The high-impact educational practice (HIP) that I’m studying and writing about for the next two years is “collaborative projects and assignments.” Part of the reason that I selected this topic was because it was one of the only HIPs out of the 11 that seemed like it could be readily implemented by an instructor in any class. Many of the HIPs recognized by the AACU are practices that are implemented at the university- or department-level (e.g., first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, capstone courses). Others could be implemented in a variety of courses, but they are large-scale practices that may shape the design of the course (e.g., writing-intensive courses, ePortfolios, and service learning). This can create a significant barrier for instructors who do not have the time, ability, or resources to engage in a large-scale course redesign.

Collaborative projects and assignments could also be instituted in such a way that they define the structure of a course – such as with a scaffolded term-long group project – but the label could also refer to single assignments or to activities that take only a single class. The wide range of options that might fit under this heading make it a HIP that has the potential to be incorporated into an existing class with relative ease. However, this flexibility also creates a potential problem. We assume that the 11 example HIPs are all empirically supported, but if a practice is poorly defined, how can there be research supporting it? Are collaborative projects and assignments in any form always impactful? Could any have a neutral or even deleterious effect on student learning? It’s not outside the realm of possibility that working on a collaborative project could actually produce worse outcomes than working individually. Social psychological research on groups suggests that under some circumstances, social loafing can occur, in which average individual effort is decreased by virtue of being in a group. Group brainstorming has also been shown to be less productive in terms of the quantity and quality of ideas produced (Mullen et al., 1991), and evidence going back decades indicates that discussion within groups can lead to polarization of initial attitudes and beliefs (i.e., group polarization).

That isn’t to say that there isn’t research showing the usefulness of collaborative projects and assignments in classes. In a footnote to the original HIPs report, Kuh (2008) cites How College Affects Students by Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) as the primary source of research on what he broadly refers to as “collaborative/cooperative learning.” This absolute brick of a book is over 800 pages of literature review, covering research on the potential impact of a variety of pedagogical practices, including collaborative learning. It has since been followed by a new volume that includes research from the 21st century (Mayhew et al., 2016). For slightly lighter reading, there are also meta-analyses that attempt to summarize the research on collaborative learning generally (e.g., Tomcho & Foels, 2012), its relation to transfer (Pai et al, 2015), and its use in specific disciplines (e.g., Springer et al., 1999). Beyond that, you could read just about anything ever written by Johnson and Johnson (the educational psychologists who founded the Collaborative Learning Institute, not the multinational corporation) – though if I’m being honest, their praise of the technique is at times so effusive that it almost pushes me back toward skepticism.

The point is that research does exist. However, the research can vary in terms of the design (e.g., controlled experimental work vs cross sectional survey research), the scientific rigour (particularly the further back in time you go), and in how they operationally define the practice and what outcomes they are examining. Because of all that, making a sweeping statement that research shows support for collaborative learning in any form might be a mistake. What I hope to do in the coming months is unpack the ways in which this HIP can vary and what empirical support there is for some of those variations. To help frame some of this future discussion, I want to again turn to the eight features of HIPs that Kuh and colleagues (2017) argue give them their developmental power (p 11). Given that these features are ways in which HIPs might vary in terms of quality, they may be a useful way to develop specific questions about this HIP that we can attempt to answer with research.

FeaturesQuestions about Collaborative Projects and Assignments
Performance expectations set at appropriately high levels
  • Are performance outcomes rewarded (e.g., with points or grades), and to what extent do extrinsic rewards impact behaviors in the group?
  • Are performance expectations assessed for the individual, the group, both, or neither?
  • Should there be performance expectations for the process of collaboration (implying a prescribed structure or process for interaction)?
Significant investment of concentrated effort by students over an extended period of time
  • Does the effort of one group member impact the learning outcomes of another?
  • How is effort expended in group assignments (e.g., do students divide up work or work together)?
  • Does the duration of the group interaction matter?
  • Does group composition impact engagement?
Interactions with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  • Are certain types of interactions better than others (e.g., structured vs. unstructured, synchronous vs. asynchronous, in person vs. virtual)?
  • Does frequency or duration of interactions between group and faculty matter?
  • Does group size matter?
Experiences with diversity, wherein students are exposed to and must contend with people and circumstances that differ from those with which students are familiar
  • Does group composition impact diversity-related learning outcomes?
  • Do homogenous vs heterogenous groups achieve different outcomes?
Frequent, timely, and constructive feedback?
  • Is group or individual feedback more beneficial?
  • Does collaboration produce peer feedback, and is that valuable for either party?
  • Is feedback on the process of collaboration valuable?
Opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications
  • Are authentic collaborations (i.e., those that mirror real-world contexts where collaboration might occur) more impactful than artificial collaborations (e.g., students work together as a legal team in a mock trial on a current issue vs collaboratively writing a rhetorical paper on the same issue)?
Public demonstration of competence
  • Is individual work or contribution publicly demonstrated outside the group?
  • Does collaboration involve individuals publicly demonstrating competence to each other within the group?
  • Is that inherently beneficial?
  • Are there factors associated with collaborative work that make it so students’ feel their competence is not being publicly demonstrated when they wish it was (i.e., feeling as though they are not getting recognition) or when they wish to mask it (i.e., feeling as though they can avoid evaluation)?
Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning
  • Is reflection about the process of collaboration beneficial for learning?
  • Do students benefit from reflecting as a group or as individuals?
  • Is reflection most beneficial before, during, or after the collaboration?


  • Kuh, G.D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Kuh, G., O’Donnell, K., & Schneider, C. G. (2017). HIPs at Ten, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning49(5), 8-16.
  • Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Bowman, N. A., Wolniak, G. C., Seifert, T. A. D., Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2016). How college affects students : 21st century evidence that higher education works. Retrieved from
  • Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson & Eduardo Salas (1991) Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: A meta-analytic integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology12(1), 3-23.
  • Pai, H., Sears, D. A., Maeda, Y. (2015). Effects of small-group learning on transfer: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 79-102.
  • Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. Volume 2. Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.
  • Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21-51.
  • Tomcho, T. J., & Foels, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 159-169.

David Buck, associate professor of psychology, is the 2020-2022 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Buck’s CEL Scholar project focuses on collaborative projects and assignments as a high-impact practice.

How to cite this post:

Buck, David. (2020, July 30). Collaborative Projects and Assignments [Blog Post]. Retrieved from