Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Ways to Make Student Collaboration Actually Work

Collaboration is kind of a big deal, especially in 21st century American education. 

It’s no wonder if you think about it: its benefits range from enhancing critical thinking to developing self-management skills to fostering interpersonal communication.  Yet collaboration also represents a significant paradigm shift in education, from a teacher- to student-centered classroom. Regardless of how eager we are to jump into this new world of educational delights, both modern teachers and students need support in order to do this effectively or else results will be less than stellar.

Here are some of my best tips and tricks to enhance collaboration, specifically in a project-based classroom.

#1 – Start with a group contract.

Group contracts are one of the best kept educational secrets when it comes to successful collaborative assignments. In the real world, you don’t enter into a working arrangement with another person without some sort of agreement. There are rules set in place so that if one person, say, doesn’t show up for work for a week, they won’t be keeping their job very long; yet we often ask students to work in an environment where no such agreements exist. It is naive to assume that students will productively collaborate without a contract or written agreement when adults can’t.

Whenever I launch a longterm collaborative assignment (for instance, a PBL unit), I begin by having my students draft a group contract that includes the following things:

  1. Who is in each group.
  2. What each person is responsible for
  3. How each group member can get in contact with one another
  4. What students will do if a group member is absent
  5. How they’ll ensure every group member’s voice is heard
  6. How they’ll make decisions
  7. How they’ll handle conflict
  8. What they’ll do if someone isn’t doing their part

Yes. I know that this is a lot to include in one document, but these are the issues that come up every time, so students have to be prepared for them. It is better to come up with an agreement beforehand than to just assume everything will be hunky-dory once the project begins. 

Additionally, I have the students write in a firing clause. The agreement in my classroom is that if a person disregards the contract, then they will be a given a warning by their group, which I have to sign off on. If an individual is given three warnings, they are fired from the group and have to complete the assignment individually. Does that sound harsh? Yes. Is it effective? Also yes. Students need more supports, not less, to be effective collaborators. 

#2 – Explicitly Teach Your Expectations

When you begin a group project, don’t assume that students already know how to be effective collaborators or that simply being in a group will jumpstart their collaboration skills. Most students need support and clarity in regards to what you expect from them during this project. 

Before I give my students any project development time, I provide them with a list of “look fors” that will help them be successful. My primary “look fors” include:

  1. Getting started with the task immediately. In the computer lab, that means logging in immediately. In the classroom, that may mean getting out their supplies. Wherever they are, though, they are immediately getting started with the task at hand. 
  2. Coming up with a plan of attack. At the beginning of each day of project work time, students should check in with each other, identify what still needs to be completed, and assign tasks. If I don’t see students checking in with each other, there’s something wrong. 
  3. Remaining on task and continually working on something with your group. This is one “look for” you might not feel like you have to teach, but it is so, so important. Less motivated students might finish one task (out of the many required for the final product) and just decide that they’re done, but effective collaborators must check in with their teammates and see what else needs to be done in order to be effective. 

These provide students with a clear idea of what they need to be doing, even while working on a more open-ended task. 

#3 – Make Liberal Use of Checklists and Rubric

My last piece of advice is this: give your students regular feedback on their collaboration skills using a collaboration checklist or rubric. Both PBLWorks and New Tech Network have awesome collaboration rubrics and you would be amazed to see how impactful passing back daily completed collaboration rubrics to your students are. It allows students to see what they’re doing well and where they need to grow so that they can better work with others. 

In conclusion, collaboration is a skill that must be taught, not one that will just be picked up through osmosis. As 21st century teachers, we must be intentional to look for opportunities to build these skills in our students. 

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