Collaborative Learning

Using Collaborative Learning to Build Student Agency

Making group work not just helpful but necessary fosters student-led learning.

May 10, 2016


At University Park Campus School (UPCS), group work is an integral part of the culture. The school practices group work across all grades and subjects, and students see collaborative problem-solving modeled by their teachers and administration. Through group work, they learn that there's a diversity of valid perspectives, build comfort around using their own voices, and understand the value of accepting and building on the contributions of others.

"The world increasingly relies on people being able to work together to collaboratively solve problems," says Dan St. Louis, University Park Campus School's principal. “The problems of today’s society are difficult. No one person is able to solve an issue on their own. You need to be able to work with others to appreciate what they’re saying, push back if need be, but also to be reflective about your own understanding and to be able to build approaches with other people. For us, we’re training kids to do that now."

How It's Done

The seventh-grade curriculum at University Park includes a strong focus on building foundational group-work skills. A lot of students are self-conscious when they come to UPCS, observes math teacher Kathy Murphy. "They don't want others to know if they're having trouble with solving a problem, and they're shy about speaking," says Murphy.

UPCS’ middle school grades introduce students to the roles and expectations of group work and build their comfort around participating. By high school, the teachers can step back to let students direct their own group work.

Here's how UPCS educators teach group work:

Step 1: Help Students Experience Group Work Through Warm-Up Activities

Warm-up activities can increase your students’ awareness about what makes good and bad group work.

"Students think that they do good group work, but then you see students who aren't talking to each other," says Murphy. “They're like, 'Here, let me read that,' and they do it on their own. That's not group work.”

In Murphy's seventh-grade class, her students do the following warm-up activities to help them better understand what doing good group work feels like:

  1. Without talking, have your students line up by height. "All students understand what height is. It's definitely accessible to all," explains Murphy. Time your students to see how quickly they can do this activity.
  2. Without talking, have your students line up by birthday. Time them.
  3. Have your students line by the number of their street address. This time, your students can say only their street number.
  4. Reflect with your students. Murphy asks her students, “What do you notice?” They realize that when they talk and listen to each other, group work is easier, and they are able to achieve their goal more quickly.

Step 2: Share How People Learn in Different Ways

Share a personal example of how you have learned from a student to show that everybody has a unique perspective, something to contribute, and that there are many ways to come up with one solution.

Murphy shares a story with her class about assigning a problem to a previous class. "I myself, being a college graduate and a math major, had this big, elaborate way to solve it. But a ten-year-old did the same exact problem, and I couldn't believe how fabulous his answer was. We got the same answer, and we got to the solution differently. He drew a picture, and it was fabulous."

Step 3: Build Comfort Around Speaking in a Group

At the beginning of the year, assign problems that every student can access and feel comfortable about contributing his or her ideas. By incorporating low-stakes writing or verbal prompts (such as, “What do you notice?”), you encourage kids to feel safe in participating. "Even if they don't know the answer, they can say, 'Well, I noticed there's a pattern that is increasing by two,'" says Murphy.

Step 4: Give Students Roles

In middle school, teachers at University Park lay out more defined roles for their students. Having these specific roles helps students feel more comfortable with participating and prompts them with ways to participate. By the upper grades of high school, students no longer need roles defined for them and are able to jump into group work without guidance.

Roles vary depending on the subject and assignment. "In a literature circle, one person may have the researcher role, one person the facilitator role, and one person the wordsmith role," suggests Principal St. Louis.

In Murphy's seventh-grade math class, she has her students take on the group roles of a questioner, summarizer, and clarifier.

To help her students follow through with their roles, Murphy gives them a sheet of paper with their role description and verbal prompts. This builds comfort in speaking up because they're following directions, instead of having to know what to say or how to contribute on their own.

Here's a sample of what their role directions and prompts look like:

Your Job as Questioner:

Read the problem to the group. After the summarizer takes a turn:

  • Determine what questions to ask about what you read.
  • Explain what you were thinking while the problem was read aloud.
  • Describe a possible strategy and ask your group if it will work.

You can start your conversation with:

  • I wonder what it means when the problem said _______?
  • How can we _______?
  • Could we use _______ to start to solve this problem? ( _______ could be a table, chart, picture, equation.)

In solving the problem:

  • Check all math calculations for accuracy.
  • Make sure each group member participates in completing the work.
  • Ask questions about each step of your work to make sure everyone understands how to solve the problem.

"It's like a baby learning to walk," offers Murphy. “They need a little stroller to hold onto or a ledge to brace themselves. And until they can do that, you can't take that away. It's easing them into being able to do great group work on their own.”

