Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

October 2012 • Sue Jackson

Welcome to our first teaching tip of the 2012–13 school year! I hope you have had a productive and successful start-up with your new class. Again this year, the teaching tips will focus on aspects of 21st century teaching and learning. This month's tip outlines strategies and suggestions that answer questions around the topic of collaborative learning: What skills are necessary for collaboration? How do you create a collaborative culture in a classroom?

Evidence suggests that students learn best and are better prepared for the future when provided opportunities to work together toward a common goal; to solve problems, create novel products, or learn and master content. Collaborative learning requires positive interdependence, individual accountability, and interpersonal skills. Learners who are adept at teaming and collaboration demonstrate the following characteristics:

Personally: Interpersonally:
  • Are willing and able to take on different roles and tasks within the group to accomplish shared ends.
  • Are open and honest with ideas, concerns, and values.
  • Are leaders as well as followers.
  • Apply collaborative skills to a variety of situations.
  • Reflect on group interactions after collaborative activities; use experiences to make future collaboration more productive.
  • Commit to a shared goal and accept responsibility for group work toward that goal.
  • Work to match tasks to team member abilities, expanding team membership when necessary.
  • Share personal understandings and resources with other group members.
  • Listen respectfully and objectively; offer constructive feedback.
  • Iteratively design and redesign solutions through honest debate, disagreement, discussion, research, and development.
from 2003 NCREL/Metrics Group, p. 32

This chart shows that effective communication skills are critical for collaboration. Teaching students strategies for respectful, thoughtful speaking and active listening helps them become proficient communicators. Provide opportunities for students to talk with a partner (e.g., Turn and Talk, Partner Conversations, Think-Pair-Share) and focus on actions that contribute to good dialogue. Ask students to provide suggestions for an anchor chart, highlighting 'look-for' behaviours for effective communication.

Active Listening Effective Speaking
  • Make eye contact with the speaker.
  • Nod, smile, and use other friendly body language.
  • Look interested and lean in or sit close.
  • Think carefully about the speaker's key points.
  • Ask clarifying questions to clear up confusion (e.g., Do you mean...?; Could you please explain your thinking?).
  • Take notes, if helpful.
  • Speak clearly and loudly enough so that all group members can hear.
  • Take turns talking so only one person speaks at a time.
  • Address one another respectfully.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Wait for pauses to enter the discussion and avoid interrupting.
  • Adopt a positive tone and manner.
  • Monitor the amount of talking you are doing. (Are you talking enough? Too much?)
  • Stick to the point currently under discussion. Make notes about ideas you want to come back to.
from: Jackson, Sue. The 10 Discovery Series: Inquiry Club Guide, Scholastic Education, 2012, p. 13

Once you establish guidelines for productive communication, introduce activities where classmates get to know each other on a more personal level. These activities involve interactions between peers, not just a partner. They can be completed early in, or throughout the school year to help students recognize and appreciate the diverse range of learners in the classroom.

People Bingo Stand on the Line Placemat
This activity helps to build a collaborative classroom climate as students try to discover new information about classmates. This strategy enables students to see similarities and differences between themselves and others. The placemat strategy enables students to record their thinking individually, to discuss the topic in an organized way, and then to use cooperative skills to come to consensus.
Procedure:
  1. Instruct students to mingle with the group to find one person in the class to fit each category on their People Bingo sheet (e.g., has a brother or sister, likes to listen to music, enjoys watching movies, has a favourite web-site, loves to read books, has a fear of spiders, has an unusual hobby, likes to write, doesn't like pizza). They should introduce themselves and find out something new about a classmate.
  2. The first student to fill all the squares with names yells "Bingo".
Procedure:
  1. Have students stand in a line.
  2. Instruct students to 'stand on the line' or step forward when they match the criteria read aloud. They should also note others who are standing on the line or who have not moved forward.
  3. Read aloud various criteria (e.g., have a pet, enjoy biking, love to go to the beach, knows a greeting in another language, play a musical instrument, live a long way from school, have a favourite movie, etc.)
  4. Students can make comparisons with those standing close to them.
Procedure:
  1. Create small groupings of students (four students per group is optimal; however, if necessary groupings can consist of three, five or six students).
  2. Provide students with a pre-made placemat or instruct students to draw the placemat formation on chart paper. Each student requires their own space for recording ideas.
  3. Instruct students to individually think about a question/topic/prompt and to record their ideas in their own section of the placemat.
  4. Have students take turns in sharing their ideas to discover common elements.
  5. Tell students to come to consensus about the common elements and to record these in the middle section of the placemat.
  6. Appoint one member to share the group's ideas with the class.
For further activities to create a collaborative classroom culture, see pages 29–36 of Inquiring Minds Learn to Read and Write by Wilhelm, Wilhelm, and Boas.

When you feel students have developed the skills of communication, trust, and respect of others, you will want to place them into formal group settings where collaboration is facilitated and rewarded. Three things are necessary for collaborative learning: students need to feel safe but challenged, groups should be small enough so all members can contribute, and tasks must be clearly defined. The strategies in the chart below follow these guidelines and enable students to learn to rely on one another to complete a task, and be accountable to their group. Have students assist in brainstorming ideas for what productive group work looks like, sounds like, and feels like and create an anchor chart for future reference.

3 Part Interview Jigsaw
The Three Part Interview allows students to interview one another on a particular topic. Groups of three work best for this activity; however, it can be modified to include four participants. Students have the opportunity to share their thinking, ask questions, and take notes.

Procedure:

  1. Have students work in groups of three and provide one interview sheet per group.
  2. Ask students to number off 1 to 3 and assign roles for the first interview (e.g., Number 1 is the Interviewer who asks questions, Number 2 is the Responder who answers the questions, and Number 3 is the Recorder who records the main points of the interview).
  3. Discuss the three roles and provide tips or hints to ensure success (e.g., Interviewer asks the assigned question but continues to question the responder to clarify understanding or to promote further discussion, Responder answers the question by sharing thoughts and viewpoints, Recorder does not converse during the interview but listens to the responses and makes brief notes on the interview sheet).
  4. Provide the first discussion question and assign the length of time for the first interview (base this on the age of the students and the complexity of the questions being asked).
  5. Stop the first interview and have students switch roles for the next interview. Provide the topic/question for discussion.
  6. Switch roles one more time and again provide the question for the interviewer.
  7. Have students discuss important points and note these at the bottom of the interview sheet.
The jigsaw strategy is a collaborative one where individuals are responsible and accountable for sharing knowledge and understanding with others.

Procedure:

  1. Divide students into 'home' groups.
  2. Assign each member of the home group a different topic in which to become an 'expert'.
  3. Form expert groups and have group members work together to read/discuss/understand the topic.
  4. Instruct 'experts' to return to their 'home' group to share the information gathered.