Collaborative learning is a well-established high-impact practice (HIPs). According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, collaborative learning has two main goals: the first is to have students work together to solve problems or find solutions. And the second is for students to gain access to perspectives, experiences, and information they may have not yet considered or had access to.  Collaborative learning can be a small pair-share experience after a micro-lecture or it can be a larger, weeks-long group research project.

Regardless of our goals and intentions for integrating collaborative learning into our courses, the first hint of any group work often makes students cringe. You may be familiar with the well-known meme below, reflecting many students’ feelings about the dreaded task of being assigned a group project. If collaborative learning is such a valuable practice, though, why do so many people have negative experiences with it? And is there anything we can do to change that?

1950s image of a girl with a headband and an open book on a table. "When I die, I want the people I did group projects with to lower me into the grave so they can let me down one last time.
College Memes by SomeECards

If you’ve asked your students, and I have, to reflect on why group projects are such a drag, many say that they were the only person who did any work. And regardless of doing the work, they still got a bad grade because the other team members did nothing. Admittedly, this does sound frustrating. There are several issues that cause limited engagement in group work. For example, in a group of five, finding a common meeting time outside of class, work, family, and athletics to get together can feel like an impossible task. Other issues may arise from students not understanding the goal of the collaborative work, feeling like they have nothing to contribute, or thinking they are contributing more when they really are not. These are just a few dynamics that can easily derail a group project and create negative feelings toward collaborative learning.

The good news is that we can use several instructional actions to clear the way for meaningful student collaborations. Some of these are highlighted in the table below.

Instructional ActionWhat It Looks Like/Sounds Like in Practice
Start SmallInvite students to intentional small collaborations like pair/share, online breakout groups or discussion boards, where they complete low-stakes activities. Low-stakes cognitive tasks make space for developing the social skills needed to enbark on more demanding group projects (answer these 3 questions, solve the equation using 2 different methods and explain why; identify 3 reliable sources to support this argument or position, etc.)
Align Group Work, Especially Large Projects, to Course OutcomesExplain that a group project, especially if it’s a larger one, is needed to meet a particular course outcome.
Give Students the Language Needed to Establish a Direction1) Our group came up with many ideas. Could we organize these into categories?
2) I like that idea, but I feel uncertain about how we would accomplish that. Can you give some examples?
3) Has anyone addressed this kind of problem or issue before?
4) Can you do a pro/con analysis of our choices?
Give Students the Language of Negotiation and Conflict Resolution1) This is what I am hearing. Do we all agree?
2) Is there something that could help us move this process further? (resources, data, examples)
3) I think you heard you say… Is that what you said or did you mean something else?
4) Can we get back to the main discussion or why do we think it’s challenging to stick with the topic we chose?  

Use small scenarios related to behaviors that prevent successful collaborations, and collectively have students pool their ideas about how to resolve the issues.  
Show Students How to Break a Project into Pieces1) This is the goal of our work. What ideas do you have about the steps we need to take to reach that goal?
2) Can we divide this into smaller parts, and each take a part?
3) Where do we all need to work together so the project represents everyone’s thinking?
Use TemplatesCreate templates like timelines, group roles, self-reflection, and goal monitoring and provide them in the resources for the project OR as part of the project-required documents.
Model the Value of CollaborationShow or describe to students how you’ve benefitted from group work and collaborations personally or professionally.
Explicitly Explain How Group Work/Collaborations will be GradedExplain to students how the work product and the collaboration will be evaluated. Is there a single rubric evaluating both, is the whole team getting the same grade or individual grades? Will students use self-assessment or peer-assessment?
Provide Time in ClassIf the group project or assignment evaluates a major learning outcome in the course, it is acceptable to devote class time to working on the project; the collaboration is course content.  

It’s also valuable to engage students in smaller collaborative in-class assignments that are valuable on their own or to build up to a larger group project.
Embed an Exit StrategyPrepare an exit strategy for students. Some students will need to exit their group and also be able to complete the assignment or some assignment for the needed grade. Providing the exit strategy can make students feel more confident in completing the collaborative work just knowing there is an academically acceptable way out if needed.
Table includes 10 best practices for collaborative learning in higher education adapted from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center’s guidance on effective group work.

Group work and collaborations brought us Walk This Way, the iPhone, Serena and Venus Williams’ doubles record, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and creative brand and business collaborations are happening more and more as we move further into the 21st century. Clearly, there is value in developing the skills needed to strike up and maintain partnerships.  Where do you see applications of those partnership-building skills in your course? your program? Our goal in higher ed is not to force students into academically frustrating or harmful group work; rather, we aim to create learning experiences that become more meaningful and more transformative in collaboration with others than learning alone would be. By removing some of the barriers like required meetings outside of class and confusing group grading practices, faculty have a unique opportunity to build collaborative learning into the fabric of their courses and to prepare students with the cooperative skills they need to navigate a rapidly changing world.


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