George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Collaborative Learning

5 Strategies to Deepen Student Collaboration

Use these five best practices to help your students build a valuable 21st-century skill.

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Most of us who teach believe in the power of collaboration and frequently engage our students in collaborative activities. But how many times have we put students in groups only to watch them interact with their laptops instead of each other? Or pursue their own individual goals instead of consult with one another? Or complain about a lazy teammate?

Promoting real collaboration is hard to do well—and it doesn’t just happen on its own. If we want real collaboration, we need to intentionally design it as part of our learning activity. These are five strategies to encourage effective collaboration.

Create Learning Activities That Are Complex

Students need a reason to collaborate. If the assignment is too simple, they can more easily do it alone. At most, they may check in with each other or interact in superficial ways. The real reason to collaborate is because the task is complex—it is too difficult and has too many pieces to complete alone.

Complex activities are challenging, engaging, stimulating, and multilayered. Complex activities require “positive interdependence” (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2008), a situation in which attaining the goal, completing the task, being successful, and getting a good grade require that the team work together and share knowledge.

One way to do this is through rigorous projects that require students to identify a problem (for example, balancing population growth in their city with protection of existing green spaces) and agree—through research, discussion, debate, and time to develop their ideas—on a solution which they must then propose together.

Prepare Students to Be Part of a Team

Collaborative groups can’t be assigned—they have to be built and nurtured. Students often need to learn how to work effectively with others and as part of a team. We have to help students understand the what, why, and how of collaboration. We can do this in several ways:

  • Help students understand the benefits of collaboration and what successful collaboration looks like.
  • Guide students through the stages of team building (forming, storming, norming, and performing).
  • Give students time and opportunities within the activity to develop leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills.
  • Establish expectations and norms for working together.
  • Design, or have students design, protocols for handling conflict disagreement so they can resolve issues within their teams.
  • Teach students active listening skills.

Minimize Opportunities for Free Riding

When students complain about collaborative groups, it often has to do with the free riding of one member who lets others do all the work and then benefits from the group grade. We can eliminate free riding in a number of ways:

  • Create small groups of no more than four or five people. When there is less room to hide, nonparticipation is more difficult.
  • Ensure a high degree of individual accountability (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2008) by assessing students both individually and as a group. For example, at the end of the day give students an individual quiz based on the intended outcome of their collaborative activity.
  • Design meaningful team roles that relate to the content and to the task. Roles like time keeper are episodic and don’t intellectually engage students in the content, and this can encourage free riding. In contrast, more meaningful roles such as manager, monitor, and leaders for each subtask of the activity give students ownership in the process and allow the teacher to assess students based on successful completion of these roles.
  • Have students evaluate their own participation and effort and that of each team member and triangulate those assessments with your own

Build in Many Opportunities for Discussion and Consensus

Many group projects are based on efficiency, dividing labor to create a product in the most effective way possible. This focus on the product means that we often ignore the process of collaboration. Rich discussions that connect students with the experiences of others, that engage them deeply in a shared intellectual experience, and that promote coming to consensus are essential to collaboration.

For instance, students can come to consensus around a solution or decision where they must defend or propose a common vision or develop a set of beliefs or principles. This focus on discussion and consensus builds both academic and social skills—students learn to defend their ideas through evidence and analytical reasoning, to negotiate meaning, and to argue constructively.

Focus on Strengthening and Stretching Expertise

The challenge of designing good collaborative activities is ensuring that all students, even those who struggle, play an important role. Collaboration should not just strengthen students’ existing skills but ensure that their interactions stretch existing knowledge and expand one another’s expertise. If, for example, a student is much stronger in one skill than her peers in her group, she can teach others and her grade can be contingent upon how much her peers learn.

In collaborative activities, we want to ensure that students don’t just occupy the same physical space but that they share an intellectual space—that they learn more, do more, and experience more together than they would alone. As teachers, we can promote real collaboration by shifting our role from instructor to coach—promoting team autonomy, checking in on students and providing instant feedback, and helping them increasingly learn to work together productively to attain a common goal.

Reference:

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., & Holubec, E. (2008). Cooperation in the Classroom.

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Thom Markham's picture

Really excellent strategies for moving beyond cooperative learning and group work. Follow these five recommendations and student teams will be on the road to industry-standard collaboration, which should be our goal for 21st century learners.

Laura Saulles's picture

Thanks for the great tips! I am student teaching right now, and I have been amazed at how much my students have been capable of accomplishing in groups when I give them the space to work through their problems. It is so tempting sometimes to step in when they find the work challenging, but they grow so much more when they feel accountable for their work and can work together to find solutions.

Mary Burns's picture
Mary Burns
Senior Learning Technologist

Hi Thom and Laura, Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Laura, good luck on your important journey as a teacher.

All the best,

Mary

Deb Chickadel's picture

Thank you so much for writing about collaboration and student engagement. It takes much more effort to make collaborations successful and your thoughts really remind me of the work we do at University Child Development School, here in Seattle. The process of the assignment is almost always the number one goal when we are working with students, whether it be independently or within a collaborative group. Communication skills and language that helps lead to consensus and shared ownership has to be taught and practiced with at least 99% of all students. One of your most pertinent points is the ability and willingness to take the time when working with students in collaborative groups. In our work with students we most always begin collaborative projects with an open conversation about language, both verbal and non-verbal, that help lead to success for all. We teach the kids to pay attention to their tone of voice and word choice so that each member of the group can hear their good ideas and respond intellectually rather than emotionally. I feel so fortunate to be in an educational environment that values the outcomes in student ownership, advocacy, and communication and allows each teacher the time and flexibility to respond.
Deb Chickadel
PreK-K Teacher
UCDS
Seattle, WA

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

This is great--but one question. I have switched from teaching in the classroom to homeschooling, including teaching a homeschool co-op class. After so many years of motivating students with grades, I'm not always sure how to push them without that carrot. I hated that part of the system when I was in it, but I also learned to play the game.
Now, I have two less motivated students in the co-op, and I would love to have them all do a collaborative project, but I'm not sure how to engage those two. They just don't have the work ethic/attention span of the other kids.

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