Sharing responsibility in pursuit of a common objective

The ability to collaborate effectively is a skill we want our students to possess when they leave our system. But collaborative learning is also a key strategy to increase student learning and involvement.  Used effectively, it helps us reach many other goals.


Collaboration is defined as, “an instructional arrangement that allows two to six students the opportunity to work together on a shared task in order to jointly construct their knowledge and understanding of the content.” Johnson and Johnson, Frey and Fischer, Everlove, Productive Group Work, 200

In the 21st century, Collaboration is a critical part of learning in the classroom because:

“…learning is social. What children learn through social interaction with adults and peer forms the basis for more complex thinking and understanding. Over time, these skills, learning, and thinking processes become internalized and can be used independently. In short, by interacting with others, children learn not only what to think but how to think.”

Vygotsky, Frey and Fischer, Everlove, Productive Group Work, 2009.

“….interactions with peers expand a student’s aptitude for seeking new information. With this assertion, collaboration with peers becomes a necessary part of the learning process.” Vygotsky, Frey and Fischer, Everlove, Productive Group Work, 2009.

Collaborative Learning versus Cooperative Learning

Sometimes collaboration and cooperative learning are used interchangeably. However, “one distinction that seems to prove useful is between cooperation and collaboration. When people are co-operating, they are adjusting their actions so that each person achieves their individual goals, whereas collaboration is about actions being adjusted to reach a shared goal.”

Watkins, School Leadership Today vol.1.1 Found on this website:[/column]


There are hundreds of studies that validate collaborative learning, with many positive effects.  Top research based benefits:

  1. Higher achievement and retention
  2. Higher critical thinking and higher-level reasoning
  3. Differentiated views of others and accurate understanding of others’ perspectives
  4. Greater Liking for classmates, teacher, and subject areas
  5. Higher positive social Skills
  6. Higher self-esteem



Meaningful Tasks

“ A task for productive group work must offer a challenge of problem to solve to make all of those principles of cooperative learning come into play.” “It’s the wrestling with the task that causes students to rely on one another. A spirit of cooperation can bloom when a group is collectively faced with a difficult job to do.” (p. 20)

Designing tasks for Collaboration is a crucial element: the designof the task can be more powerful in creating the need for collaboratin than any other of the tactics we may resort to (encouragement, or even more telling).

Three considerations:

  1. Task must not be ‘decomposable’, it must not be completed by one member of the group.
  2. The task must require the contribution of all members of the group, through their different voices, angles, roles etc. This builds interdependence which is reciprocal.
  3. The task cannot be a ‘right answer’ task; instead it must require higher-order thinking and the negotiation of meaning.

Watkins, School Leadership Today vol.1.1 Found on this website:

“Students need to have the potential of failure to make them pay attention to each other and what they are doing and to figure out how they might work together toward success. If success is guaranteed, the task is not likely to result in learning.” (p.20) .”

Johnson and Johnson, Frey and Fischer, Everlove, Productive Group Work, 2009.

A key point is that it isn’t enough to just put students into groups and hope for these effects.  Several factors must be considered, planned for, and taught to students.  The researchers Johnson and Johnson give these five conditions for effective collaborative learning:

Positive Interdependence

positive interdependence

Positive Interdependence

Considered by some to be most important component of collaborative learning. Occurs when the task or learning requires more than just segmenting the work into smaller pieces. When positive interdependence is in place, students see individual success as inextricably linked to the success of all in the group. Students draw on the strengths of all those in the group.


Accomplished By:

  • Designing a task where the participation of every member is essential for the group to be successful
  • Each group member contributes a unique piece of information to the learning task that is essential for completion
  • Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for interdependence are part of the group and individual contributions

Face-to-Face Interaction


Face-to-Face Interaction

Conversations help students construct meaning not just from the content of words but also from the gestures, movement and expressions. During fact to face interactions students practice essential active listening skills.


Accomplished by:

  • Modeled by the teacher behaviours necessary to make group interactions effective and productive.
  • Students using prompts when speaking with peers (giving directions, asking questions, deciding if something makes sense, telling about something, showing how two things are alike and different, giving examples, discussing the parts of the bigger idea, making a prediction based on what is known, drawing conclusion or arriving at an answer, judging something) (p.43)
  • Eye contact and encouraging gestures

Individual and Group Accountability

Two levels of accountability should be built into any productive group-work: individual and group accountability. Each individual must be responsible for his or her contribution to the group’s learning. Students maintain accountability by receiving and acting on peer and teacher feedback both individually and as a group.


Accomplished by:

  • Accountability is synonymous with responsibility
  • Tasks that emphasize larger learning goals
  • Give students experience with small tasks before asking them to tackle larger projects to build stamina.
  • Establish timelines for both group and individual completion at each phase
  • Create interim steps to discuss individual and group progress and provide feedback
  • Ask students to reflect on themselves and the group’s efforts (self and peer assessment)

Interpersonal and Small Group Skills


Essential interpersonal skills are a key part of productive group work and can be practiced in collaborative situations. Often, the specific small-group skills needed for productive group work must be taught explicitly and practiced in order to refine skills. Strong interpersonal skills foster self-confidence.


Common Interpersonal Skills:                     Active Listening Techniques:

-Leadership                                                   -ask clarifying questions

-Decision Making                                           -restate someone’s ideas

-Trust Building                                              -make eye contact with the speaker

-Turn taking                                                  -encourage

-Active Listening                                            -ask a follow up question

-Conflict Management                                  -use friendly body language


(p.70)                                                             (p. 75)

Group Processing


Group work improves when students discuss and assess their interaction, the progress they made toward their goal, what did and did not work, and then go on to talk about what they’ll do differently in the future. Reflection and group processing is a critical component of collaborative learning not only for building skills but also for developing metacognition.


Accomplished By:

  • Have students reflect using self-monitoring questionnaires
  • Have students use learning logs—individually or collaboratively—to chronicle learning.
  • Have groups come up with a learning plan, reflecting on what they have accomplished and establishing next steps.
  • Embed self and peer assessment into collaborative work.
  • Create success criteria for collaboration and have students reflect on it and refer to it often.

(p. 84-96)

How to teach collaboration An article by Daniel Willingham with a couple of interesting ideas from research on what makes effective groups.

20 Collaborative Learning Tips And Strategies For Teachers
 Everlove, Frey, and Fisher. Productive Group Work. ASCD, 2009.
 Gibbs, Jeanne. Tribes: Discovering Gifts in Middle School. 2007

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