George Lucas Educational Foundation
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College Readiness: Learning Collaboratively

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"Good Morning! You are seated in groups because you will be working together to find real solutions to real problems. You will have to collaborate with your group members to arrive at a solution. Are you ready?"

No response. Timid nods.

"Ok, your first assignment is to invent a product that fills a real need. Then create a marketing plan for a company that sells this product. Determine the price of your product and your target audience, and design a sales poster and presentation explaining the benefits of the product or reasons your target audience would want to buy this product."

No response. No action.

Preparing Students

The typical first day silence lasted a whole week. Students who were used to being told what to do and what to think, now had to think in ways in which they were not accustomed, and even worse, they had to do it with other students from other schools. They had to collaborate in a manner for which their years of cooperative learning in middle and grade school had not prepared them.

When I worked at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I had the privilege of managing this exciting program which used a multi-disciplinary curriculum sponsored by a grant from the Ford Fund called Ford Partnerships for Advanced Studies (PAS). Ninth grade students were immersed in this inquiry-based curriculum for six weeks during the summer of 2005 on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus. In the process of investigating case studies, and arriving at solutions students had to learn about marketing, production, science, technology, business, reverse engineering, and math, most of which were new subjects to these students. Some basic principals are explained through case studies, but the learning was completely open ended -- true inquiry.

Wisely, the teachers and I anticipated the student lack of preparation for collaboration and decided to spend some time preparing students to function with other students collaboratively, in the inquiry format. The students were taught how to share ideas, brainstorm, feed off other ideas, explore in the box, out of the box, and under the box. In the first week of the program, we discovered that in their home schools not enough effort was placed on actually training students to think and behave collaboratively instead of just cooperatively.

Cooperative learning is different than collaborative learning (Webb, Nemer, & Zuniga, 2003). The subtle difference is that in cooperative learning, roles are assigned to each student and in essence, each student is working independently, together. Collaborative learning is combining the skills and talents of all the students working together at the same time, on the same thing. Different skill sets are required to be successful in cooperative learning and collaboration. Both require an ability to get along with others and being responsible, but in collaboration, students must be able to give and take, adjust, interact, ask questions, think critically, encourage and inspire by contributing all they have -- not just the portion belonging to their particular part or role.

In 1999, twenty cognitive scientists and educational researchers from around the world met concerning collaborative learning and although they could not agree on a single definition of what collaborative learning is, they did agree that it means getting students together in situations that trigger deep learning (Dillenbourg, 1999). Vygotsky, Bandura, and even Piaget, maintained that deep learning is a collaborative endeavor.

The Results

From the first day to the last day, the students in the Ford PAS program went through an amazing transformation. The first week they did not have a clue on how to go about solving a problem collaboratively. Eventually they learned how to do this through working on the solutions to sticky, real-world problems: from finding the lowest cost for manufacturing using the best metals, to determining in which country it would be most advantageous to establish their company based on current economic data.

The final project required the students to develop methods to test for the most suitable plastic for their manufacturing plant.

If you had seen this group of students the first week, you would have now thought they were different a different group entirely. In the final project they immediately attacked the problem, explored the limits of the problem, identified the parameters of success, and went to work finding possible solutions. In each of their groups respectively they researched what kinds of experiments can test plastics and then designed ways to effectively test tensile strength, pliability, chemical resistance, and shear forces. Their ability to collaborate, or in other words, as a group create something unique and wonderful, was amazing.

The Implications

Incoming students in colleges such as MIT, as my son recently found out, are expected to be able to effectively learn in collaboration with their classmates from day one. This means that the secondary and primary schools should give their students the necessary practice in collaboration rather than just cooperative grouping.

Collaborative inquiry means the answer is unknown to the students beforehand, and so they must investigate, explore, discover, synthesize, and create on their own (within a teacher-provided time frame).

Establishing group norms, goals, and standards of performance is something that the teachers can train students to do as a matter of course. Helping students understand and use explicit expectations such as rubrics is crucial for students to succeed. However, the most valuable thing a teacher can do to help students learn collaboration is to let the process run its course. Don't interfere.

The ability to learn independently is prized by universities, but more and more colleges are seeking students that can learn collaboratively. How do you prepare your students to learn collaboratively?

Suggested resources

Dillenbourg, P. "What Do You Mean by Collaborative Learning?" (Collaborative-Learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches, Oxford: Elsevier, 1999)

Webb, N. M., Nemer, K. M., and Zuniga, S. "Short Circuits or Superconductors? Effects of Group Composition on High-Achieving Students' Science Assessment Performance." (American Educational Research Journal 39, 2003)

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Michael Strait's picture
Michael Strait
Consultant, Learning Outcomes Assessment

I couldn't agree more with Ben's premise that learning collaboratively is an essential element of college readiness. It is also an essential element of career readiness. High school students participating in career academies supported by the National Academy Foundation (NAF) practice collaborative project-based learning in every NAF course. The projects students work on together in these career-themed courses were designed with the help of working professionals in the career area to ensure that they have more than a "real world" flavor -- the projects reflect exactly the kinds of activities in which professionals in the career area engage on a day to day basis. In other words, they have specific relevance to student's college and career aspirations.

