Design Collaborative Learning Experiences


Conflict management

Avoid conflicts and facilitate team building


To ensure a positive experience, at the beginning of the class the instructor should explain the long-term benefits of collaboration and group work.  There should be an explicit section in the syllabus explaining the project and expectations for group work (Dool, 2007). Syllabus excerpts can include grading policies, team member contribution expectations, and examples of positive team member contributions.

Online Learning Insights lists the following helpful tasks to ensure a positive experience

  • Have assignments that encourage discussion and brainstorming and prohibit strict division of labor
  • Make sure students understand the importance of the assignment
  • Ensure there is access to digital platforms for easy communication amongst group members
  • Closely monitor each group to ensure progress

Although technologies now enable learners to collaborate remotely without geographic constraints, when implementing collaborative learning in an online course, faculty need to be cautious of two particular issues. First, because of the limits of computer-mediated communication, group members put in more deliberate efforts to create a healthy social space where members can display appropriate social presence, maintain a friendly and supportive environment, develop team norm and trust, etc.  so that the team can be functional and effective.

Secondly, unlike in-class, face to face, courses where students are bound by scheduled class time, virtual teams can meet whenever their schedule permits. However, this flexibility also gives room for teams to push their meetings to the last minute.  This greatly damages team building and productivity.  Unfortunately, virtual team development requires more time compared to the face-to-face team (Dewiyanti, Brand-Gruwel, Jochems, & Broers, 2007). When designing online collaboration or computer-supportive collaborative learning, faculty should keep these two factors in mind.

Here are four strategies also adapted by Online Learning Insights on how to sufficiently support online group work

  • Create complex group assignments that encourages applications and conceptualizing topics
  • For learning protocols, establish clear expectations of the roles of each student and the instructor
  • Assist with group facilitation by contributing periodically to discussion boards
  • Inform students on how they will be graded by providing a copy of the grading rubric early on

As for considering the integration of traditional face-to face collaborative learning into class, the first question you should consider is the physical classroom environment. How easily can group members physically move or look at an object/document together or work together?  Below is a great video created by Stanford University discussing the active learning pedagogy and how the environment can create and shape learners’ interactive learning experiences:

Below is a matrix that will help you to plan and think through the design and implementation of collaborative learning.

Before Class In Class After Class
What is the goal of the collaborative activity?
What is the physical layout of my classroom?
How can I explain the benefits of group work? How to create positive collaboration experience How to grade group projects
Make a decision on whether to create groups or allow students to create their own Conflict management – Prepare students to manage their group conflicts.
If groups are created, how to create randomized groups Extent of instructor involvement in group projects
How to design an interdependent collaboration task and avoid social loafing How to assess productivity of collaboration within each group?


Dool, R. (2007). Mitigating conflict in online student teams. eLearn Magazine.

Online Learning Insights (2014). Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What they Really Think and How to make it Work.

Online Learning Insights (2014). How-to make Group Work Collaborative in Online Courses: Four Strategies.

Conflict Management

Conflicts in groups can be caused by many factors including “grades, roles, styles, vales and resources, or basic personality conflicts (Dool, 2007).

Below are tips for addressing team conflicts (Dool, 2007).

  • Explain the project and expectations to students before teams are made
  • Include information specific to team work and collaboration into the syllabus.
  • Address plagiarism in the syllabus
  • When groups are first made, create a “team charter” that includes group members’ contact information, strongest skillsets, most convenient meetings times, most convenient form of communication
  • Decide which form of communication will be used by the group (email or text, for example)

Below is an “Interventions Matrix” (Dool, 2007) explaining levels for instructor intervention

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 11.13.12

Borg, Kembro, Notander, Petersson and Ohlsson (2011) list the following recommendations for alleviating group conflict:

  • Have each student in every group read and sign a list of ground rules and expectations
  • Facilitate “crisis clinics” where the instructor facilitates conflict resolution brainstorming with affected group members
  • Use peer ratings. Students are more inclined to work better when they know their grade is also dependent on how their peers rate them
  • Have the first assignment be a small task so group members can adjust to working together
  • Students should complete their assigned duties and expectations before meeting with their groups

Another option is to utilize team building activities to help enforce a sense of unity amongst group members (Holton, 2001):

  • Bendaly Team Fitness Test
  • Online Keirsey Temperament Sorter
  • Modified Belbin Group Role Questionnaire

A common application used at the University of Missouri is Strengths quest which is offered through the Career Center.

Avoid conflicts and facilitate team building

Assigning roles is a way to prevent conflict because everyone is aware of their assigned duties and are more likely to be held accountable for their contributions.  This is a weblink to an example assignment role sheet that may be used for group members to organize roles and duties.

Group Project Student Role Sheets by Christine Boardman Moen (page 33)

Availability Chart

We created a schedule that may be used by group members’ to track everyone’s availability. Click here to download the group scheduling form.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 11.15.31Tell students to mark the times they are available to meet with their group members in-person.

Group Contract

Group contracts are also a way to prevent conflict because everyone is bonded by a contract to hold everyone accountable.  Here are links to example group contracts.


Borg, M., Kembro, J., Notander, J. P., Petersson, C. & Ohlsson, L. (2011). Conflict management in student groups—a teacher’s perspective in higher education. Högre Utbildning, 1, 2, 111–124.

Dool, R. (2007). Mitigating conflict in online student teams. eLearn Magazine.

Holton, J. A. (2001). Building trust and collaboration in a virtual team. Team Performance Management, 7(3/4), 36-47.