Collaborative Learning: Making group work work

The original article was posted on 19 February 2016, with an update on 27th February on my response to feedback from subject teams and our next steps in improving collaborative learning.

Despite good evidence of the effectiveness of collaborative learning, one of the criticisms of group work is that it’s too easy for most of the work (and most of the learning) to be done by some members of the group, while others (and perhaps those who most need to make more progress) are happy to sit back and let them! My school decided to focus on improving the quality of collaborative learning this Spring. 

Appropriately, this is a collaborative post drawing on contributions from colleagues Rebecca Lightfoot, Kate McCabe (@evenbetterif) Manjula Pillay-Sayers, Harriet West, and Paul Wileman (@StGregoryPE) as well as my own at a recent staff CPD session at our school.

The session started by looking at using the Sutton Trust / EEF Teaching & Learning Toolkit (found online here) to inform teaching practice by drawing on its accessible summaries of what makes strategies effective. I chose collaborative learning as an example because it is one of our identified school priories and has a strong positive effect size, based on a robust evidence base. That research identifies these key points to consider:

  • Assignment of roles
  • Motivation of pupils
  • Quality of discussion
  • Opportunities to practice
  • Training of staff

My colleagues then demonstrated how they used collaborative learning across a range of subjects, with teachers circulating round a carousel of these examples.

Assigning Roles

Paul showed how assigning roles to each member of a group  in PE lessons ensured that they all contributed to the overall outcome. Roles included:

  • Manager – matches team members and tasks, responsible for tactics.
  • Coach – responsible for training, advises during play 
  • Performance analyst – provides feedback & relates to sport science
  • Pundit – comments on team selection, form and play, offers criticism
  • Fan – provides positive support & encouragement

Aligning roles to learning needs ensured that individuals made progress in the areas they most needed to develop. 

Manjula shared roles she used when groups carry out science experiments of discuss topic-based questions:

  • Leader – coordinated work of the group
  • Observer – provides feedback on how effectively the group is functioning to achieve their goal
  • Collator – responsible for capturing results or summarises discussion
  • Speaker – provides verbal feedback to the rest of the class for the group 

Wearing badges helps identify who is who. Students rotate roles for different practicals and reflect on what they learn in each role, developing an understanding of the attributes and behaviours required for successful teamwork.

In Business Studies, Rebecca showed how she assigned responsibilities within a group based on exam assessment criteria, for example ‘include advantages’, ‘provide relevant examples’ or ‘appropriate counter-points’. Rotating these roles enables each student to gain focus on each of these elements. 

Motivation of Pupils

Kate demonstrated a number of ways to motivate pairs and groups in English lessons. In a started activity, for example, pairs work together to make links between texts, charaters and themes.  Groups work together to make an analysis wall for a poem which other groups then scrutinise and improve. In ‘Race to the top’ pairs work their way up a hierarchy of questions from basic comprehension to analysis. In Business Studies, students within groups are motivated because the tasks they are working on as a group are assigned on the basis of individual student’s own personalised learning checklists (RAG-rating against specification knowledge, skills and understanding). Rebecca also introduces an element of competition between groups  by having them quiz each other using the questions and mark schemes they have designed. In Geography, students know that they will be feeding back to each other in dedicated improvement and reflection time. This also provides Harriet with an insight into their progress.

Quality of Discussion

The quality of discussion that takes place in groups is determined by teacher planning, establishment of ground rules for discussion with students, and opportunities to practice this type of working. In PE, Paul thinks it’s essential to consider socil interactions within th group and trains students in interpersonal skills. Students are assessed on speaking, listening and working collaboratively, focussing first on the process, rather than the product. Practice is first gained in open-ended, low risk tasks (such as ways of passing a ball) before moving onto more high-risk ones. 

Student Feedback

Harriet provided examples of student feedback from a Year 10 collaborative learning exercise on types of tourism in Geography. Students commented on many positive aspects, including motivation and engagement:

“It helps people not just sit there and makes them do something.”

“It gets everyone involved so everyone pays attention and learns.”

Also the effects on individual learning:

“It forces you to try and remember, rather than referring to your book.”

“We get to learn independently and then expand our knowledge through discussions with others, and aspire to reach a higher level of expertise.”

On the other hand, some students saw limitations in relying on others to research and communicate some aspects of the activity:

“Some people speak too fast so I do not get the info clearly.”

“You have to rely on other people, some facts may be missed out when someone else does it.”

This realisation, however, can be utilised by teachers in reinforcing the importance of engagement by all group members in the task.

Developing collaborative learning

Subject teams have rated their current performance in different elements of collaborative learning: task design, pupil motivation, generating discussion, and support & practice. The teams have then decided projects with agreed success criteria to develop identified areas of need. In feedback, colleagues valued having been shown the clear rationale behind our focus on collaborative learning and unanimously welcomed the ideas shared by colleagues. They have asked to see more, including opportunities to see them in action in lessons and through more examples of student work.

 I have used this feedback to pair up subjects which complement each other’s needs. For example our Art team view task design as a strength but want to improve the  quality of discussion between pupils. I’ve paired them with our Humanities team who view their ability to foster discussion within pupil groups as a strength but want to improve their planning  of a greater range collaborative learning activities.

The next step is for these paired teams to plan how they can help each other in developing their chosen areas over the next few weeks.

I’d like to thank my colleagues for their contributions and I’d welcome comments from readers, and examples of successful collaborative learning from other schools. I’ll post an update later in the year on how our development of collaborative learning has progressed.

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