The benefits of learning together - Veterinary Practice
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The benefits of learning together

CHRIS WHIPP discusses collaborative learning which empowers the learner(s), makes complex issues more accessible, focuses on solutions and encourages exploratory rather than restrictive talk

COLLABORATIVE learning has been a feature of the educational world for more than 40 years and yet it remains ignored by many despite its increasing relevance in the digital age.

Learning together has become more than a quirky educational idea as information overload and technological development has outstripped our capacity to think and act on an individual basis.

Whilst growing out of the work of Lev Vygotsky in the early part of the 20th century, collaborative learning came to greater prominence in the 1960s and 70s, notably with the work of Professor Reg Revans from Lancaster University.

As the pace of societal change accelerated in the 1970s and 80s, the development of the internet fuelled an information overload that has diminished the importance of individual opinion and demanded evidenced and shared creation of knowledge and understanding.


Within the veterinary profession we see the exponential development of clinical knowledge and yet there is a growing awareness that clinical knowledge alone constitutes only approximately 25% of the requirements of a healthy and successful veterinary surgeon.1

Whilst it is changing, traditional veterinary education still struggles to provide an holistic base for a professional career and a lack of priority in postgraduate learning. This is something that Vet Learning is addressing.

It is becoming increasingly accepted within the business community that companies that will succeed in the next few decades will be those that can learn and change most efficiently. Both of these processes can be supported by collaborative learning practices.

What is it?

Collaborative learning is about sharing opinions, identifying knowledge requirements and exploring options, being self-responsible and committed to your learning partner or group. It empowers the learner(s), makes complex problems and issues more accessible; promotes focus on solutions; encourages exploratory rather than restrictive talk.


Collaborative learning enhances participant engagement 2 and retention and more than 1,200 studies confirmed it increased both time on task and motivation to learn. Also, by engaging in discussion and taking responsibility for their learning, participants are encouraged to become critical thinkers.3


Within veterinary practices it is often possible to challenge deep-seated assumptions and negative cultures in ways that are less challenging to those involved than other approaches.

Raising a collective awareness is often an important first step in that many of the more difficult issues in practices are often dealt with by denial or inattentional blindness in the hope that they will just go away.

Collaborative learning can be one:one (coaching), within groups (action learning) or more informally. It can be supported face:face, online or by telephone/Skype, etc.

Coaching was virtually unknown within the business community before the 1980s but has since undergone exponential growth. It recognises that growth and development has become increasingly difficult for the individual in recent years and whilst there are some directive coaches, most act simply as facilitators for learning and development. Leaving the coachee in control of the process reduces resistance, empowers the learner and instils a sense of self-responsibility that enhances results.

Coaching has been slower to take off within the veterinary profession and this was due to a number of factors:

  • traditional educational practices;
  • competitive or threatening environments;
  • high levels of perfectionism;
  • fear of risk/judgement.

Having been coaching in the business world for 10 years now, I am pleased to see that requests for coaching from veterinary surgeons are now increasing and attitudes are becoming much more open and constructive.

Action learning is a way of supporting learning within groups that was first introduced more than 50 years ago in the National Coal Board. Since that time it has grown and developed within academia and over the last 20 years within the business sector.

At Vet Learning, we have been supporting candidates in their CertAVP, Masters and Doctorate studies using “action learning” approaches for 14 years and have seen how well it can work.

Within education we have found it to be very successful but it doesn’t end there and we are now using the methodologies to address real business issues. It offers businesses facing turbulent times the opportunity to come together and generate new ideas and knowledge to deal with the complex challenges they face.

As an example, several of the candidates that have completed our clinical audit module have reported significant improvements in the organisational culture as practice members of all levels come together to create and conduct audits together.


Collaborative learning offers the opportunity to come together with others either within or outside of your business to share/create knowledge in an open and supportive environment and, by so doing, address some of the more difficult issues that we face.


1. VSHSP website,… (accessed 10/10/14).

2. Prince (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research, J Engr Education 93 (3): 223-231 (

3. Totten, S., Sills, T., Digby, A. and Russ, P. (1991) Co-operative learning: A guide to research. New York: Garland.

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