Step 5: Create a Strong Group-Work Problem

Created by UPCS, here are the characteristics of a good group-work problem:

  • It involves a goal that would be difficult to accomplish alone.
  • The roles that students take on to solve the problem are interdependent.
  • There are multiple interpretations on solving the problem.
  • It includes an element of discovery and curiosity.
  • It connects to a piece of literature.
  • It needs to be rigorous. The expectations for a group problem are set higher than a problem that a student would solve alone, and the end product must be something more rigorous than drawing a picture and making a poster.
  • Students should explore and synthesize unfamiliar sources (for example, as if preparing for a debate).
  • Students should understand the content deeply enough that they’re able to teach it.

"One of my favorite group-work activities when I taught Orwell’s 1984 was a jigsaw where, for example, five groups of five students might each read a different news article about the modern world," recalls St. Louis. "Then, each student would join a new group of five where they need to explain their previous group’s article to each other and make connections to each. Using these connections, the group must then construct a definition of the word 'Orwellian.' I certainly could have simply told passive students the definition of this term and what it means, but by enabling them to actively construct their own knowledge, they internalize the ideas more deeply -- as well as internalize their ability to have voice and agency in an academic setting."

Step 6: Group Students by Their Complementary Strengths

If a group problem requires different skills, choose students with those skills so that they can solve the problem together and rely on each other for their different strengths. "Sometimes I'll group students together because I know that this particular kid is good at drawing one thing out of another, or that one of them might have strong spatial skills, and another might have strong symbolic skills, and if we could have them working together, they can try to bridge that," explains Shannon Hammond, a University Park ninth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade teacher. "If I know a kid is particularly going to struggle with some construction aspect, they’re going to be balanced with somebody that isn’t as challenged by the construction aspect."

Help parents and students understand that every student has something to contribute.

Sometimes parents will tell you that they want their student to be challenged and question how group work can do that. Sometimes you'll get students with a strong understanding of the content who want to work on their own without classmates slowing them down.

When students or parents share these concerns with Murphy, she tells them about the three levels of understanding and explanation:

  1. You know enough to convince yourself.
  2. You know enough to convince a friend who loves you.
  3. You know enough to convince a skeptic.

"That's what I talk to the high fliers about," says Murphy. “They're solid in their understanding and can do the work, but how well can they explain it to others? Explaining what you know to others raises your level of understanding, and a lot of kids struggle with that."

Murphy often has students who at first don't see the value in working with others. They may be good at putting what they know into an equation, but when she asks them to show their understanding in another way -- with blocks, for example -- they have a hard time with it. When this happens, often the students whose ability they doubted are able to help them. "Even the kid who thinks they are the top student can learn something from the other students,” states Murphy, “and they learn that we all have different strengths and different things that we can contribute."

Step 7: Assess Group Work

A big part of assessing group work is watching the group in action and seeing how they work together, says Murphy. When her students work in groups, she has every student write in his or her own notebook. Knowing what her students should be able to accomplish by the end of class, such as completing three math problems, she can look at their notebooks and see how far they have gotten. If they’ve only completed one problem, she knows that she should check their understanding or how they're working with other students.

Here are some of Murphy’s formative assessments to check student understanding:

  • Quick quizzes: She gives each student one to two problems (similar to problems that they've solved within their group) to check their individual understanding.
  • Exit tickets: A group work rubric (PDF) is an exit ticket for students to grade themselves on how they worked in their group and how their group worked as a whole. Her students are honest with their reflections, and if they rate themselves a one or a two, she asks, "How can we improve that?"
  • Daily check-ins: Five to seven minutes before class ends, Murphy's eighth-grade students reflect on how they each did that day (What was good about today? Any ah-ha moments?). "Even though I'm hopefully meeting every group multiple times during the class, individually, each student can say how they think the day went, " says Murphy. “They'll say if they are confused about something. They'll say if they thought it worked great.”

"Student voice is really important to us," declares St. Louis, and the student voice and agency that University Park fosters in their students flows outside of the classroom. "I have kids come to me as a group every single day. I had four seventh-grade students come to me the other day. They want to do a bake sale to raise money for the Lymphoma Society." His students set up a fundraiser competition between seventh and eighth grade. St. Louis concludes, "They see the value in teamwork."


School Snapshot

University Park Campus School

Grades 7-12 | Worcester, MA
252 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$13794 District$14518 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
52% Hispanic
20% Asian
14% White
10% Black
3% Multiracial
1% Native American
Demographic data is from the the 2015-2016 academic year. Fiscal data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.

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Filed Under

  • Collaborative Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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