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How Listening and Sharing Help Shape Collaborative Learning Experiences

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Excerpted from "The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them," (c) 2016 by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang and Kristen P. Blair. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. The following is from the chapter "L is for Listening and Sharing."

Learning more together than alone

With listening and sharing learners try to construct joint understandings. Listening and sharing are the cornerstones of collaborative learning. We can learn more working together than working alone.

A little history lesson: The study of cooperation arose after World War II as part of a research program on conflict resolution (Deutsch, 1977). Negotiation depends on cooperation, and negotiation is a preferable resolution to conflict than war. From this starting point, one reason to use cooperative learning is to help students develop better skills at cooperating (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, 1987). Subsequent research discovered a second reason to use cooperative learning: when students collaborate on class assignments, they learn the material better (we provide examples below). Ideally, small group work can yield both better abilities to cooperate and better learning of the content.

Simply putting students into small groups, however, does not guarantee desirable outcomes. Success depends on listening and sharing. Here is a description of students who did not collaborate well.

Sagging in his chair, Daryl gazed away, pointing his outstretched legs toward another group. Elizabeth, disgusted, looked down as she paged through the anthology. Across from them, Josh and Kara talked animatedly. When I stopped at their group, Kara told me the group had chosen Raymond Carver’s poem “Gravy.” Elizabeth complained that no one was listening to her and that she hated “the dumb poem they both want.” . . . Finally came the day of their presentation. . . . Kara and Josh had taken over the presentation. The other two never really found their way into the project. (Cohen & Lotan, 2014, p. 25, citing Shulman et al., 1998)

Kara and Josh did the lion’s share of the content work, and it may have been very good. Nevertheless, they did not listen to Elizabeth, and Daryl did not share any thoughts at all. The example resonates with people because most of us have been Daryl, Elizabeth, and Kara and Josh at some point. Fortunately, listening and sharing as cooperative techniques can alleviate frustration and, more importantly, allow group learning to surpass what would be possible by a single student (Slavin, 1995). Effective collaborative learning yields gains in motivation and conceptual understanding. Ideally, it also helps students learn how to cooperate in the future.


1. How Listening and Sharing Works

Everything is more fun with someone else!! Well, at least it should be. Many college students dislike group projects. Some of this is naïve egoism and an unwillingness to compromise—I can do this better alone than together. But more often than not, it is because one or more of five ingredients is missing: joint attention, listening, sharing, coordinating, and perspective taking.

Joint Attention

To collaborate, people need to pay attention to the same thing. If two children are building separate sand castles, they are not collaborating. They are engaged in parallel play. The abilities to maintain joint attention are foundational and emerge around the first year of life. Infants and parents can share attention to the same toy. Next, infants learn to follow the parents gaze to maintain joint visual attention. Finally, the infants learn to direct their parents’ attention (Carpenter, Nagell, Tomasello, Butterworth, & Moore, 1998). Visual attention provides an index of what people are thinking about. If you are looking longingly at an ice-cold beer, it is a good bet that you are thinking about an ice-cold beer.

Schwartz_comp17bUsing a common visual anchor (e.g., a common diagram) can help people maintain joint visual attention. In one study, Schneider and Pea (2013) had partners complete a circuit task, where participants had to figure out which circuit controlled which outcome in a simulation. They collaborated remotely over headsets. They saw the same image on their respective computers, so it was possible to maintain joint visual attention. In one condition, the authors used eye tracking: a moving dot showed each participant where the other was looking, so it was easier for them to maintain joint visual attention. These partners exhibited better collaboration, and they learned more from the task than did partners who did not have the eye-tracking dot to support joint attention.


Thoughts can be much more complex than an eye gaze. It also helps to hear what people are thinking. A common situation is that people refuse to listen to one another because they are too busy talking or they just discount other people’s ideas. The How-To section describes a number of solutions.


Sharing operates on two levels: sharing common goals and sharing ideas. First, if people do not share some level of common goal, they will collaborate to cross-purposes. Two professors of mathematics may agree to design homework together for a large class, but if one professor aims to increase students’ interest in the field while the other aims to weed out the faint of heart, they will have a hard time reaching consensus. Second, if nobody shares ideas, collaboration will not go very far. In school, getting people to share can be difficult. Learners may be diffident, or they may not have good strategies for sharing. Children often do not know how to offer constructive criticism or build on an idea. It can be helpful to give templates for sharing, such as two likes and a wish, where the “wish” is a constructive criticism or a building idea.


Have you ever had the experience of a group discussion, in which you just cannot seem to get your timing right? Either you always interrupt before the speaker is done, or someone else grabs the floor exactly when the other person finishes and before you jump in. Collaboration requires a great deal of turn-taking coordination. When the number of collaborators increases, it is also important to partition roles and opportunities to interact. You may hope coordination evolves organically, which it might. But it might turn into a Lord of the Flies scenario instead. It can be useful to establish collaborative structures and rules.

Perspective Taking

A primary reason for collaborating is that people bring different ideas to the table. The first four ingredients—joint attention, listening, sharing, and coordinating—support the exchange of information. The fifth ingredient is understanding why people are offering the information they do. This often goes beyond what speakers can possibly show and say (see Chapter S). People need to understand the point of view behind what others are saying, so they can interpret it more fully. This requires perspective taking. This is where important learning takes place, because learners can gain a new way to think about matters. It can also help differentiate and clarify one’s own ideas. A conflict of opinions can enhance learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

An interesting study on perspective taking (Kulkarni, Cambre, Kotturi, Bernstein, & Klemmer, 2015) occurred in a massive open online course (MOOC) with global participation. In their online discussions, learners were encouraged to review lecture content by relating it to their local context. The researchers placed people into low- or high-diversity groups based on the spread of geographic regions among participants. Students in the most geographically diverse discussion groups saw the highest learning gains, presumably because they had the opportunity to consider more different perspectives than geographically uniform groups did.


Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, is the Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and holds the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology. Jessica M. Tsang, PhD, and Kristen P. Blair, PhD are both researchers and instructors at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

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