Easing the Pain of Student Collaboration

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One of the most valued skills employers are looking for in an employee is the ability to collaborate. This doesn’t just mean being “nice,” it means being able to be part of a productive and efficient team that gets the job done. And while a significant amount of adult time is devoted to teaching very young kids the basics of playing well with others, as students enter into middle and high school, little attention is given to developing a student’s ability to collaborate. At the same time, every teacher has experienced the pain that comes with student collaboration. Whether it’s one student doing most of the work, several students complaining about a “slacker” who’s not doing anything, high achieving students (or their parents) complaining about group grading, or your own frustrations with trying to determine who did the work and has mastered the content, doing collaborative projects with students can often seem harder than just keeping the kids in rows quietly doing their individual assignments. One of the best strategies is establishing team contracts. Whether you provide a template or let the students create one from scratch, the contract should reflect the best thinking of the team. It is important that the task of creating a team contract not feel like an arbitrary or perfunctory task. Rather, students should know that they are in charge of defining how their group will work together and they can agree to add whatever they feel is necessary to achieve success. You will find, over time, that some students get very good at writing contracts that hold everyone accountable to a high standard.

STARTER SET OF CRITERIA FOR A GREAT TEAM CONTRACT

  1. Includes the names and contact information of the people in the group
  2. Clearly states the goals and norms of the group
  3. States specifically the roles and responsibilities of each team member
  4. Lists the rules and behavior expectations of the group members, including where they will post shared documents and resources
  5. Describes the warnings and disciplinary actions that the group can take (including the appropriate steps to being fired from a group)
  6. Holds team members accountable to their performance on the task or project
  7. A place for each team member’s signature as a sign of their understanding and commitment to the team

Get started with these sample contracts from New Tech Network, and watch the video below to learn more about team contracts.

A huge benefit to structuring collaboration is that peer pressure begins to work in your favor. As puberty sets in, teenagers tend to differentiate from adults and begin to worry more about what their friends think about them than what their parents or teachers think. For students that need a little extra motivation to get their homework done, the knowledge that their peers are counting on them might just do the trick.

MORE QUICK TIPS

1. Teach Collaboration

Most kids don’t know how to effectively collaborate. They might know how to get along and how to share, but they usually don’t know how to define tasks, assign roles or track progress. It is important for you to scaffold effective collaboration, especially if students have little experience with complex group tasks. Consider having regular check-in meetings with the team to model project management skills, providing team meeting agenda templates or protocols for when they meet without you. Distribute a “collaboration rubric” at the beginning of the project and regularly have the teams reflect on it throughout the project. Or better yet, have the students create the rubric. For students new to project-based learning, supporting their acquisition of collaboration skills is just as important as scaffolding the course content, so make time for it.

2. Benchmarks and Tracking

Develop a clear set of benchmarks so that you can hold groups accountable. The younger and less experienced the students are, the more benchmarks you will need. Older students should be weaned down to a few larger benchmarks or taught to create their own benchmarks. Also, consider some sort of public way to track team progress through the benchmarks, such as a simple sheet of butcher paper with checkmarks for completion. This lets teams know when they are falling behind.

3. Individual and Group Tasks

Be sure to have a balance of both individual and group tasks. This ensures that everyone is held accountable for their parts and helps you identify students who are falling behind. “Flipped” classroom models are a great example of how a class might use class time for things that require face-to-face communication, while using time at home to complete tasks that are more individual in nature.

4. Value Diversity

Keep your groups mid-sized. While large groups tend to allow more room for “freeloading,” groups that are too small (3 or less) can lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise, groups of 4-5 students work best. Make sure the groups are gender balanced, have students that represent a variety of perspectives and skill levels, and teach students to respect the viewpoints of others. Finally, I’ll remind you that learning to collaborate effectively takes time and that it would be a mistake to abandon group projects just because the students are having difficulty. They get better at it, especially if the students are experiencing group activities throughout their school day. Train yourself to see their struggles as part of the learning process and not as a permanent state of being. The better they get, the more fun you can have.

Paul Curtis was one of the founding staff at the innovative New Technology High School in Napa, California, which is recognized in the U.S. as a national leader in education reform. Paul became a strong advocate for school restructuring and educational reform and in 2001, shifted his focus from his own classroom to the significant challenge of school design. Paul is currently the Director of District Development at New Tech Network, a social enterprise focused on ensuring that every student experiences meaningful personalized learning that allows him or her to thrive in college, career and civic life.

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