Tuesday / June 25

Tips to Engage Students Through Collaboration

In 2015, I conducted a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders that asked one simple question: What engages you as learners? The results that came back could be categorized into 10 different strategies. But one request that came up over and over again, regardless of whether the students were from urban or rural areas, from private or public schools, was to let them collaborate.

Interestingly, another response that was mentioned was about building a community in the classroom, and if you think about it, this is actually a by-product of allowing students to collaborate. In other words, by allowing students to collaborate, you’re hitting two requests.

You see, students want to feel like they are a part of something bigger, something positive. Your classroom community isn’t about creating a clique; it’s about creating a family. This feeling of family engages students as learners, and we know that when they are engaged, students achieve more.

Usually I’m not engaged and I space out… but I’m engaged when its a group project because I can talk and not have to be at voice level 0.” – Hunter P. – Portland OR

Nevertheless, collaboration isn’t a silver bullet. There’s a caveat. Authors David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson and Edythe Johnson Holubec found that one must use collaboration over and over for effectiveness. In their ASCD piece, The New Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom and School, they report that if teachers need to use it for 60-80% of the time in their classrooms for it to become really effective.

As a student I get engaged when…we work with others especially for projects because it helps tame nervousness…” – Bianca K., 8th grader


First things first, let’s look at how to make collaboration work well:

  1. Set clear expectations and purpose. – Let them know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
  2. Don’t wing it – Plan each stage of the collaboration process.
  3. Be transparent – State how collaboration will work and how they will be assessed.
  4. Teach them targeted skills – Make sure they know how to disagree, to come to a consensus, and to move on when they don’t.
  5. Reflect – Build in time so they can think on how their group functioned together.

Cornell University suggests using written contracts to help students set up norms. In my classroom, the small groups each develop “Collaboration Contracts,” but I also have them go one step further.

Using the language in the contract they developed at the beginning of an activity, they then use rubistar to build their own rubric to assess how well they collaborated at the end of that activity. But here’s the catch: if the groups haven’t stated something in the contract, they can’t slam each other on the rubric. For instance, they can’t ding a fellow student on their inability to answer emails in a timely manner if that bullet point wasn’t stated explicitly in the contract beforehand. Collaboration is about good communication, after all.


So given that we know we have to do it often and with best practices in mind, what can we do to implement collaboration in the classroom?

1. Create group activities that constantly shuffle kids around.

I name the seats at each table group so I can easily have “The Katniss” kids merge to work together. I also switch up roles easily by saying all the students who sit in the “Frodo” seats are the “Recorders” for the day, or all the “Percy Jacksons” move to a different table group. I name these seats based on my content area, and build community my constantly mixing them up.

2. Have students contribute to shared documents as often as possible.

Have them comment on the same document so they can be transparent with their thinking. Have them contribute to a shared file so they can all benefit from the hive brain. Here’s a screenshot of a collaborative research library form that my students have used. As they enter in their information, their resources seed a spreadsheet that is shared with their group.

3. Have the class earn badges together.

Play games where the class can earn cumulative points as one. Keep a thermometer that tracks the class points. Develop authentic goals to achieve together. Have them select a charity and track their fundraising or track how many people they reached with a classroom promotional campaign.

Collaboration builds community. It engages students, and, in turn, triggers achievement.

Written by

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher, the coach of one of the largest middle school Speech & Debate teams in the country, and an enthusiastic curriculum design geek. She coaches teachers in developing their own PBL units and works to help tech-tentative teachers become more tech-tenacious.

Heather is passionate about educational technology and its role in helping students communicate all subjects and has written a number of books, including, DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History, DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science, Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas, and Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers.

Heather writes a popular education blog as Tweenteacher and is also a staff blogger for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s She blogs about education and parenting at The Huffington Post and is a Fellow of the National Writing Project.

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