College students spend a lot of their time doing things other than classwork. Some of that is due to the competing interests at the college level, but some may be because assignments beyond the classroom aren’t as interesting or rewarding as they could be. In order to better engage your students outside of class, consider using cooperative learning strategies and adding group projects, peer review, and collaborative learning ideas to your syllabus.

What are students doing outside of class?

According to Edward Neal of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in his paper “Active Learning beyond the Classroom,” hosted at the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities Academic & Student Affairs website, on an average week:

  • Almost 30% of full-time students work 21 hours
  • 31% spend 10 hours in “informal conversations with other students”
  • 33% watch more than 7 hours of TV
  • 38% read for fun for between 3 and 10 hours
  • 47% are engaged in organized student activities between 3 and 10 hours

Students average about 15 hours a week in class, and only a few hours a week studying.

Three cooperative learning strategies

How can you effectively design coursework that competes with other out-of-class activities?

  • Study groups. According to Neal, even when college students are encouraged to form study groups on their own, they rarely do it unless it is required. Adding a requirement to your syllabus for students to meet in a group for even a small amount of time per week can create an opportunity for peer teaching and collaborative learning, which are consistently shown as effective learning strategies. Encourage your college students to meet at the same time and place weekly, combine their notes into a master set, and take turns asking and answering questions.
  • Peer review. In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th edition, Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki suggest that not only does incorporating peer review into your syllabus create opportunities for collaborative learning, it decreases the amount of review and feedback that you need to provide your students. “In collaborative authorship and peer commenting, students analyze each other’s writing, detect problems in understanding and in the writing process, and make suggestions for improvement,” they explained, continuing, “This approach can also give students more practice in writing without significantly increasing instructor workload” (McKeachie, 118-19).
  • Social media. By creating a Facebook group for your class or asking students to engage in another form of electronic communication about their readings outside of class, you “allow students to experiment with ideas, develop ideas in an informal, collaborative environment, and foster close reading skills,” according to Katie Dredger and Susanne Nobles in “Collaboration Beyond the Classroom Walls: Deepening Learning for Students, Preservice Teachers, Teachers, and Professors,” published on For more on adding social media to your class, take a look at our earlier Engaging Minds post, “Extend learning beyond the classroom with social media.”

What types of out-of-class collaborative learning do you add to your syllabus? Tell us in the comments.

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.