We have all been there. We have divided students in groups of four to complete a task together. Immediately, one student takes over, a couple of others happily “check out,” and the other is frustrated because “there’s nothing to do.” What went wrong? Read on to find the answers to the five most commonly asked questions about collaboration.
1. Why does collaboration so often fail in the classroom? Just because we put students together in groups, doesn’t mean anything magic will happen. The biggest misconception about collaboration is that it simply means that students work together on a task. The problem is that often the task can be completed by one person and so the others in the group become inconsequential; everyone resorts to “doing their own thing”—either working on the task, or relying on another group member to do the work so they can copy it. Collaboration is more than just group work.
2. How is collaboration different from group work? The critical difference in the terms “group work” and “collaboration” is that collaboration provides a specific structure for ensuring all students within a small group have specific responsibilities related to the completion of the task, and all students are held individually accountable for successful completion of their specific part of the task (Kagan and Kagan, 2009). Ultimately, the task cannot be successfully completed unless every member of the group is actively involved in the thinking and working. The goal of collaboration is not simply to complete a task together, but to deepen thinking so that learning becomes richer and more meaningful.
3. What does the research say about collaboration? Research shows that because learning is a social process, two heads really are better than one when it comes to manipulating challenging content. According to research studies conducted by Johnson and Johnson (2009) collaboration, when used effectively, improves student engagement and retention of classroom material. It also increases students’ time on task and motivation to learn, as well as improving their interpersonal relationships. Students’ expectations of their own personal success are also increased. Collaboration leads to a richer and more meaningful learning experience that improves comprehension and critical thinking skills for all students.
4. What does collaboration look like? When you step into a classroom where collaboration is taking place, you will see students who know their role in the group because the roles have been clearly defined. All roles are equally important, each one requiring deep manipulation of the content. For example, during a close reading task, you might see one student asking questions about the passage, while another student is responsible for finding evidence in the text to support the answers given by the group. A third student might be responsible for turning these responses into a summary of the text. Everyone is actively involved and is crucial to the successful completion of the task.
You won’t see the teacher managing groups, instead he or she takes on the role of a facilitator, probing students to stretch their thinking, answering questions, providing clarification, and collecting anecdotal data on students’ depth of understanding.
5. How can I get started? Start with putting students into pairs, instead of small groups. Working in partner groups is effective because some students struggle to connect with others, steer clear of working in groups, or don’t have the skills needed to participate productively. Putting these students in pairs often lessens their anxiety. Those students contribute more because they are working with only one other person. This is a doable process and empowers all students to become more engaged and active learners.
Download this Interactive Worksheet strategy from our book Ready-to-Go Instructional Strategies That Build Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking to make any worksheet collaborative. The Interactive Worksheet takes students beyond merely “working together” and asks them to synthesize their thinking into a consensus response and analyze and evaluate the response of another pair. It is a great way to jump into the collaborative process with any group of students!