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Collaborative learning

9 fresh ideas to take student collaboration beyond group work

By Tricia Whenham
on April 5, 2016

Student collaboration beyond group workOut of all the art projects I did with my students, there’s one that might be my favorite. I took a photograph and divided it into 1 inch squares, one per student. Then, using paints and brushes, each student attempted to replicate the exact image on a larger piece of paper.

On their own, the paintings didn’t look like much. But after all my students grabbed their pieces and worked to put them together, the result was a larger-than-life tiger that crouched in our hallway and got the attention of every class that walked by (the kindergartners were particularly impressed).

That project often comes to mind when I think about student collaboration – as a kind of metaphor for what can be accomplished when every learner contributes to a group goal. Lately it seems everyone’s talking about how students need to learn to work together effectively, before they get to college and the work world. But I remember how difficult it was to ensure that the same five kids didn’t dominate every conversation or collaborative learning activity.

Collaboration is a skill that everyone needs to develop – not just the extroverts. Let’s go beyond teacher-led discussions and traditional group work and bring more student voice into student collaboration. Here are some ideas to try:

1. Find think-pair-share alternatives

Think-pair-share is popular for good reason, but if it’s already part of your toolkit, try a new twist. Pose an open-ended question to your class and ask students to come up with their best answer. Then pair learners up and ask them to agree on one response. Next, two pairs get together and the foursome has to make the same decision. This can continue until half the class goes head to head with the other half – the debate can be lively! For more ideas, here are a few other think-pair-share alternatives.

Download our free eBook to get more than 20 collaborative learning activities  you can try with your students tomorrow.

2. Let ideas percolate

Some concepts just need more time to develop, so try extending your idea generation over the span of a week. Students can make their contributions in a shared space, using a sticky-note wall or the Nureva™ Wall and Span™ Workspace. See how the ideas deepen from day to day, giving your students a better starting point once idea generation ends and collaboration begins.

3. Blog to reflect

Encourage students to document their thinking by blogging about their process. Then widen the circle by enabling students to comment on each other’s posts – asking questions, making observations and forging connections with their own work. Check out how one teacher helps students write reflective blog posts.

4. Make room for pictures

Sketchnoting has taken education conferences by storm, but the practice of taking visual notes can also be useful in the collaborative classroom. While listening to a guest speaker or watching a video, have students document their ideas by sketching them. Then students can share their sketchnotes, looking for points that resonated strongly with everyone and elements that only struck a chord with a few.

5. Add collaboration to all subject areas

Math class isn’t always thought of as collaborative – but it can be. Let students creatively tackle a problem that could be solved in many different ways. Once students have worked individually, prompt them to examine other solutions, group similar responses and discuss the merits of each approach.

6. Teach the language

Take the time to give students the words they need to communicate effectively while collaborating. Sentence starters like “I feel differently because…” or “In other words, you’re saying…” can help students understand individual perspectives and reach a shared understanding. For more ideas, check out this list.

7. Refresh your space

I’ve found that giving students the opportunity to reimagine their classroom space can spark an astonishing level of enthusiasm. If you’re in a dedicated classroom, task your students with rearranging the desks, bookshelves and other learning nooks in your room – but first require them to generate ideas, evaluate options and make a plan. If they need inspiration, here’s one place to start.

8. Generate questions

Q&A sessions with a guest speaker can be hard to manage – either there isn’t enough time or the words “Are there any questions?” result in resounding silence. Instead, get students to generate questions ahead of time over a couple of days, and then work in small groups to prioritize what gets asked. Preparation can spark better student engagement in the whole process.

9. Plan for change

Encourage students to work together to solve problems that affect them the most. For example, students might devise a concrete plan to address environmental issues at their school. They could start by individually documenting problem areas – with words, photos or videos. Next, have them create categories and work in small groups to come up with solutions.

Let’s keep adding to the list. What are you doing to get every student collaborating? 

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Topics: collaboration


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