Off-Task Communication is Spot-On for Collaborative Learning

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Collaborative learning is a fascinating topic in general but in particular, when looking at research on such team learning, there is one thing quite striking. The majority of studies on this topic distinguish between on-task and off-task communication. The first refers to communication that relates directly to the to-be-completed task, be it content related, logistic, whatever. Off-task communication, in contrast, is any communication that is not related to the task at hand. In other words, social talk, chitchat, jabber, or even gobbledygook.

That collaborative learning research should focus on communication is not in the least striking. What is a bit strange is that in those studies, on-task communication is analysed and categorised through complex multilevel schemes while all of the off-task interactions are usually thrown on one big pile labelled ‘other’ and that pile is then – usually – simply ignored (i.e., thrown out). In other words, the assumption seemingly is that only on-task communication is important for learning and/or for the team to complete the task successfully. All ‘other’ communication is, thus, irrelevant and can be ignored.

Now that’s a remarkable assumption, to say the least. Why wouldn’t it be important that team members get to know each other, build relationships with each other to facilitate effective collaboration and subsequently learn from one another? Aren’t water coolers or coffee machines (at work) the best social affordance devices that exist because they stimulate the creation of social connections between workers? If this really is important – and we think that it is – wouldn’t it then be the case that chitchat on things other than the task itself is actually quite important and beneficial? Could it perhaps be true that off-task communication functions as a lever to effective collaboration? Could it be the case that off-task communication is a special form of on-task communication; that is communication that is required to be willing to collaborate in the first place? Just because you like your peers?

Exactly that question was studied by Abedin, Daneshgar and D’Ambra (2012). In their research on off-task interactions, they report a strong relationship between what they call non-task sociability and learning. In other words, interactions that were interpreted by researchers as irrelevant in the past, turn out to actually be quite important – even critical for learning, engagement, motivation and the perceptions of learners with regard to their own learning. Not exactly irrelevant stuff…

Two other researchers have even taken it a step further. Chris Phielix (2012) studied how collaboration in teams could be improved by making the team members more aware of both the way they work as individuals and as a group. Phielix developed two instruments to make the social aspects of collaboration visible in order to be able to improve them. With one instrument which he called RADAR (see the figure below), team members rated each other anonymously on six aspects of collaboration (i.e., friendliness, collaboration, quality of work, productivity, influence, trustworthiness) creating a radar diagram. After they completed the ratings, the results were shared with each individual team member. That way, the individual team members could discover what their peers actually thought about them. This could of course be either a disillusion, a pleasant surprise, or as expected. For example, someone might think that (s)he is very friendly, but would then find out that the peers actually found him/her a grouch. Or the other way around, perhaps a team member felt insecure about the quality of their work and then found out that peers actually value his or her work immensely.

Off-Task Communication Spot On in Collaborative Learning

The second instrument forced team members to reflect, both individually and as a group, on their own work as well as that of the team. By using both instruments, over time the difference between what the individual team members thought of themselves (self-assessment) and how their peers thought about them (peer assessment) gradually decreased. As a consequence, the team started to collaborate more effectively and efficiently and learn/work more as a team than as a group of individuals.

Jos Fransen (2012) studied which factors influence the effectiveness of a collaborative team. In his studies, the importance of off-task communication becomes quite obvious. Without the ‘small talk’, getting to a shared mental model or a mutual vision on task processing and team collaboration becomes challenging or even impossible. And, not unimportant either, without the chitchat teams have trouble to build trust. Both the shared mental model and trust are critical for effective collaboration. Also, without this type of social talk, a team is unable to determine how the process is evolving and where they need to make adjustments. Teams with strong all-kinds-of communications develop themselves better, work better, and learn better.

Oh well, you might have guessed all this. It’s an intuitive outcome and it makes total sense. However, the big win is that it’s scientifically supported now: Off-task communication is spot-on in collaborative learning!


Abedin, B., Daneshgar, F., & D’Ambra, J. (2012). Do nontask interactions matter? The relationship between nontask sociability of computer supported collaborative learning and learning outcomes. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43, 385-397.

Fransen, J. (2012). Teaming up for learning: Team effectiveness in collaborative learning in higher education. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Open Universiteit, Heerlen, the Netherlands.

Phielix, C. (2012). Enhancing collaboration through assessment & reflection. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands.