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Four Ways to Boost Collaboration in Student Projects

The Creative Classroom with John Spencer

Creative collaboration can be challenging at every every level of education. Sometimes the issue is work imbalance, with one student doing the majority of the work while others slack off. The term organizational psychology is “cognitive loafing.” In some cases, it can feel like one member is dominating the decision-making process, leading to mistrust and resentment. It’s tempting, then, to avoid group projects. However, creative collaboration is a vital soft skill students will need to develop in every area of life. In this article, we explore four factors to consider as you design collaborative projects.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I will be doing an upcoming webinar with collaboration expert Trevor Muir on Monday, March 8th.

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The Critical Role of Creative Collaboration

When Google began Project Oxygen, they assumed the best predictor of employee success would be university program and grades. Instead, the top of their list was, “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues.” In other words, the most critical factors for success involved collaboration.

Later, when they studied their teams in Project Aristotle, they found the top skills were, “equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence.” Again, these were the skills most closely aligned to collaboration. Some would call these “soft skills,” but as classroom teachers, we know that there’s nothing soft at all about these skills. If anything, these critical skills are could be called “hard skills,” because of the inherent challenge in mastering them.

Unfortunately, it is all too common for students to struggle with collaborative skills. Let’s consider for a moment what happens when creative collaboration falls apart.

What Happens When Groupwork Fails in a PBL Unit?

We’ve all been there before as students. The teacher announces a group project and your stomach sinks. You glance at the assigned group and try to determine just how much extra work you’ll need to do in order to pick up the slack for the members who do nothing. You’ll have the floater, who wanders around the room chatting with others. You might have the helpless hand-raiser, asking incessant questions every step of the way while you simply want to get the work done. Then you’ll have that feisty fighter who dominates group conversation and might even stir up drama. Chances are, you’ll have to spend a few nights and weekends finishing random tasks only to see a shared grade at the end.

But looking back on it now, you get it. As a teacher, you recognize that it is hard to encourage full participation in group projects.

And yet, you have also experienced the positive side of group collaboration. You have experienced those moments when your team seems to be in synch; with each member sharing ideas, adding a unique voice, and working hard to accomplish a goal. In these moments, you have been engaged in true collaboration, where the group is able to accomplish more together than they would have accomplished individually.

So, how do craft our project-based learning units in a way to encourages full participation from every group member? How do we ensure that every student is actively engaged in the collaborative process? It helps to first think about why students are disengaging in the first place. If you consider why students aren’t participating, you’ll notice that it varies from student to student. Here are a few reasons why a student might disengage:

  • Insecurity: A group member is insecure and afraid of doing subpar work, so it’s easier to give up ahead of time. After all, if the group shares a grade, this non-participating member might not want to get in the way of the two students who are aiming for an A.
  • Low Skills: A group member might not have the skills to do a particular task and so it’s easier to let someone else with expertise handle it. One of the key ideas in Flow Theory is that the skill must match the task. When this doesn’t happen, students can experience intense anxiety.
  • Confusion: A group member might not know what to do. There’s a lack of clarity in terms of tasks and this lack of clarity pushes a student to disengage from the group. In some cases, the entire group might be checked out. This is, by the way, part of why I am a big fan of using UX Theory in project creation.
  • Unhealthy Group Dynamics: There’s an unresolved conflict that needs to be addressed but instead the group moves on and certain students start to check out.
  • No Buy-In: A group member who doesn’t have a sense of ownership will have a hard time sticking with a project. It can feel like you’re following other people’s instructions. This is even harder if the project is something that doesn’t interest a student to begin with.
  • Lack of Creative Endurance: Sometimes a student disengages because creative work can be hard and even boring. And if other members are willing to step in and get the work done, it makes it easier for an individual to quit.

In many cases, groups shift into a place where they engage in cooperation but not collaboration:

If we want every student to engage in meaningful collaboration, we need to embed specific strategies into our PBL units that address the core reasons students might disengage in groupwork. As instructional designers, we can craft specific protocols and structures that can boost creative collaboration. Note that this isn’t a guarantee that collaboration will be successful 100% of the time. There is not magical formula for quality collaboration. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect people. Even highly successful groups will experience conflict and even fully engaged students will have moments when they disengage. However, we can take a proactive approach by incorporating four key elements into our collaborative work.

