Journeying from Group Work to Collaborative Learning: Five Lessons I’ve Learned

Group work is an area in which my classroom practice has changed considerably during my teaching career.  The way I use it today is very different from how I used it when I began teaching, largely due to these five lessons that I’ve learned:

1. Group work is not synonymous with collaborative learning.

Assigning a task to a group of students does not ensure that they will be learning together.  This well-circulated meme sums up this idea:


2. Collaborative learning is a skill that must be overtly taught.

Pointing out the obvious is important – it’s not always obvious to the students.  I try to teach my students to consider the following:

  • Physical positioning is important. Arrange yourselves in a circle, not a line, so that you can hear each other speak.
  • Contribute to the group – share your thoughts. If you are dominating the discussion, elicit other people’s opinions.
  • You sink or swim together. You are a team and are all responsible for the decisions that are made.  “See, I told you!” type of language is not appropriate.
  • Work together.  No one should be ahead or behind the others in the group.  Discuss, make a decision, and then write it down.  Continue to repeat this cycle until the task is completed.

3. Don’t limit the use of collaborative learning to knowledge acquisition. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for individual skill development.

Collaborative learning can be used to slow down the thinking process and make it visible – both of which can be very useful during the beginning stages of skill acquisition.

When I teach a new writing skill, I first model the skill for the students, highlighting the thought processes and questioning patterns that I’d like them to use.  Then, sandwiched between me demonstrating it and having them apply it on their own, I have them work on it collaboratively.  This significantly improves the quality of their individual work that follows.

When having them work collaboratively, I have learned to do the following:

  • Emphasize the fact that they must be thinking aloud, together, and that nothing can be written until they both agree.
  • Ensure that the students know that this will slow down the writing process greatly as compared to writing on their own, but emphasize the fact that the value here is in developing the thinking patterns.  By strengthening their thinking patterns, their writing will become much stronger.
  • Ensure that the students who are paired together are at different skill levels.  The student who is further ahead in their skill development will further solidify their understanding if they are able to articulate and justify their thought processes to their partner.  The student who is less-developed in the skill will benefit from being able to see the thought process be modelled by their peer, in addition to having seen it be modelled previously by their teacher.

4. Assigning a joint grade to a group for work they have done together is inaccurate assessment.

Problem: If the purpose of assessment is to determine how much a student knows or is able to do, one group grade is not accurate.  We can be guaranteed that any given group of students do not each have exactly the same level of knowledge and skill.  When we assign one grade to an entire group, we indicate that they do.  Not only is this unfair to the students, but it is inaccurate assessment.

Solution: Shift the focus to the learning process, not to an end product.  Offer the collaborative learning time as a stepping stone to develop the knowledge or skill that will be required to complete an individual assessment piece that follows.  This will still enable the students to clearly display their own individual level of achievement, but will enable them to utilize their peers as a tool for furthering their own learning prior to completing their own assessment piece.

Caution: offering one grade for all the students for their end product and then giving them an individual grade for their own ‘effort’ or ‘participation’ to individualize their grades is not a solution here.  This method still assumes that, at the end of the project, the level of knowledge of each student is the same.  It also adds grades for behaviours, which distorts assessment (I highly recommend Ken O’Connor’s book, A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, for more information on this).

5. Students can be motivated and interested in collaborative learning without using a graded assignment as the end goal.

If collaborative learning is done well, students will see its value and will be willing to engage for the purposes of their own learning, not for a grade.  Using grades as motivators is a barrier to sound assessment (more of that on a later post) and is not necessary when students find their learning to be relevant, meaningful, and enriched by working with others.

Collaborative learning is a powerful tool.  It helps develop a sense of community in the classroom, fosters a culture of learning, and shows the students how much stronger we are when we work together.  It can help develop thought patterns and offers differentiated learning by giving a role both to those leading and lagging.

Group projects, in the sense of a task that must be completed by a group of students for one joint grade, have seen their glory days and now need to live in the past.  We can do better.


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