  • Have students pair up.
  • Have each pair compare their notes or their answer to a question.

The takeaway: Students learn to share their answers with classmates and improve their oral communication skills. They also are able to learn from (and teach) one another if their answers differ.

5. Pair-compare-ask
  • Have students pair up.
  • Have each pair of students compare their notes or their answers to a question.
  • Ask each student to write a list of follow-up questions.
  • Instruct students to try to answer each other’s follow-up questions.
  • Invite the students to ask you (the teacher) to answer any questions that they were not able to answer together.

The takeaway: This question-and-answer exercise creates an authentic learning experience. It encourages the students to communicate with one another, share their ideas and answers with one another, and learn from one another—rather than relying solely on the instructor.

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