When most of us think back to group projects in school, it is not a fond memory. You know, there was that one kid who didn’t contribute anything, so the rest of you had to work harder. Or there was the bossy kid who took control of the whole thing and wouldn’t listen to your ideas. Maybe you were one of those kids. Either way, many of us view group projects in school as a negative experience. Maybe they taught us some valuable lessons about working with different people, but maybe not.
If the goal of education is to prepare students for the world beyond school, then we have to find ways to develop students into effective collaborators. Additionally, many studies show that collaborative learning in the classroom can enhance critical thinking and provide a host of other social, psychological, and academic benefits.
Now, juxtapose this critical need for collaboration with the all-too-common distaste for “group work” that many students and teachers have.
If we agree that collaboration is a vital skill and that most of us are not innately good at it, then we need to find better ways to help students learn to collaborate effectively. That means abandoning the dreaded “group project” and moving toward something more authentic, more productive, and (hopefully) more enjoyable.
Here’s how I try to foster effective and enjoyable collaborative learning in my classroom:
- Ditch “Groups”
There is no shortage of examples of bad group projects. When we create group projects without sufficient purpose or adequate support for students, we create bad experiences that lead many to believe that “group work doesn’t work” and advocate for scaling back or eliminating the practice. We end up sending students out into a world that demands collaboration without the skills to do it well.
Good collaborative learning requires a different approach. Unfortunately, many students — having lived through bad group projects — attach a negative stigma to “groups.” So, inspired by Doris Korda and her Korda Institute for Teaching, my students don’t work in “groups”; they work in “teams.” A “group” is just a number of people or things clustered together. It implies no need for collaboration, just proximity. The word “team,” on the other hand, implies the need to work together toward a common goal. (As you will see in the student quotes at the end of this post, my vocabulary has been adopted by students with varying levels of success.)
While teaching good collaboration obviously involves much more than a simple change in nomenclature, I find it helpful to introduce new vocabulary to underpin a fresh approach to collaboration.
- Less Structure, More Support
Often in “group work,” the learning focus is on some content-based objective, while collaboration is an afterthought. We assume that putting students in groups to complete a task will result in those students learning collaboration. But collaboration, just like any other skill, has to be intentionally taught.
When teaching, we are usually inclined to include lots of structure. But just like with critical thinking and problem solving, the crux of learning to collaborate is actually learning how to identify and apply a structure that works.
If we assign specific roles and tightly constrain the collaborative process, we have just done all the heavy lifting. We’ve reduced the student role down to something rote and procedural. We rob students of their opportunity to learn how to collaborate.
Teaching effective collaboration — like most other things, I think — requires less structure but more support than what we see in traditional group projects. It’s a combination of intentionally crafted activities and reflections to get students thinking and talking about how they collaborate and then letting students practice what they think they’ve learned.
In my class, students write frequent reflections on how they think the collaborative process is going and how they view their “roles” on the team. They also practice giving positive feedback and constructive criticism to each of their teammates, face-to-face. This is uncomfortable for students at first, but it becomes more natural, more effective, and more appreciated over time.
This active learning process requires students to try, fail, reflect, try again, and so on. The try-fail-reflect cycle inevitably means teachers will have to act as firefighters at times, coaching students through conflict and uncomfortable conversations. These team counseling sessions, however, are often the most impactful for students.
Conflict is an essential element of learning how to collaborate well, and we can’t expect students to learn how to handle conflict in a healthy and productive manner if we never let them get mad at each other in the first place.
- Context is Key
While the intentional teaching of collaboration skills is the most important element of effective collaborative learning, the context in which the collaboration occurs is also vitally important.
Some tasks are better accomplished, or just as easily accomplished, by a single person. Unfortunately, those tasks are all too often what we offer as group projects. If something can be simply boiled down to a division of labor, there is no need for collaboration. Kids can (and will) simply divvy up the material and work in isolation.
If we want students to learn to collaborate, we need to put them in a situation where they NEED to collaborate. We need to give them big, complex, open-ended problems to solve. In those situations, more people means more ideas, more manpower, and diverse perspectives. One person could come up with a solution, but it probably won’t be as good, well-researched, or inclusive as a solution produced through collaboration.
In short, we need to distinguish between necessitating collaboration and mandating collaboration.
What Students Have to Say
I’ve been using this approach to collaborative learning for two years, and I’ve seen it transform the ways in which students approach collaboration. The more opportunities students have to iterate, reflect, and improve their approach on new teams, the better the results. But you shouldn’t just take my word for it. Here’s what my students have to say:
No more “group work” baggage
- “I believe the most important skill that I developed is the ability to work in groups… I used to dislike group projects because I simply did not like collaborating with other people. However, after this class, I realized that I can accomplish more in a group than by myself.”
- “In the past, I’ve hated group projects, mainly because I felt like I was carrying the team. However, this time it was different… I learned that it is often unfair and counterproductive of me to assume others do not do as much work as me.”
- “I went from a student who did not really enjoy group work and had some ‘trust issues’ with teammates to someone who truly appreciates the value of a team, the power of multiple perspectives, and the productivity that comes with them.”
Insights on Good Collaboration
- “The biggest thing that I took away from working with the others in my group was how to connect with their ideas and work together with their ideas. Instead of just trying to win, as I had done in the beginning of the project, I learned to compromise with others… Our final solutions took many different and diverse elements from every person’s thinking instead of just the thinking of one person.”
- “Prior to this class, I was never big into listening to others’ ideas when it came to group projects. In fact, I was not a fan of group projects at all… By the end of this semester, I finally understood how to make a good teamwork and everyone contribute equally. The key is communication.”
- “This class created a much different group project environment… I learned that in order to collaborate, communication is key… but I’ve realized that there’s more than just talking to your group… you need to talk about everything.”
- “To get to the point where we all worked together, it took learning another skill, how to confront someone in a constructive manner… As much as I didn’t like writing the reflections, it is a great starting point… I learned that it’s always important to start with evaluating yourself.”
- “Before this class, I had never been in a group for this long, solving this big of a problem. Before you experience something like this it is hard to pinpoint areas where there needs to be growth. In the beginning of the class I learned that I was not much of a self-directed learner… I needed reassurance from my team members that I was doing everything correctly. Working with a team every day while trying to fix a problem has really helped me. I have learned to start having more confidence in myself.”
- “I think I developed a sense of power within myself through this class. I understand that what I say does matter and that people will listen to me if I have something to say. I developed a sense of pride in my work. I can create amazing things and I never really thought of them as amazing until I worked with this team. I found a new person inside of me who is not afraid of what people think of my ideas… I do not think that I would have found this person if my team hadn’t reacted the way they did when they heard a few of my ideas. They helped me gain more confidence than I have ever had.”
I’m nearly certain I could not have achieved this type of student reaction with a couple one-off group projects. These student reactions are the results of working with a team on a complex and challenging authentic problem for an extended period of time. In the best situation, they then turning around and tackling a new problem with a new team, applying newly gained insight and improving further.
As evidenced by these student reactions, collaborative learning when done well is a powerful thing. Not only does a well-designed experience to teach teamwork and communication, in some cases it can profoundly transform the way students view the world and themselves.
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