Collaborative Learning

An Effective Strategy for Successful Group Work

Articulating what good teamwork looks like takes planning, reflection, and respect for student choice.

February 22, 2024
Sjoerd van Leeuwen / The iSpot

One of my all-time favorite reflective protocols is the Start-Stop-Continue exercise. It encourages learners to consider the impact of whatever is being learned by asking them about its perceived impact. A teacher or facilitator completes a lesson or an instruction sequence and then pauses, asking their audience to consider what they’re going to start doing, stop doing, or continue doing based on a learning experience.

One example of how this structure was impactful for my growth occurred after I participated in a series of professional learning communities (PLCs) focused on collaborative learning. I was teaching middle school, and while collaborative learning can and should be done at any grade level, it’s especially important in middle school, because tween learners need support as they encounter more complex emotions and social situations for the first time

Based on what I learned from the PLC and the impact those strategies had in my classroom, I committed to start, stop, and continue certain things in regard to collaboration, each of which had profound impacts on how I viewed work time within a project-based learning (PBL) context. 

START: Differentiate between group work and team work

Calling project work time “group work” is a bit of a misnomer. I once heard a colleague of mine, who also happened to be an experienced little league coach, explain the importance of this distinction in a very clever way: “There is a reason why we call them baseball teams rather than baseball groups.” His point was that groups are not invested in the long-term success of their partners, while teammates recognize that individual efforts contribute to the success of all and are therefore more invested. 

The reason this differentiation is key is that it reminds teachers to provide temporary grouping structures throughout the course of an assigned project that are different from the team that is producing the final product. There are many benefits to this, but here are three that I’ve observed: 

  1. It provides students access to different perspectives and solutions that may exist outside their project team. 
  2. It allows teachers to leverage protocols that might call for pairs, trios, or larger groupings than the project teams may provide. 
  3. It gives students a break from the people they’re collaborating with the most. This is sometimes critical to the continued harmony in a classroom, especially at the middle school level where relationships and hormones seem to change with the tides.

STOP: Assuming That collaboration is built by experience alone

Having students work in groups is not the same as teaching them to collaborate. It’s akin to teaching someone to swim by throwing them in a lake and shouting at them from a distance until they figure it out; it’s skill development born out of desperation, and there are definitely less stressful ways to learn. 

I believe that providing specific, teacher-facilitated opportunities to discreetly develop collaboration skills should be a part of any project where teamwork is required, especially early on. You want students to have a chance to follow Tuckman’s stages of group development before grades add extra stress to the experience. Provide them time for storming and norming before deadlines, and you’ll be setting them up for a better chance at success.

This can be done with short group challenges accompanied by a quality assessment tool, such as a rubric that clearly articulates what good teamwork looks like. Books like the summer camp classic Silver Bullets or the evidence-based rubrics on the PBLWorks website are resources worth checking out. Building your students’ collaboration muscles takes planning, but it doesn’t need to add full days to your PBL projects. Look for places to include 15-to-20-minute experiences at the beginning of your day for greatest impact. 

CONTINUE: Include student voice in groupings

Whether or not to allow your students to pick their own groups for collaborative learning is a common question. While student choice can promote positive class culture and engagement, students don’t always make grouping decisions based on who will be their most effective learning partner. Despite this, I did and still do advocate for occasionally allowing students to have some say in their groups, but this doesn’t mean completely unstructured, or on scaffolded control. 

Group and team formation should be a shared endeavor. Sometimes you’re the one who makes the decision, and sometimes you allow a degree of student choice—but most often in a shared process.

An example of this would be allowing students their choice of roles, then a teacher uses that choice to form groups based on those roles. Another example might be allowing them to submit the name of a partner whom they want to work with and then forming the final group by putting two pairs together. They might also choose the type of final product they would like to create and then form groups based on that choice.

These choices I made about what to start-stop-continue doing in regard to group and team work became much more than just kids working in groups, but an opportunity to increase a key college- and career-readiness skill that would benefit them for the rest of their lives.

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Filed Under

  • Collaborative Learning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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