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Meta-analyses of research on collaborative learning show largely positive effects across age levels and disciplinary fields (Johnson et.al., 1981; Natasi and Clements, 1991; Slavin, 1995). In their review of the research, Barkley, Cross and Majorx report that "cooperative arrangements were found superior to either competitive or individualistic structures on a variety of outcome measures, generally showing higher achievement, higher-level reasoning, more frequent generation of new ideas and solutions, and greater transfer of what is learned in one situation to another" (18).
There are several explanations for the effectiveness of collaborative learning. According to constructivist theories of learning, the multiplicity of views inherent in collaborative learning can generate cognitive conflicts, which in turn allow new ideas to be accommodated and incorporated in the cognitive system. Under Vygotsky's theories of cognitive development, collaborative learning creates opportunities for peers to learn from more competent others. And recent studies in cognitive science suggest that collaborative structures may deepen learning by giving students the opportunity to rehearse, manipulate, and elaborate on knowledge. (See, for example, cognitive flexibility theory).
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K.P., & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Johnson, D.W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D., & Skon, L. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89 (1), 47-62.
Natasi, B.K., & Clements, D.H. (1991). Research on cooperative learning: Implications for practice. School Psychology Review, 20 (1), 110-131.
O'Donnell, A., & O'Kelly, J. (1994) Learning from peers: Beyond the rhetoric of positive results. Educational Psychology Review, 6 (4), 321-350.
Slavin, Robert. Cooperative learning: Theory, research and practice. (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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). pp 21-51.