Collaborative Learning: Tips for Success

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Author: Mariah McCune
Education Thought Leader

Gone are the days where the teacher acts as sage on the stage, lecturing for a solid class period while the students mutely and diligently take notes.  Most teachers today have adapted to the idea of a student-centered learning environment where the teacher acts as a facilitator and partner in learning rather than the sole authority.  This means that students are taking ownership of their learning, actively problem solving, and inquiring in order to grow their understanding and mastery of the content.  

However, students do not naturally take ownership of their learning.  This is something that must be explicitly taught by the classroom teacher.  And one of the most effective ways to do this is through long term collaborative learning.

By this time in the school year, my students are able to maximize their success in collaborative projects.  The work they produce is often inspiring.  When left to solve their own problems, they devise innovative, creative, and interesting solutions.  However, I always have to remind myself that their work in groups is as much a learning process as anything else I teach over the course of the school year.  

Rationale for peer to peer learning

Studies show that students learn more working together than individually.  This is because students working in teams have the advantage of asking for help and leveraging more resources with their peers instead of waiting for their teacher to come around to offer assistance.  Collaborative learning also hones interpersonal skills like teamwork and accountability that are invaluable for today’s professional work environment.

This style of learning is also advantageous because it gives the opportunity for more diverse voices to be acknowledged because of the small group size.  This can engage introverts and more reticent speakers so that all student’s voices are heard.

Five collaborative learning strategies for the traditional, digital, and hybrid classroom

Organizing productive collaborative learning activities takes time and preparation on the teacher’s part.  This is a process that will come with some growing pains for students.  No matter the grade level or content, here are five tips to set students up for a successful peer to peer learning experience.

  1. Establish group norms

It is important that these norms provide enough flexibility to adapt to different group product outcomes and expectations.  If students set norms that are too specific, they may find themselves unable to work with them throughout the entire school year.  However, if they make these too broad, they will struggle to hold each other accountable.

I find it helpful for my students to write these norms down in a place they can refer back to as they work.  In a digital space, this means creating a shared Google Doc.  In the traditional classroom, my students write their norms on poster boards that I post around the room.

  1. Embrace productive struggle

Find the sweet spot with productive struggle by assigning a task that is neither too easy nor too difficult.  If the task is too easy, students may not even need to work together to complete it.  Alternatively, if the task is too hard, students may shut down before they give the task a chance.  

Sometimes students might push back against the process of productive struggle, immediately asking the teacher for help instead of maximizing their resources and leaning on their peers for support.  In the event that this happens, push the students in the right direction about what resources might help them without giving too much away.  

  1. Uphold accountability

Nothing is more frustrating than working in a group in which one person contributes nothing and still gets the group grade.  Sometimes I will use a Jigsaw in which every student becomes responsible for a different text or chapter.  They have to become experts on that text and find ways to synthesize that expertise with the texts and knowledge of their peers.

Alternately, I assign individual roles and responsibilities for students within their group.  For instance, I assign the role of Discussion Director whose job is to keep the group focused and on task.  I will also assign a Recorder who acts as note taker, a Text Specialist who keeps the conversation focused on the text at hand, and a Secretary who monitors each member’s involvement in the discussion.

Finally, I make my group project the stepping stone to a larger individual outcome.  Thus, the group work provides the scaffolding for the student to ask questions, experiment, and utilize resources as a trial run in a low-risk group setting before being asked to perform on their own.  

  1. Create rubrics that address collaboration

At the beginning of the year, we devise a group work rubric together.  We create this rubric that honors effective collaboration on Google Docs.  I post this to my digital classroom, and I project it up on the screen in my physical classroom any time my students are working together.

  1. Foster active listening

Many group activities fall apart because of perceived conflicts between group members.  However, this is often a case of a misunderstanding due to poor listening.

Whether in the digital or traditional classroom, it is now more important than ever to instruct our students on good listening skills.  Some of those skills include making eye contact, rephrasing what the other person has said to ensure their ideas are accurately represented, asking probing questions, and taking turns.  Even at the secondary level, students need explicit instruction and modelling of what good listeners do.  This will help grease the wheels of social interaction and keep group disputes to a minimum.

Producing desired outcomes

Collaborative participation is an important staple in the teaching and learning process for students and, if explicitly taught and consistently applied to lesson plans, can open the door to greater student achievement.  Also, it can be an empowering learning experience for students who find that they are much more capable than they give themselves credit.  Finally, it effectively prepares students to face interpersonal interactions in the workplace and beyond.


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