How to Improve Student Collaboration Skills

Schools are adopting project-based learning in growing numbers. Although it may seem like a trend, it really stems from a development in pedagogical thinking over the past fifty years that advocated a shift away from teachers imparting knowledge to relatively passive students, to learners actively participating in the co-construction of knowledge. Being a complete departure from traditional ways of teaching, implementation is difficult for multiple reasons, the most difficult of which have to do with teachers and students adapting to this new type of learning. However, even in the most forward looking school with well adapted teachers and students, projects are doomed to fail if schools and teachers did not prepare students to work collaboratively.

What is Collaboration

Collaboration is a joint intellectual effort of students, teachers and community members to explore a problem and build understanding. For a collaboration to work well, there needs to be an emphasis on equality, mutuality and the creation of meaning that leads to better understanding. Members of the group should contribute equally to the project and make sure that they never lose track of the mutual goals of the project and that their combined effort generates meaning and improves student understanding of the project. Creating a group atmosphere where these rules can be followed by all group members, should be a top goal for teachers if they want their group work experience to succeed.

Creating a Collaborative Environment

Collaboration doesn’t just happen. Teachers need to invest a lot of thinking and work in making sure that a collaborative environment is created. Since students are not accustomed to this type of learning, a gradual introduction of group work over the course of an entire year while involving students in as many group experiences as possible, is essential to guarantee that collaboration will be successful. In guiding students how to work collaboratively, a teacher needs to consider group composition, how to develop collaborative skills, how to build trust and communication skills.

Group Forming Considerations

Establishing groups brings with it a whole set of things to consider. For example, should teachers put together groups with mixed academic abilities or similar abilities, mixed personalities or similar personalities and one or both genders. Effective collaboration happens in heterogeneous groups with moderate differences in ability, personality and experience. On the other hand, grouping students with those that are a little more knowledgeable or have differing viewpoints can help the weaker students grow their knowledge and promote their cognitive development. It is important to point out that in such mixed groups, it is not just the weaker student that benefits. Advanced students improve their understanding by the mere act of teaching the subject to their weaker peers. However, drastic differences among students may lead able students to become frustrated, suggesting that the middle ground is always a good place to gravitate towards. MIxing genders, specifically due to boys tendency to dominate, can hurt girls ability to shine and contribute equally. Research shows that girls, particularly upper elementary and middle school girls are participating more and feel more confident in their ability, when working only with other girls.

Group size is also a consideration. As it turns out, younger students feel more comfortable working in very small groups (2 – 4), because they are not yet accustomed to sharing attention with large groups of students. Also, behavior management of up to four students is easier than larger groups, in which students may be left out of the group dynamics.

Once the group was formed, students have a great need for team camaraderie and rapport. This can be achieved by teachers emphasizing team identity, encouraging students to select group names, make team banners, write team cheers, or create team slogans.

Developing Collaborative Skills

Students need to learn collaborative skills to be able to work effectively together. Collaborative skills must be taught just like any other academic skill. Guiding students to collaborate is essential because students have no experience talking to each other about ideas and working independently in small groups. Teachers also need to create a safe environment for  students, where they can feel comfortable sharing ideas and providing feedback in a civilized manner that respects other students feelings.

Collaboration is not just an exchange of ideas. Projects mean a lot of work and all team members need to be responsible equally to that workload. Team members need to learn to make decisions about division of labor, timelines and schedules.

Collaborative skills entail a great deal of decision making and planning regarding project goals, division of labor, timelines, schedules and identifying needed project resources. By introducing students to goal sheets, teachers can help students plan their entire project and weekly goals. Group progress depends on each member’s adherence to a pre-planned timeline of activities that consists of each member’s schedule. Teaching students to use a calendar to record their schedules and follow the project timeline can promote this goal. Teachers can facilitate a true division of labor by making students depend upon each other’s abilities, such as skills, knowledge, and prior experiences. Writing down all needed project resources in advance can help contribute to a successful project. However, final success hinges on how teachers approach and solve those collaboration problems that pop up in every project-based learning situation.

How to Solve Collaboration Problems

Collaboration problems can arise from a wide range of reasons that relate to division of labor, student domination, status differences, and preconceived opinion. In general, teachers can target collaboration problems by identifying the type of collaborative skills that students are lacking and work with students on these skills. If possible, teachers should also allow students to work out their own problems.

When students have difficulty working together, teachers can assign roles, making sure that each student is responsible for their own tasks, that all students participate and that no one dominates. When students argue excessively, teachers need to point out to them that arguments, negative criticism and overlooking team members’ positive contributions should be replaced with positive delivery of ideas, seeking help, and supporting other’s ideas.

Plenty of situations exist where the division of labor is not equal. One or more group members do all the work, while others stay idle and do not contribute much. These free-rider situations can be tackled by directing those loafers to tasks they can complete and ways they can contribute to the group effort. Teachers can also advise students to use daily journals to  record daily contributions of the entire group. Journals can also make sure that team members are not taking advantage over their peers because it allows students to show to the teacher their own accomplishments, as well as that of the group.

A whole slew of group interaction problems have a social cause. For example, the status differential effect happens when a high-status member of a group, such as: a member in a clique, socioeconomic status, race, age, or academic achievement, takes control. In this situation, a combination of equal contribution methods, carefully formed groups, and individual accountability can guarantee that all team members are recognized for their efforts.

Sometimes groups direct their collaborative power towards negative purposes. One such case is when groups make a pact to avoid work by producing a low quality product with minimum effort. These can be avoided by clearly stressing expectations, show an expected model of the work, or use learning contracts that establish standards for completion. Peer reviews and friendly competitions among groups can also alleviate this problem.

Socially induced incompetence is another instance of negative group power, in which members of a group ostracize or disparage a student to the point that he or she feels unable to contribute to the group’s work. Teachers need to discuss this situation with their students and model appropriate group behavior.

The Good News

Like any other type of learning, collaboration skills improve with repeated practice. Research shows that over time, students working in groups learn to appreciate each other’s differences, including gender, racial, cultural, and physical or mental ability differences. Preempting project-based learning with a guided experience of collaborative teamwork can greatly contribute to its successful implementation.