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Working with Students Who Have a Hard Time Collaborating

Robin Newton

English Education student at East Carolina University
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You already know collaboration is essential to today's classroom -- especially in the age of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework (P21). Students who truly collaborate construct knowledge together. When we ask students to collaborate, we’re asking them to take responsibility for their learning.

Okay. You get it. Collaboration's important. But how do you motivate productive collaboration within your classroom? First, figure out what's going on with the uncollaborative student.

There are any number of reasons a student may not like to collaborate:

  • Collaboration may clash with her culture.
  • He simply may not understand the project or assignment.
  • She may be shy or introverted.

Cultural Differences

David A. Kolb -- he of the Learning Style Inventory -- and Simy Joy researched culturally divergent learning styles in 2009, concluding, "Culture has a significant effect in deciding a person's preference for abstract conceptualization versus concrete experience." Typically, students who learn via abstract conceptualization prefer solo work, while students who favor concrete experience enjoy working with others. Also, some students may be uncomfortable working closely with students of another sex or ethnicity (or a host of other potential "others"). Certainly, discrimination is not okay and has no place in the classroom. Instead, model inclusive behavior, create a classroom safe for learning, and immediately address issues.

"I Don't Understand"

This plea (or complaint) is as enigmatic as the Bermuda Triangle. First, ensure that your student isn't manifesting a learning disability. Then ascertain if the student's home language is the same one you're using in the classroom. With those two hurdles out of the way, you can begin to solve the confusion puzzle. Confusion can take many forms. Suzanne Plaut has classified these forms into four "facets of confusion:" nature, types, causes, and responses to confusion. Wow. Plaut's research led her to five conclusions:

  1. Students want teachers to strive to discern and address their confusions.
  2. Teachers should make deliberate use of all four information sources:
    • Cues that students send unawares
    • Signals they send intentionally
    • Their written work
    • Their thoughts
  3. Teachers and students can reflect on the role confusion plays in learning.
  4. Teachers' and students' conceptions of confusion may be subject-specific.
  5. Students' stated confusions about procedures may indicate deeper confusions about concepts or purposes.

Create a classroom wherein students are confident enough to express their confusion, and you are bold enough to explore their confusion.

Shy versus Introverted

I’ll bet you read this phrase at the beginning of the post and thought, "Aren't shyness and introversion the same thing?" Well, no. As succinctly defined by Susan Cain, "Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating." But, she adds, "You can also, of course, be both shy and an introvert." Because a shy student worries about embarrassment -- desperate, life-ending embarrassment -- establishing a classroom environment that safely encourages student interconnections may actually help that student perform socially. You can approach introversion similarly:

[Collaboration] should take place in small groups -- pairs or threesomes -- and be carefully structured so each child knows her role. Roger Johnson, co-director of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, says that shy or introverted kids benefit especially from well-managed small-group work because "they are usually very comfortable talking with one or two of their classmates to answer a question or complete a task . . ."

Indeed, the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota has practical advice for all the students in your classroom, not just the introverted ones.

Teachers already understand that they cannot just throw a bunch of students together and expect magic. Rather, a teacher must know his or her students well enough to understand the ways in which collaboration might be a struggle. And, as effective collaboration is a skill students must learn, the teacher has to work to ensure the time students spend together benefits each and every one of them.

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Robin Newton

English Education student at East Carolina University

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Monica Burns's picture
Monica Burns
Author & Speaker, ADE , Founder of

I think that it's so important to acknowledge the issues that children may have when asked to collaborate. I love your statement, "Students who truly collaborate construct knowledge together." Here's one app I love using with my students to facilitate collaboration:

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

Gifted kids are often put in cooperative or collaborative groups to provide role models, to explain to those struggling or to carry the task to completion. No wonder they tend to dispise group learning. Role model: This is a set-up for bullying. Their peers are more likely to resent them as "know it alls" than look to them as models. Teacher: If a licensed adult teacher can't get a student to understand, why would you put it on a peer? They are in school to learn, not teach. They shouldn't be unpaid teacher's aides. Task commitment: They often feel they have to carry the slackers because their own grade (that they care about) is put in jeopardy when grading is done for the group rather than the individual. Don't forget to treat the gifted students with as much care as you do the other students in your care.

ICAL TEFL's picture

"Collaboration may clash with her culture."
"He simply may not understand the project or assignment."
"She may be shy or introverted."

So you're suggesting it's girls who have problems with culture, boys who have problems understanding and girls again who are shy or introverted?

Of course you aren't, but that's what you have written.

Can I suggest you use a gender-neutral pronoun such as 'they/their' to avoid this kind of casual stereotyping?

Patti W.'s picture
Patti W.
7th grade math and science teacher

I have several students who no one will work with, mostly because they are very, very quiet. I can facilitate that. But I have one student who often doesn't want to collaborate and when he does he uses all sorts of behaviors that make it difficult for others to work with him. I've coached him and I've coached those who have been asked to work with him. Some days he's just fine. Other days he's a terror. Sometimes he ends up working alone, but that's not always possible on lab days.

