Five Tips for Building Strong Collaborative Learning
Teachers share successful tactics for helping kids learn from each other with examples from math and English classes.
Students at The College Preparatory School often collaborate in groups, as in this math class where students work together to solve a set of geometry problems in the classroom (above), and then work in the same groups on a related project outside (right).
Credit: Zachary Fink
At The College Preparatory School (College Prep) in Oakland, California, student collaboration happens on a daily basis. From group-centered math assignments, to student-led discussions in English class, College Prep's culture enables students to both teach and learn from each other, strengthening skills that will deepen their learning.
Here are some of the strategies educators there use to help promote collaboration and empower student-centered learning in their classrooms:
- Consider Classroom Geography
- Focus on Process, Not Right Answers
- Build In Accountability to Each Other
- Let Students Teach Each Other
- Encourage Students to Be In Tune with Each Other
1. Consider Classroom Geography
Many classrooms at College Prep are arranged specifically to enable the flow of ideas across a shared workspace. In math classes, students work in groups of four, so desks are arranged in clusters of two sets of two desks facing each other. In this arrangement, engaged groups of students are easy to spot, says math teacher Betsy Thomas. "Their faces are directed towards each other or each other's work, making sure people are staying together and sharing questions and explanations." In the best groups, she says, you'll see a student actually get up out of her seat and walk around to help another student figure out where he might be going wrong.
English seminars are set up around large, oval Harkness tables, where students can all face each other. Because eye contact is key to fruitful discussions, English teacher Julie Anderson always makes sure her students can see each other at the start of class and will reposition those who can't. In rooms without a Harkness table, she has her students sit in a circle. The tighter the circle, the better, she adds. If the students spread out too much, it can diffuse energy.
"The Harkness table works because all the kids can see each other and nobody is privileged, including the teacher," Anderson explains. "We are learners like everyone else." In a recent discussion, students talked about the differences between honor, fame, reputation, and respect, which prompted a conversation about how the pursuit of fame and honor today compares to that in ancient Greece. It was a conversation that gave Anderson food for thought, too. "I found myself wondering for days afterwards what exactly fame and honor meant in these respective cultures," she says.
2. Focus on Process, Not Right Answers
In math classes at College Prep, teachers have a clever way of shifting the emphasis away from right or wrong answers. Students are given problem sets with coded values (PDF). Each student is assigned a unique set of numeric values for a set of variables (e.g., for one student, a=12, b=8, c=15, d=3, and for another, a=5, b=12, c=2, and d=7). The students plug these values into the problems, each student ending up with a different set of correct answers. As a result, when the students review the problem sets together, they must focus on how they arrived at their final answers rather than on the answers themselves.
Similarly, in the school's English seminars, there can be more than one right answer when analyzing and interpreting text: students are encouraged to share differing perspectives. During a freshman discussion about The Odyssey (PDF), for instance, the class was asked who might be a modern-day equivalent of Odysseus. One student half-jokingly suggested Tim Tebow, the oft-maligned football player, noting how the displays of resourcefulness by the two were similar. Another student suggested Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, citing the mistakes he'd made in the past, and a third compared Odysseus's journey to that of Felix Baumgartner, the skydiver who recently broke the sound barrier, as both journeys had their uncertainties and struggles. "It really comes back to textual evidence," says Maya, a junior at College Prep. "People can have completely different answers, but as long as they support it with a good analysis, then their answer is completely acceptable and sometimes even brilliant."
3. Build In Accountability to Each Other
A sense of shared responsibility among students for their collective success is essential to many classroom practices at College Prep. For instance, in Thomas's Math II class, students take group tests (PDF) at the end of some units. Though the students work in groups and consult on answers, each student completes a copy of the test. However, only one test from each group is randomly selected for grading to ensure students are grasping the material and are all on the same page. "We intentionally make the problems on the group test much harder than we do on the individual tests," says Thomas. "But because they're free to work together, they generally prevail on the questions."
At the end of every unit, Thomas also gives each group a collaboration grade (PDF) indicating how well the group worked together over the course of the unit. Each group is graded as one, so everyone within a group gets the same mark. These collaboration grades count for 10 percent of students' overall grade for each unit.
Anderson uses discussion tracker sheets (PDF) in her English seminars to capture the flow of the conversation (PDF) and how often each student speaks. These maps provide a clear record for students to see how much each is contributing during class and who may need some extra encouragement to enter into the flow of the discussion.
4. Let Students Teach Each Other
Both the math and English teachers have honed techniques to encourage peer-to-peer teaching among their students. Again, Thomas and her math colleagues intentionally make the group classwork problems harder, pushing students to first seek help from their groupmates before appealing to the teacher. If students begin problem solving by explaining elements of the problem to each other, chances are those exchanges will trigger others until they find the solution. And if not, they will at least have enjoyed a healthy dose of collaborative critical thinking.
In English, the seminars are composed of both juniors and seniors to help the younger students learn how to be receptive, active participants in discussions. "Juniors learn from the seniors how to act in the seminar and that gets passed on year after year," explains Anderson.
She also assigns pairs of students to lead class occasionally, another way of helping them learn by teaching. "When I'm put in a position of actually having to lead the discussion, I have to come up with more things to say," says Maddy, a junior. "That way, I learn more than I would have otherwise."
Online discussions provide another forum for students to collaborate and share ideas, and Anderson often uses these online conversations to shape the next day's class discussion. For example, in a recent online discussion about Plato's Allegory of the Cave on the class's website -- which was built using the free Google Sites tool -- students were required to write three questions (PDF): a discussion question, a question based on a specific point in the text, and a question based on a personal perspective. The next night, Anderson selected five of their questions as starters (PDF) for which they wrote 400-word responses. To further stoke the collaboration, students were also required to address the thoughts of the two students above them in the thread, a tactic Anderson uses to encourage more peer-to-peer learning.
5. Encourage Students to Be In Tune with Each Other
For students to feel comfortable asking each other for help, it's important for them to learn how to be sensitive to each other. In math, each group is thoughtfully selected to provide a mix of skill levels and personality types and Thomas gives concrete feedback on the group's interactions. She will encourage more vocal students to take a step back, making room for more reticent ones to pose their own questions and see that their participation actually benefits the whole group. Overall, everyone begins to understand how a successful, productive group functions.
In her English classes, Anderson employs a number of methods to help students stay in tune with each other. She is intentional about modeling examples of positive and engaged listeners. She insists that everyone sit up straight, make eye contact, and not raise their hands while someone else is speaking, helping the entire class understand the messages body language can convey.
Anderson also starts every class with a few moments of quiet to help students recalibrate their mindset and focus. She frequently asks students to indicate their energy and stress levels. This not only helps Anderson structure the class -- on a "low energy" day, she might have students pair up for individual readings -- but it also helps students better understand and be sensitive to one another's emotional states of mind.
Before embarking on the actual discussion, Anderson sometimes assigns roles to three students to help facilitate discourse. The scribe takes notes for the entire class, which allows the rest of the students to focus on the discussion; the discussion mapper uses a table diagram to track who is talking and how often, providing students with a visual representation of their contributions; and the moderator makes sure the discussion goes smoothly, either by slowing things down if the discussion is moving too quickly or by creating space in the conversation for quieter students to contribute.