Saturday / April 13

Five Keys to Helping Students Collaborate Successfully

2017 has brought us some good news: Social-Emotional Learning is still with us and ever expanding!

More and more, educators and employers are recognizing that those who are intrapersonally and interpersonally skilled are more successful in school and careers. Of late, much of the literature regarding SEL has placed great emphasis on self: grit, self-regulation, self-management, self-awareness, and personal decision making. However, as we pursue SEL in our own work with students, we must remember that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills complement each other.

While students work together, they must use multiple skills in order to collaborate successfully. And just as we can teach students how to better monitor their own personal behavior, we can also thoughtfully structure opportunities for students be more skillful in building relationships with others. Here are five key components for successful student collaboration.

  1. Match the group size to the task.

Many times collaborative tasks can be handled most effectively in pairs. When planning for students to work together, always ask this question first: Does this learning task require more than two people to complete it? If the answer is no, then stick with pairs. Pairs are advantageous in multiple ways.

  • Pairs are easy to monitor; a quick glance can determine if a pair is on-task.
  • Pairs keep students talking about your content. As pairs work together, 50 percent of the class is talking about the material at any given moment!
  • Pairs require less sophisticated social skills; collaboration is much easier when you only have to pay attention to one other person.
  • Pairs are far less intimidating to students who would describe themselves as introverts. While working with one person is manageable, working in a larger group can be intimidating for an introverted student.
  1. Teach students how to form groups correctly.

You know your classroom furniture. Take some time to figure out how to arrange it so that students can sit as close together as possible. The closer students sit together, the more focused they will be on each other as well as ignore the distraction of those nearby. Also, the closer students sit together, the more quietly they can converse. If your classroom shares adjoining (and probably inadequately soundproofed) walls, your colleagues will appreciate you taking your classroom volume down a few decibels.

  1. Make individual accountability a prerequisite.

Many times student groups and employee work teams are criticized for “groupthink,” which is characterized by a consensus and conformity that squashes creativity and possibly even makes individuals less invested in the outcome. The best way to avoid groupthink is to make sure that members come to the group with their “homework” done. In the classroom, this means that students enter their group with the reading completed and their initial ideas written down. With their work in hand, students are far less likely to hitchhike or arrive at a quick consensus just to get the job done.

  1. Start each meeting with an icebreaker.

Students need to get to know their members in a non-threatening, yet personal way. Before students begin the content-area task, give groups five minutes to interview each other on a low-risk topic: Where’s the best place to get pizza? That’s just one example. Your students will come up with lots of great topics; just ask them! Though you might balk and question whether five minutes of chit-chat on a non-content topic is a worthwhile time investment, rest assured that it is. Those five minutes of conversation enable students to get to know one another in ways that form stronger working relationships. It is human nature to be more interested and invested in the ideas of people we know versus those we regard as strangers. Plus, these initial five minute interviews serve as an important conversation warm-up.

  1. Explicitly teach students the collaborative skills that will enhance their interaction with each other.

A component of social emotional learning is social awareness. Through working with others, students learn how to be sensitive to the needs of others as well as the needs of the group. An important skill to explicitly teach in the very beginning of the year is Friendliness and Support. As a class, discuss the importance of creating a work atmosphere where group members feel liked, supported, and appreciated. Then define it: If groups were acting in friendly and supportive ways, what would their body language look like? What would they say to each other? Share answers, create a class anchor chart, and then remind students to actively demonstrate friendliness and support every time they work together.

Then, after students work together, offer some reflection time by asking groups these two questions: What skills did you use that helped the group get along and get the job done? What behavior would help members to get along and work together even better the next time? Polling groups on their answers provides an opportunity to celebrate successful collaboration as well as obtain important feedback regarding other collaborative skills you need to teach—or re-teach—explicitly.

Nowadays, we frequently see students grouped at tables or desks. However, just putting students together doesn’t make collaboration automatically happen. Instead, we must actively plan these experiences for our students, keeping these five keys in mind. With our guidance, our students will grow and refine their social skillfulness, and ultimately apply those skills on their own in new contexts.

Written by

Nancy Steineke, a former high school English, social studies, and vocational education teacher, now consults nationally as a keynote speaker, workshop presenter, webinar leader, and classroom coach for K-12 teachers. Nancy keeps the focus on research-supported manageable strategies that help teachers get the job done in ways that best benefit students. Participants regularly praise her “practicality,” “concrete ideas,” and “energetic style.” She is the author/co-author of eight professional books including Corwin’s Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction (co-authored with Harvey Daniels). 

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