Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Collaborative Learning Makes the Big Feel Small

Micari, M., and Pazos, P. 2021. “Beyond Grades: Improving College Students’ Social-Cognitive Outcomes in STEM Through a Collaborative Learning Environment.” Learning Environments Research.


Social-cognitive skills are sets of mental habits that can be influenced and developed by one’s social interactions, and that in turn help to shape those interactions. These include skills that are important for student success, such as self-efficacy (one’s subjective evaluation of whether they are able to perform a particular task) and self-regulation (one’s ability to manage emotions, ignore distractions, develop goals, and monitor whether their behavior is bringing them closer to achieving those goals). Recent studies have shown that developing these skills is especially important for first-generation students or those who may feel less comfortable than others in academic spaces. This study sought to enhance students’ social cognitive skills. The research team designed a collaborative learning program that was attached to an introductory STEM course. In this program a peer facilitator who had experienced prior success in the STEM course and who demonstrated empathy and leadership skills oversaw the weekly meeting of small (5–7 person) peer-led study groups. In total, 604 students chose to participate in the collaborative learning program, and their outcomes were compared to 676 similar peers. The research team found that students who experienced the course exhibited greater self-regulation for learning, higher self-efficacy for course tasks, and were more likely to employ deep learning methods, such as seeking out underlying patterns and concepts, than their peers, who tended to rely more heavily on rote memorization.


Though this is a cross-sectional study that could not control for self-selection, the heightened study habits and academic confidence experienced by these students may have been attributable to the peer learning environment they encountered. Such environments offer less anonymity and less one-way communication than the large lectures that are traditionally found in introductory STEM courses. Furthermore, they often provide a teaching and learning environment that students find less intimidating.

The reduction in fear of failure that students experience may encourage them to take more risks in the learning process, to experiment more, and to engage in deeper, more reflective, and more conceptual learning. This form of engagement with the course material, and with one another, may provide an arena where students can learn better studying strategies, can use one another’s presence as a way of motivating their own learning, and can study the material in richer and more efficient ways.


This study speaks to the perennial challenge of making large courses (and large campuses) feel small, humanizing, and collegial, and to the difficulty of enhancing the personal investment of students in the institution and the institution in each student. The development of near-peer mentorship and learning programs has proven to be highly effective in research literature, especially in STEM fields. Campus leaders should therefore consider strategies to implement collaborative and near-peer learning programs in such fields, especially the more challenging high-stakes ‘weed out’ courses where an impersonal environment and a high degree of fear of failure is likely to be encountered among the students.

However, the benefits of such learning are not limited to such courses. Though this study examined a long-term peer learning program, there is no reason that the technique cannot be incorporated in short-term ways to many different courses, so long as faculty are given the training and incentives necessary to alter their pedagogy in these important ways.


Marina Micari is the director of the office of academic support and learning advancement at Northwestern University.

Pilar Pazos-Lago is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at Old Dominion University.


Johnson, D. W., and Johnson, R. T. 1989. Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Ramsden, P. 2003. Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1980. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.