How and when to use collaborative learning in your learning designs

Collaborative learning has been on the rise for a few years now (1), and most people agree that it is important to use include it in learning designs (2). A lot of people might have a sense of what collaborative learning is, and why it is attractive to learners. However, when push comes to shove not that many people can say how it should be used and when it is best to include it in learning.

This article will seek to answer some questions that will get you on the right road to designing and rolling out collaborative learning for maximum application. I’ll look at what it is, when it should be used, and very importantly when it shouldn’t be used. I’ll also try and give a few hints and tips about how we at Practical Training Transfer have been successful in it’s deployment.

What is collaborative learning and can I use it for everything?

What I won’t do in this article is to define collaborative learning in a tight one-sentence expression that I hope everyone can hang their hat on. Throughout our industry we use terms that some people agree on while others dispute. For that reason I prefer to state the obvious: that collaborative learning is any kind of learning where the main benefactor gets help from other people during the learning process to apply what they have learned appropriately in work.

That’s quite a broad statement, but if you think about it the people involved in that statement are easily defined: a manager, a coach, a peer from the training program, a mentor. All have different roles according to what is being learned, so the biggest task is knowing when and how to get people involved.  

One thing we can say though is that collaborative learning is not optimal for every type of learning. So let’s start by asking ourselves the following question.

When can we exclude collaborative learning from my designs?

There are certain types of training that don’t get better or build stronger memories or create a better outcome through working with other people. The standout case is with Knowledge-based training. This is any type of training where the main task is to understand, store, recall and use information. A classic example would be new product information for sales people. We know that the main issue for this kind of knowledge training would be remembering information. For that reason, good learning designers would rely on spaced learning and recall strategies, but there wouldn’t be must scope for collaboration to aid memory strengthening and recall.

Another type of training that doesn’t really require collaborative learning styles is the learning and implementation of specific situation-focused skills. A good example this time would be a skill that can only be used in a named situation, such as giving a presentation. Although it’s not wise to go directly from the ‘classroom’ to the boardroom and think you’ll wow people with your magical new presentation skills, the learning transfer needed to reinforce what was learned doesn’t rely on collaboration. In other words, you might set up practice sessions with a manager to help hone a specific situational skill, but if the program has been designed properly the manager would just be following a performance support template and not be relying on their experience or giving advice not included in the program.

So, if knowledge training and situational skills training don’t require collaboration, then which training does?

Where should I include collaboration techniques in my learning design?

There are two standout cases where collaboration is key to getting learning transfer happening, and therefore skills applied in the workplace. Those areas are in changing perceptions and creating habits. Let’s look at perception change first.

Some training includes a balance of knowledge that isn’t difficult to remember and skills that aren’t tricky to implement. At first sight, you’d think that people wouldn’t have any problems using their new skills in the workplace. However, further down the line you might notice some mental barriers that prevent the use of the learned skills. The key to getting people using their skills is to have them hurdle a mind set barrier and change their perception. One very common barrier is where people de-prioritise the use of new skills because work tasks appear to be better done using older skills. In other words, people have a fear that they’ll experience failure if they use their new skills.

This fear of failure syndrome is quite common and can be overcome through collaboration. At PTT we try to embed those collaboration points into a design where people need to get over a fear of failure, in other words to get them to see the benefits of application through things like action plans, creating accountability, and help from managers, peers and coaches. Indeed, manager support, peer support and coaching support are all forms of collaboration done in different ways. You don’t need to include all those elements in training for perception change, but if you know what kind of collaboration works best for your training, you’ll increase participation with the view of changing mind sets and getting learning applied.

Another area where collaboration is king is in the creation of habits. We all know that what I call ‘single use habits’ such as washing your hands in a pandemic are easy to remember to do and the benefits are obvious. However, in the workplace habits are a collection of tasks that lead to better performance, greater efficiency, and smooth working. Good examples of those collections of smalls tasks are: meeting facilitation, project onboarding, team working, etc.

Quite often after a habit-focused training program you’ll see that people don’t use their new habits and skills because they haven’t sufficiently adapted them to their specific work situation or environment. That’s normal because training can’t cover every scenario or team working dynamic for something like onboarding teams onto a new project. What you can do where people need to refine the skills and habits to suit their specific situations and work context is to get people training in teams and to modify the training to adapt to their needs. You could have the manager involved too, where specific reinforcement and practice tasks are give to the teams outside of the ‘training room’ so that they can help promote a peer support and collaboration attitude.

What you can do right now to make training more collaborative

I explained that not all training requires collaboration. So, the first thing is to categorise your training programs: are they knowledge programs, specific skills programs, mind set change programs, or habit creation programs.

Once you’ve done that, you can pick out appropriate mind set change and habit programs and see where you need to insert collaboration into you designs. To help you with that you can download some free PTT design templates:

I hope you find them useful, and good luck.

References:

1. https://donaldhtaylor.co.uk/research_base/global-sentiment-survey-2021/

2. LinkedIn-Learning_Workplace-Learning-Report-2021-EN-1 (page 10)

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