Collaboration on these group projects is assessed as part of our student certifiaction assessment system. Of equal importance for college and career readiness is learning how to learn, which requires students to develop the ability to reflect on and crtique their own work in relation to learning objectives using shared standards and criteria. As with collaboration, the ability to reflect and self-assess is not typically taught in high school but is expected from day one in college. By emphasizing collaboration and self-assessment as essential elements of college readiness in our courses and in our student certification assessment system, NAF hopes to encourage teachers to provide more direct instruction and practice with these important skills in all of their courses, and we expect to see students benefit in terms of college and career success.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I assume then, that you have heard of the Ford PAS program. It seems to align very closely with the National Academy Foundation courses.

You mentioned that the "collaboration" was assessed in each one of these courses. Could you describe a bit more about what you mean by that?

It sounds like you and your organization are doing a great work for our students. Keep it up!

Thanks for the post!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Michael Strait's picture
Michael Strait
Consultant, Learning Outcomes Assessment

Hi Ben,

The assessment of collaboration I mentioned in my comment is part of both the project assessment component of our student certification assessment system and the internship assessment completed by the student's internship supervisor.

NAF developed its own technical core curriculum for its academies of finance, hospitality & tourism, and information technology. All of these courses have a common structure which includes project-based learning and a culminating project specific to the career theme and course content. Almost all of the culminating projects are group rather than individual projects, and it is this structure which affords us the opportunity to include an assessment of collaboration in projects.

For example, for a course in database design for our information technology academy curriculum, in the culminating project students apply the basic concepts and tools of database design and database implementation to create a database and a database application for a client who has requested a database application to fulfill a particular business need. The students work cooperatively in groups of four. Each group is assigned the same client, but because each group will set up its own conceptual model, entity-relationship model, database, and database application, all of the projects will be unique. Potential clients are local small businesses, nonprofit organizations, school clubs and organizations, and so on.

NAF contracted with WestEd to develop the assessments for our certification assessment system. In the case of the project assessment, even though the culminating project is unique to course content and learning objectives WestEd developed a common protocol for collecting student work samples and having students reflect on their learning in their projects, and they developed a rubric for teacher's to use to perform the summative assessment which includes assessment of collaboration.

Actually the current rubric is worded as "evidence of contribution" as seen below:

Evidence of Contribution - Levels of performance:

Level 4 (Exceeds expectations) Demonstrates active and consistent contribution in the group through all stages (i.e., work samples and the final product).

Level 3 (Meets expectations) Demonstrates general contribution in the group through all stages (i.e., work samples and the final product).

Level 2 (Approaches expectations) Demonstrates limited contribution in the group through all stages (i.e., work samples and the final product).

Level 1 (Does not meet expectations) Demonstrates minimal or no contribution in the group through all stages (i.e., work samples and the final product).

One might argue that students could contribute to a group project without collaborating but that is the kind of distinction we assessment professionals love to make which is probably lost on most teachers who will actually be making the judgments.

We also ask internship supervisors to assess the student intern's teamwork and collaboration skills with these levels of performance distinctions provided in another rubric:

Teamwork and collaboration:

Level 1 (does not meet expectations) - The student builds minimal relationships with colleagues and customers and has difficulty working in a team.
For example, the student did not participate effectively in team planning and did not complete his/her portion as planned.

Level 2 (approaches expectations) - The student builds collaborative relationships with colleagues and customers and is able to work comfortably with diverse teams.
For example, the student participated in team planning but did not complete his/her portion as planned.

Level 3 (meets expectations) - The student builds collaborative relationships with colleagues and customers and is able to work with diverse teams, contributing appropriately to the team effort.
For example, the student completed his/her portion as planned and contributed adequately.

Level 4 (exceeds expectations) - The student builds collaborative relationships with colleagues and customers; is able to work with diverse teams, contributing appropriately to the team effort; and negotiates and manages conflict.
For example, the student did all that was necessary to meet the team's goals; the student was also able to work in an environment of divergent perspectives.

These are the ways we assess collaboration for our certification assessments

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


NAF has a powerful concept that promotes real learning. Produce a service or solution for a real business and students will see the real connection between learning and life.
Your rubric for grading group collaboration is a strong step in the right direction that many schools need to follow.

Thank you for sharing

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

kristinad's picture

I am currently enrolled in a professional inquiry program and the class i'm working on right now explores collaborative inquiry; the coming together of professionals to find a solution to a common problem, as well a collaborative inquiry among students. I'm still new to the teaching profession and wanted to get a better idea of if and how collaborative inquiry is present in our schools? How are schools, school boards and teachers being encouraged? how are they being supported?

any thoughts or insight would be great, thank you.

nrog's picture

I am also taking a collaborative inquiry class and one of the discussion threads we had as peers talked about cooperation vs. collaboration. I thought the distinction was explained very well here. I also work in post-secondary online learning where students are often put into random groups and must work together through forums or online tools to create a product/find a solution. It's interesting to see the variety that occurs with combinations of students fresh out of high school and adult learners who have some work experience under their belt. I think you made an important point here about teachers providing guidance, but otherwise allowing the collaborative process to run its course. In my class we're also discussing the importance of reflection and I think even an "unsuccessful" inquiry can have value for students if they look back on the inquiry and what did/didn't work.

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