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Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Health Promotion Course

By Yan Huang / February 2019

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Online courses offer a great opportunity for students to experience a collaborative learning environment. Collaborative learning is an important way to help students gain experience in interaction and develop important skills in critical thinking, self-reflection, and co-construction of knowledge [1]. In a collaborative learning environment, knowledge and understanding of the subject are shared and transmitted among members as they work toward common learning goals or a solution to a problem [1]. Learners gain interactive experiences as they participate in discussions, search for information, and exchange opinions with their classmates [1]. A high-quality collaborative learning environment provides students with opportunities to engage in interactive and collaborative activities and to get better learning outcomes including the development of higher-order thinking skills [1].

Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of collaboration can vary dramatically. Learners who choose online education for its flexibility may view participation in discussion or group project as barriers to their study [2], or they may be reluctant to participate based on negative past experiences of working with an unproductive peer, having complaints about workload, or having received a grade that did not reflect their contribution to the group project [1].

How to incorporate group-learning experiences into courses that create productive, engaging, and skill-building environment for learners is the question for online teachers. Courses with these qualities encourage learners to repeat the collaborative learning experience independently [1]. In this article, an undergraduate-level online health promotion course is used to illustrate how to create effective collaborative learning groups.

Course Overview

“Needs Assessment and Planning Health Promotion Programs” is a senior-level, semester-length course for students seeking a bachelor’s degree in health promotion at a midsize university in the western United States. The typical class size for this course is 40 students, and it is taught entirely online. The course teaches students how to conduct needs assessments and plan health promotion programs in a community, occupational, school, or clinical setting. After taking the course, students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of how to plan the assessment process through the analysis of a planning model. They do this by completing a planning model paper, while demonstrating an ability to access evidence-based health information, examine relationships between factors of influence, develop goals and objectives, select or design interventions, and develop a scope and sequence for said interventions through the completion of a formal program proposal. In this course, students are asked to work in groups and produce a program proposal at the end of the semester. To create effective collaborative learning groups in this course, the strategies employed include providing scaffolding to build skills for group work, establishing a balance between structure and learner autonomy, monitoring group activities actively and closely, and making the group task relevant for the learner.

Provide Scaffolding to Build Skills for Group Work

Scaffolding is an important first step to prepare learners for group projects. This can be accomplished through the course design and by starting the group activity later in the course to give students enough time to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the project [1]. Students first need to be taught the necessary skills for effective online collaboration including planning and negotiation skills that will help them succeed in a group environment [3]. Chapman, Ramondt, and Smiley recommend using statements about expectations regarding participation, etiquette, and guidelines for online group behaviors [4]. In the “Needs Assessment” course, the groups are not formed until the third week to give students enough time to get to know each other through introduction and discussion activities. Once the groups are formed, group members are asked to write a group contract to decide team goals, roles, and responsibilities; to address possible issues including potential barriers and conflicts; and to come up with the solutions to these issues. The group contract is discussed and agreed upon by all group members and is used as a guideline for their behavior.

Establish a Balance between Structure and Learner Autonomy

Bouchat has revealed the importance of the instructor providing performance guidelines in group projects as it ensures the task is achievable, sustainable, and properly timed within the course structure [5]. In the “Needs Assessment” course , the group project is divided into three parts, and students are provided detailed instructions for each part, including content, format, and method of submission. This will make the purpose and parameters of the group tasks and the learning goals clear and explicit. Allowing learners to form their own groups and select their own topics based on common interests promotes positive group dynamics [6]. Therefore the instructor provides 10 health promotion topics, and students form groups by signing up for the topic that interests them the most. This allows students some flexibility, such as choice of group membership and specifics of the topic. When students have personal control over the task, their engagement, responsibility, and sense of the relevance of the task are heightened.

Monitor Group Activities Actively and Closely

The instructor needs to be available for feedback, concerns, general information, and private counsel during the entire collaborative process [1]. In the “Needs Assessment” course, students are encouraged to contact the instructor with any questions or concerns during group work. In my own experience turnaround time for student emails is 48 hours, but I am often able to answer students’ questions in less than 12 hours. For projects in the “Needs Assessment” course that include three parts, the instructor always provides prompt and detailed feedback for each part. In addition, there is weekly email communication with each group and group collaboration is monitored. The instructor also intervenes as required to keep discussions on track, support and animate dynamic conversation, help students stay focused on the task, assist with relationship building, and provide reassurance.

I believe continuous feedback is a formative evaluation, which helps students develop specific skills and deepens the learning process.

Make the Group Task Relevant for the Learner

Curtis and Lawson have found the more interested a student is in a group topic, the more motivated the student is to participate in collaboration. Real-life relevant tasks provide motivation for students in collaborative learning [3]. Enabling students to control and direct their own learning helps them to achieve their education purpose and challenges their zone of proximal development [7]. In the “Needs Assessment” course, the program proposal assignment requires students, working in groups, to choose an organization with which they would hypothetically want to work, conduct a needs assessment of that organization, develop a program plan that fits within that organization's mission, and, finally, articulate an evaluation plan for that program. While students will not actually partner with the organization in this course, a full proposal will be developed that could be taken to the organization and implemented as part of a student's internship experience or as an individual project.


There are four key strategies needed to create effective collaborative learning groups in an online setting and improve the group learning experience: providing scaffolding to build skills for group work; establishing a balance between structure and learner autonomy; monitoring group activities actively and closely; and making the group task relevant for the learner. In conclusion, online group collaboration needs to be carefully managed by the instructor [8]. Instructors should incorporate a variety of instructional strategies to improve the quality of group collaboration and to increase the likelihood of student participation.


[1] Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., and Blaschke, L. M. Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 10, 3 (2009), 1-18.

[2] Boston, W., Diaz, S., Gibson, A., Ice, P., Richardson, J., and Swan, K. An exploration of the relationship between indicators of the Community of Inquiry framework and retention in online programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 14, 1 (2009), 3-19.

[3] Curtis, D. D., and Lawson, M. J. Exploring collaborative online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5, 1 (2001), 21-34.

[4] Chapman, C., Ramondt, L., and Smiley, G. Strong community, deep learning: Exploring the link. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47, 3 (2005), 217-230.

[5] Bouchat, C. Threaded discussion tips for designers. Learning Solutions Magazine. December 17, 2007.

[6] Juwah, C. Interactions in online peer learning. In R.C. Sharma and C. Juwah (Eds.) Interactions in Online Education. Implications for Theory and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum, New York, 2006, 171–190.

[7] Lin, L. An online learning model to facilitate learners' rights to education. Journal for Asynchronous Learning Networks 12, 1 (2008), 127-143.

[8] Swan, K., Shen, J., and Hiltz, S.R. Assessment and collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 10, 1 (2006), 45-62.

About the Author

Dr. Yan Huang is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Human Performance at Weber State University. Dr. Huang received her doctorate in Health Behavior with a minor in Inquiry Methodology from Indiana University-Bloomington. She also earned her Master's degree in International Health Policy and Management from Brandeis University.

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