Four Factors for Successful Collaboration in PBL

The following are the four different factors for successful creative collaboration. As educators, we can design our collaborative project-based learning units with these core ideas in mind.

Factor #1: Ownership

When I first attempted project-based learning, I created hyper-detailed project directions. I wanted to make sure that every student understood exactly what they needed to do. If a student said, “I’m confused,” I responded by adding details to the original document. When a student asked, “how many blog posts do I need?” I clarified by tightening the parameters. However, something strange happened. The students grew less engaged. I realized that they were working for me rather than working for themselves.

I love this quote from my friend, Chris Lehmann, who writes, “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.”

That was my problem. I had created recipes with the best of intentions. This was often the case when doing science labs. I would walk students through every single part of the lab. I asked all the questions. I created the procedures. I knew exactly what the outcomes were supposed to be ahead of time. In other words, they never had an opportunity to own the process.

Over time, though, I shifted toward student ownership of the entire project process. This was part of a critical shift from focusing solely on student engagement to focusing on student empowerment.

It can help to think of this as a continuum of student agency (or the overall control students have over their work).

Often, though, what seems to be a fail of participation in group projects really is a fail in student empowerment. In these moments, group members are failing at self-direction. They aren’t self-starting or self-managing.

As educators, we can build self-direction into our collaborative projects. Consider the LAUNCH Cycle framework that A.J. Juliani and I co-created for design thinking projects.

Look, Listen, and Learn: You start from a place of student ownership by tapping into their geeky interests, their questions, or their prior knowledge. If they observe a natural phenomenon, you encourage them to jot down their findings. As they develop empathy, it will need to be student-directed.

Ask Tons of Questions: Students ask their own questions. Although you might provide sentence stems or sample questions, you can ask students to self-select their scaffolding and ultimately generate their own questions.

Understanding the Process or Problem: Students engage in their own research. They ask the questions, find the sources, and paraphrase the information. Students can also decide which research strategy they want to use, including note-taking, spreadsheets, or sketch-noting.

Navigate Ideas: Students generate their own ideas and then create their own project plan. When this happens, you avoid the recipe projects that Chris Lehmann describes.

Create a Prototype: Students engage in their own project management, choose their own approaches, and ultimately own the prototyping process.

Highlight and Fix: Students own the assessment process as they engage in self-assessment and peer assessment, including a critical friends structure (that I’ll be getting into in the last section).

When we empower students to own the project process, we increase buy-in. Students who might initially seem needy become confident as they internalize the reality that they are no longer working for their teacher. However, student ownership is not enough to ensure meaningful group collaboration. Students also need to depend on one another.

Factor #2: Interdependence

The best projects are the ones where the group creates something way more epic than what any individual student could have created alone. This is why I love interdependent structures. Too often in group projects, one member works independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. However, when they work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Interdependence begins with trust, with each member depending on other members to complete their tasks. It can feel risky and even vulnerable, which is why it can help to establish norms or engage in team-building. This is also why, as an eighth-grade teacher, I often had teams work for an entire quarter on different projects before changing up the grouping.

Interdependence is the overlap between autonomy and group cohesion. It’s what happens when each student has voice, choice, and personal accountability while also depending on one another to accomplish their tasks. In these moments, they create something better together than what they would have created on their own.

Once you’ve developed trust, you can incorporate project tasks that build up interdependence. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group.

Or consider the following structure for inquiry and research:

  • Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
  • Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.
  • Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role:
    • Member #1: Is this question fact-based?
    • Member #2: Is this question on-topic?
    • Member #3: Is this question specific?
    • Member #4: Quality control
  • Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a top level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

Factor #3: Structure

Although you want to avoid recipes in collaborative projects, there’s a danger in doing a total free-for-all in PBL. Early on in my PBL journey, I would give students loose guidelines and then say, “Have at it. Make it work.” But they didn’t make it work. They actually didn’t do the work at all. Still, I felt like structure would squash the creative impulse and hamper their collaboration. It felt artificial. Authentic projects didn’t need structure. But then I realized that I always used structures in my creative work. I had systems that I used to facilitate my creativity.

