Collaboration Nation

Teaching Students How to be Successful Collaborators

The history of Microsoft offers proof of the powers of collaboration. Bill Gates (age 12) and Paul Allen (age 14) first put their heads together in 1968 during a basic programming computer club at a Seattle middle school. The rest is history – and a story that belongs in the student collaboration hall of fame.

Despite Gates and Allen’s freakish success, collaborative learning doesn’t come naturally for most students. To truly prepare students for college and careers, teachers must equip their students with 21st Century learning tools. That includes the ability to comfortably collaborate with others. This blog post provides an amalgamation of current thinking on the skills and physical environment kids need to reap the benefits of putting their noggins together. If taught well, students can enjoy the benefits of collaboration, believe in it, practice it and carrying it into their futures.

Benefits of Collaborative Learning

But first, why does collaboration matter? Paul Curtis is an advocate for education reform and one of the founding staff at the innovative New Technology High School in Napa, California. He offers this thoughtful answer:  “One of the most valued skills employers are looking for in an employee is the ability to collaborate. This doesn’t just mean being ‘nice’. It means being able to be part of a productive, efficient team that gets the job done.”

Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence would agree. It includes “Preparation for real life social and employment situations” as one of the top benefits of collaborative learning. In fact, research shows that educational experiences (such as collaborative learning) that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning. Additional benefits of collaborative learning include:

  • • Development of higher-level thinking (not just recalling facts), oral
  • communication, self-management, and leadership skills
  • • Promotion of student-educator interaction
  • • Increase in self-esteem and responsibility
  • • Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives

Other research strongly supports the advantages of group learning over individualized learning. Compared to competitive or individual work, cooperation leads to higher group and individual achievement, higher-quality reasoning strategies, more metacognition, and more new ideas and solutions to problems. In addition, students working in cooperative groups tend to be more intrinsically motivated, intellectually curious, caring of others, and psychologically healthy.

The benefits of collaborative learning aren’t limited by age. Available research suggests that children as young as five are as susceptible to influence through collaborative learning, as older students.

What Skills to Teach

Simply putting students in groups and letting them dive in is not enough to attain good outcomes. When collaboration goes wrong, it can be “toxic for learning and classroom cultures,” reports Joshua Black, a humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Most students are used to working on their own in competition for grades. Plus, collaboration can get harder as kids hit puberty and become more self conscious around their peers. Teachers must also factor in differences in learning styles, personalities and personality traits (for example, introverts and extroverts).

Many researchers recommend providing explicit instruction in collaboration skills, adjusted to grade levels. Here’s a short list of skills to teach for preparing and supporting students in deep, meaningful collaborations:

Personal responsibility. Help students see themselves as positively interdependent so that they take a personal responsibility for working to achieve group goals. Have discussions around fairness and work distribution.

Effective interpersonal skills.  Explain how to listen, paraphrase and ask questions, take turns, give constructive feedback to each other, keep an open mind, act in a trustworthy manner, and promote a feeling of safety to reduce anxiety of all members. Better yet, teachers should model how to give feedback and encourage students to actively, respectfully participate during group work.

Teamwork skills. Review how to negotiate and compromise; how to participate; how to ask for help and when; how to help others, and how to make decisions. For larger tasks, teach them how to assign roles to save time.

The Role of the Teacher

Teachers are perhaps the biggest factor in facilitating successful student collaboration. They should provide ample opportunities for students to practice collaboration skills, using tasks that are similar to those used during group-based assessments. They should also “scaffold” the process, as explained by Miriam Clifford in her 2012 article, Facilitating Collaborative Learning.

“At the beginning of a project, you may want to give more direction than the end. Serve as a facilitator, such as by gauging group interactions or at first, providing a list of questions to consider. Allow groups to grow in responsibility as times goes on. In your classroom, this may mean allowing teams to develop their own topics or products as time goes on.  After all, increased responsibility over learning is a goal in collaborative learning.”

A good example of a simple, collaborative learning activity that demonstrates scaffolding, is “Think-pair-share/Write-pair-share” activity:

  • • The instructor poses a question that requires analysis and synthesis.
  • • Students take a few minutes to think through a response.
  • • Students turn to a partner or small group and share responses.
  • • Student responses are shared within larger teams or with the entire class during a follow-up discussion.

When teacher Joshua Black has groups working on a larger project, he maintains a constant awareness of the group dynamics. He takes mental notes on which groups are communicating well, which are being dominated by one or two students, and who is sitting separately away from others. He also has groups use Google Docs. By color-coding students’ work, he can see individual participation and group progress.

Group Size Considerations

There’s no shortage of information on what is considered the most effective group size for collaboration. Research shows that small groups of three or less lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Groups that are too large can create competing factions or silent “freeloaders.” The consensus seems to be that a moderate size of four to five students is best. But with growing class sizes, groups of five or six are happening more often.

Creating the Collaborative Classroom

Collaborative learning is not about immobile students facing forward and listening to the “sage on the stage.” Rather, the teacher is a manager and facilitator of fluid learning pods, not solely a lecturer. For that to work, the classroom must have collaborative-friendly furnishings.

The Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte advocates lightweight, movable and re-configurable furniture that can accommodate both a traditional classroom setting and work groups of various sizes. The Center also suggests:

  • • Chairs on wheels to enable easy navigation
  • • Carpet to enable easy navigation of furniture
  • • Accessible power and data outlets
  • • A room size that allows for easy reconfiguration during activities

Smith System, a K-12 classroom furniture manufacturer, offers a robust range of portable, re-configurable desks, chairs, storage and power devices. Steve Pryor with Smith System says collaborative-friendly furnishings are essential to make the learning concept work well.

“It’s really important to have what we call an ‘active classroom,’ where the furnishings can move and transition with different subjects throughout the day.” says Pryor. “This is especially true for the lower grades, where students are in a self-contained classroom with one teacher all day.”

Finally, let’s not forget what furnishings teachers need in the collaborative classroom. Ideally, the instructor station should be smaller, mobile and easily accessible, so the teacher can wander the classroom, listening to discussions and answering questions. In the 21st Century, no one wants to be tethered to a tank of a desk!



  1. Clifford, Miriam. “Facilitating Collaborative Learning:  20 Things You Need to Know from the Pros.” InformEd online. Nov. 8, 2012.
  2. Lai, Emily R. with Pearson Education. “Collaboration:  A Literature Review.” Online. June 2011
  3. M.B. Tinzmann, B.F. Jones, T.F. Fennimore, J. Bakker, C. Fine, and J. Pierce
NCREL. “What Is the Collaborative Classroom?” Oak Brook. Online. 1990.
  4. UNC Charlotte, The Center for Teaching and Learning website. “Collaborative Learning Spaces.” Online
  5. Black, Joshua. “Nurturing Collaboration:  5 Strategies.” Edutopia. Online. Feb. 10, 2014.