Anyway, while your advice was fine for collaboration newbies, I would be interested in hearing more about how to deal with the truly difficult, unique cases that come up. The advice presented here is pretty standard and available in multiple places.


Jay Fogleman's picture
Jay Fogleman
Teacher Educator, Rhode Island

Instead of listing reasons that students may refuse to collaborate, I have learned in my own teaching that it is often useful to examine "group" tasks to determine whether they are worth collaborating on.

Cooperative work takes many different forms in classrooms. True collaboration, where students work together, share their input, reach consensus, and cooperate to produce a product, is at the far end of the cooperation spectrum, and is very difficult to facilitate in classrooms (and in work settings).

When students resist collaborating, this can be a signal to the teacher that they do not see the task at hand as warranting this type of cooperation. Students are pretty clever about determining the level of work needed to complete a task.

One way a teacher can reflect on whether a task is "collaboration worthy" is to examine:
Can the task be done by students working individually in the given time at the necessary level of quality?
Is there a need for different talents or different points of view in the task's workflow?
Is there a need for students to "divide and conquer" and then work together on a shared product?

If the task IS worthy, then the teacher often still needs to "sell" what makes the task challenging before students will engage in the teaming process.

Normal school is replete with tasks that require "fake" collaboration, e.g. seatwork that is completed in small groups where students are completing individual artifacts. Sometimes, the students who balk at these types of assignments are just being honest and refusing to play "the game of school." (see Fried, 2001).

Barbara A. Boksz (Schulz)'s picture
Barbara A. Boksz (Schulz)
Retired Computer Literacy Educator

Taking this discussion to the next level of 21st century skills.... I have my 8th grade students collaborate on creating a wiki together, and the history behind the tool helps me see the collaboration more clearly when I grade them. I have them each fill out an independent research worksheet on a topic, then scaffold their learning to share their research on the discussion board of the wiki. Then they have to have online discussions about which of their answers to share on the front page of the wiki. Knowing that I give a group grade, but deduct points from individuals if they have not shared their independent work with the group, does motivate some to participate. In addition, they are all learning the tools (they are in a lab learning this). One of the things I do on the discussion board that is UDL oriented is that I have them sign up to be "the expert" on a task for the group. In other words, they can be the person in charge of pictures, text, or citations, or be the technology expert that figures out the glitches. This helps them tap into their own strengths in front of their peers.

Regina Schaffer's picture
Regina Schaffer
Instructional Technology Specialist

The ability to collaborate is a skill that encompasses communication, time management, diplomacy, decision making and a host of other "soft skills". I use my introduction unit, at the beginning of the year, to get to know the students and assess these skills. We do various exercises in the context of our content that walks them through the whys and hows of collaboration. I use collaboration for lengthy complex PBLs that require many different skills (writing, researching, presenting, creating, etc) so that students begin to see the wisdom in collaborating with others who might write well, or is an excellent researcher, etc. With 150+ students I have my fair share of students who are not keen on working collaboratively (and yes many times it's the honors students), they soon come to learn that there are many different types of intellegence and skills that are needed, welcomed and sometimes required to create in the real world. That the reading/writing paradigm that they have been rewarded for excelling in, is only one part of the 21st century skills that will be needed in their lifetime to be successful.

Mandy Wultsch's picture
Mandy Wultsch
Parent of 2 highly gifted kids who are cyber schooled in Pennsylvania

I know I used to hate collaboarative work because I used to end up doing the whole project, but still had to listen to (usually wrong) input from all group members while the treacher was making rounds listening to all groups because they needed to prove that they helped to get a good grade. For just about all the projects, I could have done the entire project faster (and often better) if I could have done it on my own. My older child hated to do collaroative work in school (would end up in tears), and this was one of the factors that led me to homeschool and later cyber school my children.

Beccy's picture

You have left out a whole group, the bright kids who want to get a good mark but feel "pulled down" by their peers. If they don't have the social skills to get their opinion across in group work, they get outvoted and get a bad mark. And the outvoting process feels bullying, as Becky said.

MRM's picture

To Becky ("If a licensed adult teacher can't get a student to understand, why would you put it on a peer? They are in school to learn, not teach. They shouldn't be unpaid teacher's aides.") and others regarding the advanced students:

Frequently, the best way to *learn* something is to teach it to someone else. From my own experience, I was a pretty smart kid in school (took AP Calculus and such), but I am a *verbal* learner--I *learn* best when I can *talk* (NOT write, NOT blog, NOT text, NOT email--TALK face to face) about a subject. So, I welcomed opportunities to work with other students or "teach" them things.

"Collaborating" should be done on a project on which **everyone** is going to gain something not on some topic that the advanced students have already mastered.

And learning specifically HOW to collaborate, especially with people of different cultural backgrounds and/or ability levels and skill sets may be the most important lesson of all, something all students should get experience doing. I know more than one very bright person who was not very successful as an adult because he couldn't work well with others.

It is the teacher's job to create an environment in which *all* students feel safe to express themselves without fear of being put down either for being a "smartypants" or a "know-nothing".

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