The truth is, structures are vital for creative work. They provide the necessary creative constraint to push divergent thinking and they help facilitate the actual work of creative work. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned in researching collaboration and innovation is how often organizations, teams, and companies use structures to facilitate creative work. Pixar uses the Brain Trust concept and countless companies have used the Radical Candor structures developed by Kim Scott. If you haven’t checked out her book, I highly recommend it.

Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work, it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. However, these structures should inspire creativity and respect student agency.

For example, when students engage in research, I use a specific critical reading structure:

Note that this process is highly structured. However, students still have voice and choice in how they are engaging in research. You might also have students self-select which process works best for them, in terms of organizing their research. Some students might prefer notecards, others a chart (with question, answer, and source), others sketch-noting, and still others might keep a notebook.

In terms of structure, I’ve found it helpful to provide sentence stems, examples, and tutorials as well. If we want every to succeed in creative collaboration, we need to ensure that they can all access the project tasks.

Factor #4: Trust

Note that ownership, interdependency, and structure all work together. The best structures incorporate all of these elements in a way that is seamless and interconnected. However, even when things are working well, you’ll still have challenges. Group members will sometimes fight. Students will be having a bad day and simply not feel like working. Fear and insecurity will still creep in. This is why it helps to use a structure or protocol for conflict resolution. It can also help to have students negotiate group norms ahead of time. Some teachers might use team agreements or even create group contracts with commitments and consequences.

The goal is to increase student trust. When students can trust one another, they are more likely to give and receive feedback.

This is why it helps to use strategies that build student trust. You might do a get-to-know-you activity with small groups. It might be a short divergent thinking activity where they engage in rapid prototyping together. Or it might be something like a show-and-tell activity. Here, each group member brings in an item that tells something about them. This works well as a quick activity in distance learning or as a homework activity in hybrid or blended classrooms. You can also build trust by having students generate their own group norms, expectations, or mutual understandings. PBL expert Trevor Muir, author of The Collaborative Classroom uses a group contract where members clarify roles, responsibilities and expectations with a focus on mutual accountability.

When trust exists, students can engage in mutual feedback. There are certain structures you can use to help guide students in this peer assessment process. One idea is the mastermind structure.

Another idea is a peer feedback process:

Part One:

Directions for Partner A
Directions for Partner B
Elevator Pitch
Partner A explains the process, product or idea in two minutes
Explain your process, product or idea
Take notes on what you are hearing or listen actively
Clarifying Questions
Partner B asks clarifying questions without giving any feedback
Answer clarifying questions
Ask clarifying questions
Partner B gives feedback to Partner A
Take notes on specific feedback you have gotten
Offer feedback in the form of two things that worked well and one idea for an improvement
Partner A paraphrases what he or she has heard from Partner B
Paraphrase what you have heard
Listen to see if the paraphrased information is correct
Next Steps
Partner A makes a list of future revisions
Make a list of future revisions
Check the list of revisions


Part Two:

Directions for Partner A
Directions for Partner B
Elevator Pitch
Partner B explains the process, product or idea in two minutes
Take notes on what you are hearing or listen actively
Explain your process, product or idea
Clarifying Questions
Partner A asks clarifying questions without giving any feedback
Ask clarifying questions
Answer clarifying questions
Partner A gives feedback to Partner B
Offer feedback in the form of two things that worked well and one idea for an improvement
Take notes on specific feedback you have gotten
Partner B paraphrases what he or she has heard from Partner A
Listen to see if the paraphrased information is correct
Paraphrase what you have heard
Next Steps
Partner B makes a list of future revisions
Check the list of revisions
Make a list of future revisions

Making It Work

There’s no magical formula to make creative collaboration work. However, as the architect, you can design the structures that build creative collaboration among your students. It’s not easy. It will never work perfectly. Yet, ultimately, it’s worth it as students develop the lifelong collaborative skills they will need forever.

If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit with a free PDF overview of PBL, along with sample structures and strategies you can use in your PBL journey. There are even a few free projects you can use! Just sign up below!

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