Friday, March 8, 2013

Five Principles for Better Student Collaboration

Principles for effective student collaboration.
Many young teachers are enthusiastic about including student collaboration in their classrooms. That is until they try it, and things don't go according to plan. It's not easy to have students work together effectively. That, however, does not mean you should give up on collaboration. Here are five principles that I find help students work more effectively together.

1.   Start Small 
Build from smaller, simpler collaborations towards larger tasks. I've seen many teachers try to take collaboration from zero to 60 in five seconds. I like having my students frequently do think-pair-share activities. Their pair conversations are on a focused topic, and because I will often call on pairs to share an idea out, there's some accountability for being on task. If you have your students in the habit of engaging in such productive pair conversations or other small cooperative tasks, moving on to larger group projects or assignments is easier for them. Frequent, little moments of collaboration build an effective foundation for larger more complicated cooperation.

2.     Socializing
When you expect students to work collaboratively on a significant assignment or task, give them an opportunity to break the ice in their group and build rapport. Adults outside of school who work together rarely get right down to work without some small chat and socializing. This is normal human social behavior. We should build it into longer collaborative tasks if we want our student groups to work effectively. A simple way to get a group started down the path to effective collaboration is a things in common activity or sheets. I have written about these in other blog posts. The basic principle is for students to quickly realize something they all have in common. Once they recognize they have these shared bonds, it is hopefully easier for them to move forward and do good work together.

3.     Let them Work
Give your students clear directions and objectives for their collaboration and then step back and let them collaborate. I've seen a lot of teachers who assign ostensibly collaborative activities to their student but then take over or interrupt so much that they might as well just lecture. If your true goal for students is to collaborate, then your role after providing them with the task at hand should typically be more to listen and monitor. If you find yourself having to insert yourself into the students' discussions and conversations, then you should probably be giving them clearer directions and more structure from the outset. When you add in your ideas, it often takes over the conversation and changes the direction of the students' work. Let the students collaborate! 
The other problem is that if you are inserting yourself too much into individual group's discussions you are probably not effectively monitoring the class as a whole. It should come as no surprise to any of us that students can wander off task when we asked them to collaborate. A little of this is inevitable. It gets worse however, when our attention is too sucked into one group. If, however, you focus on monitoring and listening, groups will more likely stay on task. After you have given the class an appropriate amount of time to collaborate, you can pull full group back together to discuss, debrief, share out. This is generally the better time for you to add in some ideas or feedback, instead of interrupting individual groups while they try to work. 

4.     Numbered heads for accountability
Whenever students collaborate, there is the potential for more extroverted students or motivated students to take over. Introverted or less motivated students may learn that they can sit back and let others do most of the work. Numbered heads is an easy way to build some accountability within groups. In my classes, if I have a group of students discussing or analyzing, I am almost always going to have them share out from their group a main idea or question. It's easy to have groups of three or four students number off, and I don't know who is what number. Then when I ask the group to share, I pick a random number to share out the group's idea. This way students become a accustomed to the expectation that everyone in their group has to understand and participate in the group's work so that they can effectively share out the group's ideas.

5.     Process & Assess student collaboration.
If you believe collaboration is important, then you should have ways in which that collaboration is processed and assessed. Often times, only the product of a groups work is assessed, but the process of their collaboration should receive attention as well. An easy way to assess collaboration is through what I call a "participation pie chart." After collaborative tasks, I give students a document that has an empty circle and a few prompts to students. They divvy up the circle as a pie chart showing who in their group contributed what percentage to the group's works. I also have the students write a few sentences explaining their pie. One variation is to have students do this anonymously and then you share their results among the group. In addition to this individual self- and peer-assessment of the group you should allow time for groups to debrief their collaboration and for the class as a whole to discuss what contributes to effective collaboration. 

Some students come to us without great collaborative skills, so it is incumbent upon us to put into place structures that will help them develop those skills. I've seen teachers give up on assigning much collaborative work because of challenges they experience, instead of figuring out the skills they need to teach their students and the scaffolding they need to put in place to make it successful. When your students are collaborating, you are often more likely to notice they are off task sometimes. However, probably just as many students are not actually with you during your lecture, even if they give the appearance of attention or compliance. Don't dump collaboration just because 100% of the kids aren't on task 100% of the time. A lot of learning can still happen even with a few tangents and distractions thrown into the mix.


  1. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your writing! You raise great points... I think the biggest is that we need to prepare our students for collaboration. We've got to build their skills from the ground up, and we need to help them assess their contributions (I really like the Pie Charts idea).

    It's funny how held up we, as teachers, with the socializing bit. I would hate spending my days somewhere where socializing was forbidden, and the boss dictated that we must get to work right away... I find that after a few minutes they dive in to the task anyways... And if they're talking, maybe they're in need of a break...

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Mike - I'm glad you enjoyed the read. Given your comments, you might also find this article a colleague and I wrote interesting: