How to get student “buy-in” for collaboration

What can we do to integrate effective collaborative learning in our courses, over and above the use of standard discussion forums? What needs to be done to encourage student ‘buy in’ for this collaboration to be successful?

I must say that this particular topic is one that I really struggle with so I’m looking forward to reading others’ posts.

Just yesterday I pulled up a course that I developed last summer before I began this certificate program. At the time I was working on it I knew that my discussion forums could really use some work and when I looked at them yesterday I just groaned. Too many times, I posted a question that didn’t really invite discussion so much as just ask students to answer a question. In some cases, I asked them to comment on other students contributions, but again, I’m not sure in this context that I’m encouraging collaborative learning so much as creating a make work project which students will end up resenting.

In the upcoming months I need to fine tune the course I started last summer as well as develop two new courses. It is this aspect of encouraging effective collaborative learning, coming up with meaty discussion topics and developing authentic, meaningful assignments, that actually has me a bit worried. I’ve been allocated a certain amount of time for each of these courses and I know from experience that in order to create the best product I will need more time than I’m allocated. Being pressed for time has a way of dampening my creative spirit.

Because this is something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to me, I’ve been looking at what other instructors  do as well as doing some reading on the subject to get some ideas. I read a number of articles with titles that sounded excellent but failed to deliver on their promises to help me overcome challenges in promoting collaborative learning in my online courses. Luckily a couple of the articles offered several excellent suggestions that I felt were relevant in my teaching context and I thought I’d share some of them here.

Vicky Zygouris-Coe (2012) cites Paloff and Pratt’s 2005 work suggesting that community building and collaboration go hand in hand. This makes sense, because as students develop a sense of community, they are more likely to collaborate willingly and in collaborating with others they are more likely to develop a sense of community. When students collaborate to co-create knowledge a bond is formed between them. She also notes that a student who collaborates is an engaged student – bonus!

Zygouris-Coe (2012) states that she spends time at the beginning of her course establishing a sense of community through “introductions, feedback, meetings, and community building activities”. And, (I’m sure I read this somewhere but can’t find a specific source to cite at the moment), introducing students to collaboration in a low stakes, non-threatening environment where they are assured of success will promote enthusiasm for future collaboration.

Zygouris-Coe (2012) notes that in one particular group project she intentionally kept the group size small (4 students) in order to optimize student-student interaction. Clifford (2012) also agrees that groups of 4 or 5 are best, large enough to allow for diversity but not so large that some group members do not participate.  

Zygouris-Coe (2012) shares her “lessons learned”. Some of these stand out as particularly relevant for me. The first thing she suggests is examining your philosophy about how teaching and learning occur and how knowledge is constructed in the online environment. Does this sound familiar to anyone? I’m having flashbacks to 4150. But really, if you say that you relate to the constructivist philosophy, then that will give you guidance in how you design your course, what types of assignments you offer and whether or not you incorporate opportunities for student collaboration.

Once you have decided to incorporate collaborative learning opportunities, how do you go about this daunting task? The following is an excerpt from Zygouris-Coe’s article:

Value online collaborative learning and make it visible to everyone in your syllabus, course, and instruction.
Help students in an online course “see” the value of collaboration and explain why it plays a role in your course and how it will support their learning.
Identify course objectives for student learning that will be met through collaboration.
Identify collaborative activities and tasks students will be involved in at which point for the course, for how long, and desired outcomes and products.
Design collaborative learning tasks in a flexible manner and allow for modifications and revisions based on student feedback and your own personal assessment of student learning.
To me, helping students “see” the value of collaboration is how you get that buy-in. With our beginning LPN students we establish “buy-in” for the constructivist way we do things. This is particularly important for students with no experience in this style of education who are used to being lectured to and then regurgitating information at a later time. We get this “buy-in” by talking about the research that supports the constructivist style of teaching and learning. I think we need to do the same thing to get “buy-in” for collaboration. We may have to work hard at this since students often groan when they hear the words “group work”.  Maybe at the beginning of a course, we need to have a section where we share this kind of information with the students. In one of my courses, I posted a link to an article that discussed the benefits of online learning over traditional face to face learning. This worked well to get the buy in of students who were very nervous about taking their first online course.

Zygouris-Coe has one final point that resonates with me and that I tend to struggle with putting into practice. She suggests developing assignments that encourage students to discuss varying opinions. Clifford (2012) recommends using real world problems and also enhancing critical thinking skills. Miller (2012) also suggests that group work must be meaningful to the students. I need to really work on these points as I proceed with online course development.

Finally, with no intention of sucking up to the teacher… I must say that the assignment in this course of compiling and commenting on what we consider to be our top 3 discussion posts has been effective in getting me to contribute in a meaningful way. I might incorporate this strategy into my online courses.


Clifford, M. (2012). Facilitating Collaborative Learning: 20 Things You Need to Know From the Pros
Cited From:

Miller, A. (2012). Blended Learning: Strategies for Engagement.


EDUCATION COURSE: LESSONS LEARNED. Retrieved March 31, 2014 from: (would like to access this article but need a subscription and VCC doesn’t have one)



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