George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Student Team Members Weigh In on Each Other’s Work

December 27, 2012
Photo credit: pennstatelive via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Earlier this month, I wrote about how the four Cs relate to my current TED Talks unit. Just to recap, the four Cs represent elements of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.

In my previous writing, I covered a bit about how the unit hit on differentiated communication skills as the students developed different parts of a whole project, much of which was based on technology to transmit their topics.

The topics were advocacy-themed. That is, students researched problems in their school or city, state or country, or even in the world, that needed solving. They then divided up the jobs of creating an infographic, a powerpoint, a Weebly website, or a short podcast to communicate the information that they had all researched. It's a unit that is ongoing, and I'm just now, as you read this post, giving feedback on the initial stages of their argument writing by looking at the first phases of their websites. After all, I hate taking stacks of essays home, when I can instead, received an emailed link from a student and reply right then and there for them to receive eagerly.

Incidentally, I think it's important to note here that I teach in a Title I district, with a large population of English Language Learners. The students in my classes range from at-risk to gifted, from performing academically below grade level to exceeds beyond. Nevertheless, I do not feel the rigor is beyond them and it's my job to develop their college and career ready skills.

Anyway, back to the unit. In this post, I'm going to cover another C, this time the one focusing on working collaboratively. When I talk to teachers who still do not permit students to work in groups, the main reason they give is that there is always an inequity in the workload: There's the one student who does it all and the other that does nothing. The key here is to ensure that while they contribute to the whole, each student is getting scored on their own work. In addition, the students need to own their own expectations of how to work together as well as be given an outlet at the end to vent how people worked together.

The Student-Created Team Charter

It all starts with a team charter, a collaboration constitution of sorts. Once the students were grouped (a combination of student choice and teacher input), the first order of business was to agree on certain collaboration requirements. This was to put in place certain expectations that could then be assessed fairly at the end of the project. Questions they had to focus on included:

  • How often could we agree to meet outside of class time?
  • What methods of communication worked best? Email? Face-to-face? Skype?
  • How long a time could go by before responding to a team member's question before it was considered unacceptable?
  • What steps do we take to handle our own participation issues before going to the teacher? In other words, if someone isn't pulling their weight, what can we as colleagues do before asking an outside party to intervene?

Then students could also create their own expectations. Consequences proved the most amusing. They ranged from written notes of reprimand to an agreed upon time compensation fee for other team members' wasted time. All students signed the contracts, and the copies also went home for parents to see.

A Collaborative Puzzle

From there, it was about developing a unit that works like a puzzle, allowing kids to insert their own ideas and creations into the whole. Working together, however, cannot allow certain students to rest on his or her laurels. Nope. I have the process scaffolded so that students are responsible for different elements of the end product.

I've explained the collaborative nature of the final product and how each student is responsible for a different part of the whole. But what I haven't explained yet is how they came to decide their group's topic. They worked by themselves, gathering research on topics they wanted their group to select, and a pitch to convince their colleagues. To choose their initial topic, I guided them to do the following:

  • In the computer lab, each student spent two class periods researching topics that ranged from local issues to international debates. I gave them mini-lessons in using Google Advanced Search and researching reliably. I also gave them a list of resources they could begin with: websites to different city halls, student-friendly news sites, debate sites, etc.
  • They then each wrote a Problem Statement that pitched the topic they were most interested in focusing on to the others in their group. The Problem Statement required them to each produce a high-level paragraph on the importance of their issue as well as three to five questions that could help guide further research. Each student was received a score based on their content and writing quality of this document
  • Each group had a read-around of all the four problem statements brought to the table. Using different strategies of decision-making, the students selected the issue on which they most wanted to focus as a group

Evaluating Each Other

The whole project will eventually end with a collaboration rubric, filled out by peers, that evaluates each member's ability to collaborate. Using the initial team chapter as the objectives to align with the evaluation, the students will be using a simple and free online program like Rubistar in order to design their own team's collaboration rubric. After agreeing on the most important bullets to evaluate, the students will be permitted to, in a professional manner, let me know of the ease or challenges of working as a group. Clearly, I have also been observing and supervising these groups, so none of what I expect to see will be a surprise. And if the evaluations come in aligned with my own observations, I will issue each student a score on how well they worked in a team.

Collaboration is a vital skill for college and career readiness. But one cannot just call small groups successful without a lot of foresight and planning. However, our mission is to prepare them. Just be prepared, that the ability to collaborate still needs scaffolding and guidance.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Technology Integration
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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