Grow Beyond Group Work: Collaborative Learning Strategies and Techniques

Collaboration is a key skill for students to learn that will help them throughout their academic career and is highly sought-after in the workplace. According to research from LinkedIn, it’s third on a list of the most in-demand soft skills, behind creativity and persuasion.

Collaboration is a little more complicated than cooperative learning, which is where students sit near each other and work on a task together with no differentiation of roles. When a class of students is collaborating, their teacher acts as a guide, pointing to different resources such as texts or other students who could help them push their thinking to the next level. Having students work on a bigger task together allows for students to teach each other, building positive relationships and nurturing a safe classroom.

In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn argues, “ . . . Anyone thinking about learning and motivation, anyone interested in educational reform, must attend to the relationships among students in the classroom and consider the importance of collaboration.” Thus, when you’re looking for places to teach social and emotional skills during the school day, a collaborative project is a great place to start.

Checklist: Collaborative Learning Strategies

  • Give Students Time to Plan and Talk: When we want students to collaborate productively, students need to start off with a similar understanding of the activity they’re working on and share the language used in this process, according to research from the University of Washington. This can be as simple as giving groups a list of terms they’ll use or come across and asking the group members to decide on definitions together in their own words.
  • Make Sure the Task Is a Challenge: Regardless of how students are grouped, let the assignment be more complex than a task a student would or could complete on their own. The task (or tasks) should push every group member to contribute to the final project. Research suggests that tasks with multiple, interacting elements give students the opportunity to “divide and conquer” the larger assignment together, while giving students a reason to learn from the work other members are doing. This gives students plenty to talk about and gives their teacher ample opportunities to listen in for formative assessment purposes. Having a type of jigsaw activity, for example, requires students to teach each other what they have learned, also boosting positive student interactions and building a safe space to learn. This should also push students to use resources to answer questions that arise.
  • Push Your Students to Be Resourceful: When many students are stuck on the same topic, try pointing them toward certain resources where they might be able to find an answer, such as different textbooks or websites. Another way to get students to think differently without giving them the answer is to ask students to provide explanations for their thinking or to reflect, according to one journal article. This provides students with an opportunity to practice thinking about what they’ve learned and for the teacher to get a glimpse into their students’ thought processes and perhaps some misconceptions.
  • Try Dividing Up the Task into Distinct Roles: Roles can be used to shake up normal habits. Beyond the typical roles like scribe or presenter, assign students to research different topics involved in the task. One role that I have implemented in my classroom in the past is devil’s advocate, a student who argues against some of the assumptions the group makes quickly. This role seems poised to work for students starting in junior high classes and helps students remember to collect evidence. When creating a collaborative learning environment, setting, tasks, and roles should be used in a way where students actually use the work that others are doing to push the project forward instead of simply putting their independent pieces together. (This is a key distinction between collaboration and cooperation, according to Pierre Dillenbourg.)
  • Make Sure Every Group Member Is Represented: Research shows that one of the potential pitfalls of collaborative learning is that students can disengage when their work isn’t taken up by the group and the efforts are seemingly wasted. In order to overcome this, part of the pre-work planning that students do together can include a roadmap for how each role or group member is expected to contribute to the project. This will provide some accountability for students during their work and can help resolve any arguments or disputes that arise.
  • Determine How to Assess the Group and/or Individuals: When assessing collaborative work, summative assessment that assigns students a grade can be tricky. Giving students input into how their work is graded can support buy-in from students and make high-achieving students feel like their work isn’t going to carry the group. Additionally, asking students to assess each other’s work can support students productively working together because they know their peers’ input will matter, according to The International Handbook of Collaborative Learning. While an overall group grade makes sense because all students have an equal shot at giving input, it’s also a good idea to award points for effort and creativity. Reflections are also a good source of insight into what the student has learned and how to better manage collaborative projects in the future. These kinds of reflections work well as an exit ticket activity at the end of a lesson.

After the teacher communicates instructions, students should talk about the assignment, their group’s spin or message, and the steps each group member will take. This is also an opportunity for students to express what they know and don’t quite understand yet, leading them to tutor each other for the benefit of the group. Without having a shared understanding of what they are working on and why, students may not reach the same conclusions because they began in different places.

After some time, try joining the class together for a “regroup” discussion with the whole class. This can include a question-and-answer session between all of your students to see if they can derive an answer themselves before resorting to providing the information they’re missing.

When you start using this roadmap, it may seem chaotic at first! Don’t worry, and don’t give up—students will get the hang of the format. Student collaboration may look unstructured and may not go smoothly on the first attempt, but getting students talking about complex problems helps push their thinking farther than a typical independent task would.

By giving students a complex problem with ample time and resources to explore and ask questions, students can learn what they need to know and will have a memorable experience with their peers. Building this kind of rapport can boost the social and emotional skills students need to be successful in their future endeavors. Successful facilitation of collaborative learning techniques takes practice as well, but stepping back a little and being available as a guide lets students practice exploring big ideas more independently.

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Learn more about how HMH’s Into Learning and Waggle programs help teachers facilitate collaborative learning in their diverse classrooms through formative assessments, insightful reports, targeted recommendations, and student-focused resources.

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