5 Strategies to Deepen Student Collaboration

This time of the year we have been working on our class “Code of Collaboration“, and how to make the best  learning environment for all our students. We want everybody to have a good time at school, to learn as much as possible, to make new friends and to be in a safe environment. Learning is hard work, and you don’t need the pressure of someone making a fool of you or calling you names or ridiculing wrong answers. We want to have our students work in teams and to be sure that we are maximizing the teams’ potentials. Teachers put a lot of work into this, and just when you think everything is working perfectly, you get a new student in the class, or you lose some students and have to regroup your teams. Either way, I think it is a good idea to go back to working on strengthening the work in teams in your class and to make sure everyone knows how to behave in class. In my search for more ideas in my classroom, I stumbled over this article in Edutopia. I’m sharing it here because I am sure more teachers could benefit from a revisit in this area.

I am using Padlet as a means of communication with my students and a place to share our vision of how we want to work in class. If you have anything to add please share your thoughts here!


Students need a reason to collaborate. If the assignment is too simple, they can more easily do it alone. At most, they may check in with each other or interact in superficial ways. The real reason to collaborate is because the task is complex—it is too difficult and has too many pieces to complete alone.

Complex activities are challenging, engaging, stimulating, and multilayered. Complex activities require “positive interdependence” (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2008), a situation in which attaining the goal, completing the task, being successful, and getting a good grade require that the team work together and share knowledge.

One way to do this is through rigorous projects that require students to identify a problem (for example, balancing population growth in their city with protection of existing green spaces) and agree—through research, discussion, debate, and time to develop their ideas—on a solution which they must then propose together.


Collaborative groups can’t be assigned—they have to be built and nurtured. Students often need to learn how to work effectively with others and as part of a team. We have to help students understand the what, why, and how of collaboration. We can do this in several ways:

  • Help students understand the benefits of collaboration and what successful collaboration looks like.
  • Guide students through the stages of team building (forming, storming, norming, and performing).
  • Give students time and opportunities within the activity to develop leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills.
  • Establish expectations and norms for working together.
  • Design, or have students design, protocols for handling conflict disagreement so they can resolve issues within their teams.
  • Teach students active listening skills.


When students complain about collaborative groups, it often has to do with the free riding of one member who lets others do all the work and then benefits from the group grade. We can eliminate free riding in a number of ways:

  • Create small groups of no more than four or five people. When there is less room to hide, nonparticipation is more difficult.
  • Ensure a high degree of individual accountability (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 2008) by assessing students both individually and as a group. For example, at the end of the day give students an individual quiz based on the intended outcome of their collaborative activity.
  • Design meaningful team roles that relate to the content and to the task. Roles like time keeper are episodic and don’t intellectually engage students in the content, and this can encourage free riding. In contrast, more meaningful roles such as manager, monitor, and leaders for each subtask of the activity give students ownership in the process and allow the teacher to assess students based on successful completion of these roles.
  • Have students evaluate their own participation and effort and that of each team member and triangulate those assessments with your own


Many group projects are based on efficiency, dividing labor to create a product in the most effective way possible. This focus on the product means that we often ignore the process of collaboration. Rich discussions that connect students with the experiences of others, that engage them deeply in a shared intellectual experience, and that promote coming to consensus are essential to collaboration.

For instance, students can come to consensus around a solution or decision where they must defend or propose a common vision or develop a set of beliefs or principles. This focus on discussion and consensus builds both academic and social skills—students learn to defend their ideas through evidence and analytical reasoning, to negotiate meaning, and to argue constructively.


The challenge of designing good collaborative activities is ensuring that all students, even those who struggle, play an important role. Collaboration should not just strengthen students’ existing skills but ensure that their interactions stretch existing knowledge and expand one another’s expertise. If, for example, a student is much stronger in one skill than her peers in her group, she can teach others and her grade can be contingent upon how much her peers learn.

In collaborative activities, we want to ensure that students don’t just occupy the same physical space but that they share an intellectual space—that they learn more, do more, and experience more together than they would alone. As teachers, we can promote real collaboration by shifting our role from instructor to coach—promoting team autonomy, checking in on students and providing instant feedback, and helping them increasingly learn to work together productively to attain a common goal. Edutopia



  1. Critical and higher level thinking. Student engagement. Brain based teaching. These buzzwords are at the top of educators mind these days. These goals actually achieved in practice. And What kinds of student activities offer the most bang for the buck in terms of enhancing learning. Encourage active participation. This requires that every student participates, not just the ones who readily volunteer. https://dissertationpanda.com/

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