How Can Teachers Enhance Collaborative Learning?

Computer Fun at SchoolHenry Ford once said, "If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself." Collaborative learning embraces this idea by relying on groups to work towards an academic goal together. Students in collaborative environments maintain individual accountability but have the responsibility of listening to, not just "hearing", each member of the group and discussing a range of ideas before reaching a solution.

Consistent communication and specific roles within the group promote trust and tolerance - it's not MY goal, it's OUR goal. Groups are made up of mixed abilities as opposed to individual learning where students work at their own level and pace to achieve an academic goal. Maintaining some level of agreement and handling the opinion of peers respectfully are important parts of the process.

Collaborative learning ISN'T a group of students sitting at the same table and talking about the assignment as they work on it or having one vocal student lead the pack. It IS about the interdependence that comes with a "succeed or fail together" attitude, celebrating effort, and developing personal skills such as decision making and conflict resolution.

See this Wikipedia page for the definition of collaboration.

Can collaborative learning really improve my classroom?

The simple answer is, yes. Collaborative "teams" are found to achieve higher levels of critical thinking, and students seem to retain information for a longer period of time than those who work individually. With practice, students working together develop the ability to generate new ideas more quickly and are able to transfer their new knowledge to different situations.

In 1991, Robert E. Slavin looked at 67 different studies dealing with the collaborative classroom. 61% of the classes using a collaborative model scored significantly higher on tests than the students in traditional classrooms. This improved academic achievement stems from students' active participation in the learning process as opposed to hearing the information from a teacher. Groups learn by discussing, clarifying, and evaluating the ideas shared by each member; students engage in the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy thereby improving critical thinking skills. Even students with traditionally low academic achievement are able to improve when working with a diverse group.

Taking ownership of ideas and solutions motivates students to care about the material introduced in class. Compared to individual workers, students in a collaborative learning environment are more likely to:

  • Enjoy school
  • Have higher self-esteem
  • Trust and like their peers
  • Communicate with teachers

Can technology be used effectively in collaborative learning?

Today's students are "tech savvy", and if they are not, the working world will soon require them to be. Not only can technology be used effectively in a collaborative setting, it can add an effective layer to the learning process and open up lines of communication between students - interactive whiteboard technology is a good example of how technology can improve student engagement and collaboration in the classroom. Using the internet in the classroom can help you to expose students to different views of the content. Study topography using Google Maps, compare local weather radar to that of another area, or interview students at schools in a foreign country; these are just a few of the activities that can create an exciting collaborative environment.

Technology can also be used for communication. Email, Skype, and Facetime can link group members together for discussions. There are also free, on-line collaboration tools such as Google Groups, Mikogo, and Stixy that will add more conversation and perspective to the project.

Your ICT department can play a vital role when implementing effective collaboration solutions, if you don't have an external ICT department then look for an external vendor that specializes in education. Our ICT Department is a good example -

What Are Best Practices for collaborative learning?

Strategic planning and implementing some simple "best practices" will make your collaborative learning environment successful. The most important issues to tackle are creating a challenging but safe environment, assigning effective groups, and presenting a clearly defined assignment or goal. Both teachers and your ICT Support department can get involved.

Keep the "Three Gs" in mind to create a successful collaborative environment.

1. Groups – Successful collaborative groups are small, preferably just 3-5 students - too small and there isn't enough diversity of opinion and levels, too big and some students will lose interest. Create groups with mixed academic backgrounds and learning styles, and it's also important to have an equal number of boys and girls if possible. Research indicates that male dominated groups discount the input of female members and female dominated groups tend to focus on the ideas of the male members. Make gender equality a group norm, and discuss it with students.

The seating arrangement of your groups makes a difference. Students should sit facing each other; this facilitates better interaction. It might be necessary to remind students to move closer together to improve interaction, or you can set up the seats ahead of time.

For larger projects, create roles for group members. This keeps students actively participating and will prevent any one student from dominating discussion. You can combine or expand roles as necessary for the group or project, but these work effectively.

*Organizer – The organizer keeps track of the project steps and lets the group know what comes next.

*Recorder – The recorder takes notes on the discussion and reads them back to the group to track progress.

*Questioner - Keeps students involved by creating questions to ask as the project progresses.

