In Search of True Collaboration

We’ve all had the experience of telling students, “Ok, you all are going to work in groups on the following task. Make sure everyone participates. We’ll discuss (or I’ll collect) this when you’re finished.

Good, we think to ourselves. A collaborative activity with a check for understanding planned for when they’re finished. No sooner does this thought pass through our heads than we realize one of two things: 1. It’s very quiet in here; they’re not working together at all. OR 2. There’s tons of conversation, but hardly anyone is on task.

What happened? Well, despite our good intentions and perhaps even our high level activity, there are several issues here that have sabotaged our efforts.

Clarifying Terms

First, we’ve not made clear to students what we mean by true collaboration.  A helpful way to review this for them is with a simple is/is not list:

Collaboration =

  • Shared responsibility
  • Individual ownership
  • Co-creation of a product or idea
  • Similar levels of contribution

Collaboration ≠

  • Group work
  • Students sitting together
  • Sharing answers
  • Collecting one piece of paper with four names on it

Clarifying Structure

Once you’ve established a shared understanding of what it means to collaborate, you can work on structuring your activities to more fully reflect these principles.

Let’s look back at the instructions from our original task.

The Problem

We told students to work in groups, but we didn’t clearly define the groups, nor did we establish roles. And though we asked for full participation, there’s nothing in our design that ensures it. Likewise, our promise to discuss or collect the work simply means that something needs to be finished by someone by the time you’re ready to move on. That often means that the student who already understands or takes over the group or struggles to stick up for himself is going to do all the work while the others “help.”

Additionally, the lack of a clear cue to start/end invites off-task behavior and diminishes any sense of urgency. And depending on what we mean by, “discuss/collect,” it’s likely that even after 15-20 minutes of students working together, you’ll only gather information from the few students who raise their hands or who actually did the work assigned.

The Solution

Provide a clearer structure using the steps below. Doing so will result in higher engagement, increased accountability, and your having a stronger sense of students’ understanding.

Let’s return to our original task, and restructure it. Notice that we’re not really modifying the activity, just adding clarity.

1. Choose the question/assign the task.

Example: We’re going to work on answering these 6 questions.

 2. Give clear directions verbally and in writing.

You will work with the person next to you, using one pencil, which you will trade after each question. If you’re not writing, your job is to coach your peer and help him/her determine the best answer.

3. Assign roles.

The taller partner will write the answer to the first problem. You will switch back and forth until time is up.

Tip: If it’s a group/pair discussion, say who begins; if it’s an activity, determine who does which job).

4. Set a time limit, and use a timer. 

You’ll have 5 minutes to complete this activity.

Tip: Timers can be found online or embedded via Smart Notebook or PowerPoint. I’m having a ton of success right now inserting them as videos into my Google Slides presentations.

5. Check for understanding of directions

 Are there any questions?

6. Cue beginning and start timer.

Say, “Go.” 

Tip: You can use a verbal signal, a chime, music, bell….tons of options here.

7. Cue ending

Timer ends. (Again, a hand signal, chime, or music could work here).

 8. Random Checking In 

When timer ends, say, “Thanks for using the full five minutes. If you want to discuss their work, say, “If you are the oldest sibling, please stand up.” (Or, if you’re concerned students won’t participate, make it something easy to identify, like student with the longest hair, or blue shoes).

Tip: Use a random method of selecting a variety of students.  You can use online tools or just come up with different categories: all the 3’s, all the students wearing orange, student athletes, etc.  I usually have students stand, which gives them a chance to stretch and also makes it obvious to me who’s going to participate. If lots of students stand, it’s fine to call on just a few. The idea is that you’ve increased accountability by communicating that any student could be called on to share. By checking in with several students, you’ll gain a quick sense of the quality of discussion occurring/ work being produced.

If you simply want to collect their work, you could still use a random technique like this to ask students about the process of working collaboratively, or to have them reflect on their strengths, areas for growth, etc.

9. Gather answers and provide praise. 

What did you answer for #1? What helped you determine that? Great. Thanks for using such clear evidence.   How about you? What did you say in response to that question? (Or, if there’s one answer, you can move on to the next question. You can also simply collect the questions, if you’d like to check the work before reviewing it.

Tip: Be specific in the feedback you give to the students’ answers. Avoid saying, “Good job,” which is positive but not instructive.   Instead, tell them what specifically they’ve done well.

 10. Have Students Encourage/ Praise One Another

Please thank your partner, and say one specific thing you appreciated about working with him/her.

Final Thoughts

Having a clarified definition of what you mean by true collaboration and using these steps to structure it more purposefully will benefit you and your students in many ways.

As you work to promote this type of interaction in your classroom, you might find it helpful to use tools like a collaboration rubric or a template for structuring your activities using the framework above.

I’d also recommend taking a look at, which features dozens of articles about true collaboration as well as access to hundreds of activities to help promote cooperative learning.

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