Opportunities for Deep Learning Are Key to Successfully Deploying Collaborative Learning Pedagogies

Loes, C. N., and An, B. P. 2021. “Collaborative Learning and Need for Cognition: Considering the Mediating Role of Deep Approaches to Learning.” Review of Higher Education.


How can university leaders maximize the cognitive gains promised by collaborative learning approaches? This four-year longitudinal study of 2,212 students drawn from 17 institutions investigated whether collaborative learning had any effects on students’ proclivity to engage in effortful cognitive activity, that is, their need for cognition. Collaborative learning involves students working together to solve problems while simultaneously learning to listen to, deliberate with, and teach one another in service of accomplishing a task together.

The research team found that while collaborative learning positively predicted small-to-moderate increases in students’ need for cognition, this effect was largely mediated by several deep learning approaches, specifically by integrative learning, reflective learning, and higher ordered learning.


Once again, how this high impact practice is implemented seems to matter a great deal to its efficacy. Collaborative learning may be cognitively useful insofar as it facilitates integrative, reflective, and higher order learning. Collaborative learning efforts that do not include ample opportunity for engaging in these modes of deep learning may be ineffective. More broadly, collaborative learning that grants students a degree of independence and that exposes them to diverse perspectives may be more likely to result in deep, cognitively beneficial learning. When such independence and diversity of perspectives are provided, the students benefit, regardless of their prior academic performance, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or major.


Cognitive development remains critical for student growth and is important for demonstrating the value of higher education in the face of detractors who see students as academically adrift (see Arum & Roska, 2011) and colleges as expensive, undemanding social clubs. Collaborative learning may be one way of delivering on the promise of real, measurable cognitive development that institutional stakeholders expect of modern universities. Furthermore, the enhancements to students’ need for cognition may provide benefits throughout their college experiences, suggesting an especially important role in the first year. Helping students understand the linkage between these deep learning approaches and the skills employers are looking for could be an added benefit.

Campus leaders may wish to motivate faculty to include collaborative learning in their pedagogy and provide the professional development resources needed to support such efforts. These professional development resources should also place special focus on assisting faculty in developing activities, assignments, and experiences that use integrative, reflective, and higher order learning. Successful collaborative learning experiences must be designed, not a one-off, pedagogical means for grouping students together randomly to discuss course material. Institutional leaders may consider partnering with campus teaching and learning centers to provide this professional development and incorporate incentives for faculty participation in such development through their promotion and tenure processes.


Chad N. Loes is a professor of criminal justice, chair of the Department of History, Politics, and Justice, and director of student outcomes research at Mount Mercy University.

Brian P. An is an associate professor of higher education and student affairs, and of sociology and criminology at the University of Iowa.


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