How Do You Teach Collaboration?

October 30, 2017

Kevin Gant, New Tech Teams Designer

“Yes, collaboration is an important skill to impart to students, but how do I teach it?”

Sound familiar? I hear it all the time from other teachers, and sometimes issuing from my own lips.  I have to remind myself of what’s involved in teaching any new concept:

  •      Describe it
  •      Show it
  •      Have students experience it
  •      Provide Feedback

Let’s consider each one as it applies to Collaboration, and we’ll focus especially on the first and last – describing collaboration and providing feedback.

Describe It

Collaboration is a behavior, and if you want your students to exhibit a particular behavior or set of behaviors, you must describe those behaviors very clearly.  Ever seen a parent, when their child acts out, say, “Be good!” – and the kid does nothing to change the objectionable behavior?   You know why.  What does it mean to “be good”? The kid can ignore the vague exhortation because, well, it is so vague.   Similarly, it is not enough to say to our students, “Work together!”.   It’s just too vague.

Hence the New Tech Collaboration Rubrics. While our rubrics have always been very specific about describing what good collaboration looks like, we’ve recently revamped the collaboration rubrics, taking into account a literature review of contemporary peer-reviewed studies about what high-functioning teams do, and our own experiences as successful PBL teachers, so that the rubric reflects best-practices from the field.  In building the descriptors, we noticed that there was a difference between group behaviors and individual behaviors.   Understanding that group grades are rather problematic, we separated out those behaviors so that there is an individual rubric, suitable for both teaching and grading; and there is a group checklist, suitable for describing group actions, but generally not appropriate for providing grades.

There are a number of ways to use the rubric, to help paint a picture of good collaboration:

  • As a self-assessment at the beginning of the year
  • As a self-assessment at the end of the year
  • As a means of supporting classroom culture: “What are some similarities you see between this rubric and our class norms?”
  • As a periodic check-in on a particular row.  “Please take a look at how you are doing with roles, using the collaboration rubric”

Show It/Experience it

It almost goes without saying that students will experience collaboration in a project-based environment.  What is often left out is the overt “Showing it” part of teaching collaboration.  It helps for students to actually see good collaboration.

One of the most effective techniques for showing collaboration is public role-playing.   You might be able to generate some scenarios with the students.  “What are some awkward situations you’ve experienced in groups?”   Those scenarios can be acted out, followed by discussion about what groups can do to make it better.  This  can be followed by a content-specific task (“Create a procedure for determining average walking speed.”   “Come to a consensus about the 3 most important events in 19th Century America.”), where students practice their ideas, while you circulate and listen.  Something like this is a great move right before a part of a project that might require intense collaboration.

This is a big topic, and the above is in no way meant to represent the only way to show and have students experience collaboration.  We’ll revisit showing and experiencing in future blogs.

Provide Feedback

This is the most difficult of them all.  Have you ever had to tell a coworker that his/her actions were objectionable?                Students feel the same or more discomfort at the prospect of confronting someone about this sort of thing.

Echo provides a tool that can help.  Understanding that the people who know how people are collaborating in a group are the members of the groups themselves, Echo employs a Peer Assessment Tool.  It allows students to give feedback to one another, with some important safeguards and features:

  • All feedback from one student to another must first go through the teacher
  • The name of the assessor is removed from the actual feedback
  • There are ways to exclude feedback if a group member provides inappropriate comments or assessment scores
  • It allows students to self-evaluate
  • You as the teacher can decide whether any student’s assessment will count toward a grade.

The NTN Collaboration rubrics are already loaded into Echo (NTN’s Learning Management System/Gradebook/Resource Library) – you only have to choose which rubric, and which rows you’d like students to use for assessment.  Finally, it is completely customizable.  You can change scoring values, and verbiage.

We’ve created videos to show you how to use the tool.  There are two for teachers, demonstrating how to set up, then grade the assessments.   There are also two for students, which you should feel free to share with your students so that they know how to use it, and find their grades.  Each is 5 minutes or less, so it won’t take long to review.

For Teachers:

For Students

If you prefer online directions with screenshots instead of videos, the Echo Help Center has pages that cover the same ideas:

For Teachers

For Students

We like using the tool as a non-graded affair early in a project.  Students provide feedback to one another as a means of letting each other know what each person should keep doing, and what they might do better.   We also exhort teachers to almost never use the entire rubric at once.  It is just too much.  One to three rows can serve as a great way to describe the collaboration you’re looking for in any given project.

Wherever you are in the process – describing, showing, experiencing, or providing feedback – you’ve got some tools in your repertoire.  Questions?  You can put them in the comments section below, or you can you reach out to your NTN coach, who can definitely help out.

For further reading, here are some of the influences on the current rubric.

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