*Checker – The checker uses the project rubric or teacher's directions to note progress and to keep the group on task.

*Reporter – The reporter reads the recorder's notes to the class at the end of the group discussion. This allows students from other groups to hear varied solutions and dialogue.

Create clear, written guidelines for each role; students will have personal accountability if you go over them until individual responsibilities are understood. You'll want to change the students' roles for different projects, as well as their groups from time to time, to allow practice dealing with different people and situations.

2. Give and Take-Promoting honest communication builds trust between the students in each group. Encourage students to speak kindly but openly, and be prepared to take care of any conflicts that arise. Interaction and negotiation are part of the process. You'll help head off serious issues by developing a set of norms for the groups. You can choose to create them yourself, but older students might appreciate the opportunity to create the norms for their own group. While it's important to be flexible with the norms, depending on the situation, you'll need to establish a base line. For example, "One person speaks at a time."

Working in groups can be stressful and emotional, so give students the opportunity to release anxiety. Allowing a little humor or a short break for jumping jacks will go a long way towards creating a safe, comfortable learning environment. In general, students will relate well to one another, but some will be better at it than others. Promoting a few minutes of social time or sharing before the group gets to work will give students with weaker interpersonal skills time to get comfortable.

Effective collaborative learning is dependent on student "buy in"; group members should appreciate each other's input. Consistently emphasizing the need for varied perspectives in your classroom and modeling tolerant behavior will help develop your students' interpersonal skills. You'll want to give students an example of people working together to reach a solution. Relating an example from your classroom is fine, but you'll also want to remind them of famous collaborations. Remind them that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs met in the Homebrew Computer Club and collaborated on their first computer in a garage. Another good example is that of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield who met in a 7th grade gym class and went on to develop Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

3.Goals-The backbone of successful collaborative groups is a clear and concise goal. Students need to know what you expect from them as individuals and as a group. Focus on creating a project that improves critical thinking and problem solving skills. Studies have shown that using open ended, complex questions to address real life or fantasy scenarios is an effective way to promote higher order thinking.

Using a specific procedure for the task will help students stay on track. You should give students a written copy of a procedure like the one below.

  1. Identify goal.
  2. Set criteria.
  3. Gather information via discussion.
  4. Evaluate different solutions.
  5. Reach group decision.
  6. Implement decision.

This procedure can be used or modified to fit different learning situations. Debates, collaborative writing, and problem solving are particularly energizing in this format.

Part of a student's personal goal in an academic setting is a grade for the work performed. Use assessment in a collaborative learning environment to motivate and guide your students. Create and introduce a written rubric at the beginning of the task to keep students interested and to offer concrete reward for a job well done. This is also a good time to let students know that you believe in their ability to excel.

The process of collaborative learning should be part of the rubric. Absorbing information is only one part of the learning process in a collaborative group; developing interpersonal skills is an accomplishment in its own right. Students should be graded on the quality of discussion, focus on task, and following group norms. If you value positive group social behavior as part of your rubric, students will aspire to it.

Critics of collaborative learning feel that there is a lack of individual thought and creativity that goes into the work product. It is always wise to heed critics as there might be a valid point in their opinion. Address this issue by adding a multiple intelligence assessment at the end of the project to be completed individually. For example, you might offer an art project, a Power Point presentation, or essay as choices for final assessment. Students will use their strengths to produce conclusions based on the group work.

In general, rubrics not only guide students, but they can motivate them to produce their best work as a group and individually.

What is the long term benefit of collaborative learning?

Teamwork is an essential element of today's workplace. As students move forward, they'll find the need to communicate effectively with co-workers and supervisors, as well as being able to handle constructive criticism and add value to projects. Every project needs an assortment of experts and a cooperative spirit.

Learning is a social process. Using technology, books and discussions effectively will introduce a higher level of interaction and achievement. Introducing collaborative learning in your classroom will not only help produce effective professionals, it will help students develop necessary life skills.

One Comment

  1. This is a very detailed article about collaborative learning, one of the most detailed I have read. Collaboration works,it makes lessons more interesting for students and encourages engagement between pupils – much better than just sitting at their desk with their head in a book. A few teachers could learn a bit by reading this.

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