The majority of us who teach believe in the power of collaboration and frequently involve our students in collaborative activities to deepen student collaboration. But how often have we grouped students only to watch them interact with their laptops instead of each other? Or have they pursued their own individual goals rather than consult with each other? Are they complaining about their laziest teammate?
Collaboration is hard to do well and it doesn’t just happen by itself. As part of our learning activity, collaboration needs to be intentionally designed. Here are five strategies for promoting effective collaboration.
Produce learning activities that are complex
For students to collaborate, they need a reason. If the assignment is too simple, they can handle it on their own. In most cases, they check in with each other or interact superficially. Collaboration is necessary because the task is complicated and has too many moving parts to be completed on one’s own.
They are challenging, engaging, stimulating, and multilayered. Achieving the goal, completing the task, being successful, and getting a good grade to require that teamwork together and sharing of knowledge.
This can be accomplished through rigorous projects that require students to identify a problem (for example, balancing population growth with the protection of green spaces) and agree-through research, discussion, debate, and time to develop their ideas on a solution that they must then propose as a group.
Prepare students to work as a team
Collaborative groups cannot be assigned—they must be built and nurtured. The ability to work effectively with others and as part of a team is often required of students. We need to help students understand the what, why, and how of collaboration. There are several ways to do this:
- Educate students about the benefits of collaboration and what successful collaboration looks like.
- Lead students through the stages of team building (forming, storming, norming, and performing).
- Provide students with time and opportunities within the activity to develop leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills.
- Establish expectations and norms for collaboration.
- Design, or have students design, protocols for handling conflict and disagreement so that they can resolve issues within their teams.
- Teach students to listen actively.
Reduce opportunities for free riding
Students often complain about collaborative groups because one member free rides, letting others do all the work, then getting the group grade. Here are some ways to eliminate free-riding:
- Set up small groups of no more than four or five people. Nonparticipation is more difficult when there is less room to hide.
- By assessing students individually and as a group, ensure a high level of individual accountability (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2008). At the end of the day, give students an individual quiz based on the intended outcome of their collaborative activity.
- Create meaningful team roles that are related to the content and the task. Roles such as timekeeper are episodic and do not intellectually engage students, which can encourage free riding. For example, more meaningful roles such as manager, monitor, and leader for each subtask of the activity give students a sense of ownership in the process and enable teachers to assess students based on their success.
- Students should evaluate their participation and effort, and that of each team member, and triangulate their assessments with yours
Build-in many opportunities for consensus-making and discussion
It is not uncommon for group projects to be based on efficiency, dividing labor in order to create a product as efficiently as possible. By focusing on the product, we often overlook the process of collaboration. Discussions that connect students with their peers’ experiences, that engage them deeply in a shared intellectual experience, and that encourage consensus are essential to collaboration.
The students may need to defend or propose a common vision or develop a set of beliefs or principles in order to come to a consensus. Students learn to defend their ideas using evidence and analytical reasoning, negotiate to mean, and argue constructively through this emphasis on discussion and consensus.
Strengthen and extend the experience
Creating good collaborative activities requires making sure all students, even those who struggle, play an important role. Students’ collaboration should not only improve their skills but also ensure that their interactions stretch existing knowledge and expand one another’s expertise. When, for example, a student is much better at one skill than her peers, she can teach others, and her grade can be determined by how much her peers learn as well.
We want students to share an intellectual space in collaborative activities, so that they can learn, do, and experience more together than they would individually. It is our job as teachers to promote collaboration by shifting our role from instructor to coach – fostering team autonomy, checking in on students and providing immediate feedback, and helping them increase team productivity to achieve a common goal.
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