Top 4 advantages of collaborative learning and research in higher education

March 5, 2024


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Guest author: Dan Whaley

Many educators at higher education institutions are looking for new ways to engage their students in the digital era. And this is even more of a pressing necessity for professors teaching STEM subjects or preparing students to read scholarly texts and research papers. 

Collaborative learning can be a transformative practice for higher education environments and help students develop research-related skills. One tool supporting this teaching movement is social annotation — where users can annotate shared documents or texts online with comments and notes. With this tool, educators can encourage critical thinking, effectively support students’ reading, get them to actively interact with research literature, and promote knowledge-sharing between students.

The use of collaborative learning and social annotation varies by discipline, but it has been incorporated into research practices in various domains: Natural Sciences (SciBot), Humanities, Physics and Chemistry, English literature, and Microeconomics, among many others. 

So, what are the real benefits for students? 

1) A snowball effect from enhanced creativity

A recent study showed that coworkers felt more socially close when they experienced the “creative mindset condition.” So creative collaboration does facilitate positive social relationships — and it’s already common knowledge that the relationships students make at university are key to success

Often, though, the majority of students buy $300 textbooks, which are only used in isolation instead of actively engaging with the content to excite creativity. Using social annotation over these texts digitally to exchange ideas means having more focused discussions, leading to fresh perspectives and innovative breakthroughs. Particularly, the cross-pollination of knowledge fosters a more fertile ground for discovery. 

Traditional discussion boards used by professors with students can make peer-to-peer communication feel rote and artificial. By giving students the opportunity to engage directly with content and exchange information with peers, they have a more active role in their own learning.

2) A spike in productivity 

Instead of using traditional feedback methods for collaborative research, such as email or document track changes, social annotation allows students and professors to leave comments directly on a document or research paper. This can assist with analyzing  a research project because students and educators can identify gaps in knowledge and highlight areas that need further exploration.

Quickly, instructors can also ask and receive answers about how the studies were conducted and what bias is associated with a study. Students can flesh out these answers independently and see the research come together in real-time. 

Also, if students can engage with published research in seminars, they may even come across a subject matter where professors in their own university have carried out the research. With that, they can speak to these researchers directly, launch their own innovations, and open the doors to more undergraduate research experiences. 

3) Improved research literacy 

Research articles are often not written for students and are filled with jargon. Therefore, some teachers choose to cut research articles into mini-PDFs so they are more digestible and scatter them across a semester. By adding a short reading after each lecture using social annotation, students’ attention is more directed; they can highlight parts they don’t understand, clarify jargon in real-time, and ask questions about unfamiliar methodologies. This leads to improved reading comprehension and engagement.

Collaborative annotation creates collective intelligence via meaningful engagement with texts to improve students’ overall understanding of a topic or research question. Social annotation also assists students with discovering new information, as they can learn from each other’s annotations and build on their own knowledge. Basically, reading research collaboratively changes the solitary act of reading, so it becomes an interactive process.  

4) Scholarly processes made more transparent 

Social annotation can help to democratize knowledge as it lowers barriers to entry and makes reading research more accessible to a broader audience, enabling people from different disciplines and backgrounds to contribute their insights. 

Also, by being more transparent, students can see that many peers are struggling with the same parts of the readings. They’ll feel less alone knowing that difficulty understanding is a normal process of reading research literature

Through collaborative research and social annotation, students can unite their minds in a cooperative way, commenting on specific parts of texts or documents together. This capability, whether it happens in the broad public sphere or within a more intimate circle at university, stimulates a fertile creative environment.

Dan Whaley, CEO and founder of Hypothesis, a company building universal collaboration through social annotation.

Disclosure: This article includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company.


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