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Collaborative learning – the practice of breaking students into small groups to answer questions, work on projects and learn from one another – has become one of the strongest core philosophies operating in classrooms today.
The concept is not new; much of the early research on collaborative learning (also called cooperative learning) was done in the 1980s and 1990s when most classrooms favored the traditional teacher lectures and individual student work. But with the growth of technology and the increasing value society places on the ability to work in teams, collaborative learning has become more common. Here are 10 strategies for encouraging the success of collaborative learning:

1. Deliberately select which students will work together

Left to their own devices, students will sort themselves into groups of friends who share common bonds. However, when a teacher creates the groupings, he or she can match students by strengths and weaknesses, deliberately mixing ability, diversity and social capability.

2. Size the groups for maximum effectiveness

If a group is too small, ideas and discussion may not be diverse or energetic enough; if too large, some students won’t get involved. Optimum group size tends to be four to five.

3. Teach your students how to listen to one another

Among young learners, active listening isn’t a natural skill. Taking time to discuss and practice listening skills with your students – teaching them to make eye contact, avoid interruption and repeat important points – has both short and long term benefits.

4. Set the rules of language and collaboration

There will always be one or two students in each group who will be more likely to take the lead – or take over. Take the time to teach students how to clarify issues, how to paraphrase, how to disagree constructively and how to build on what others have contributed.

5. Make goals and expectations clear

Specific goals and expectations are important. If students are not clear on the goals they are expected to meet, group work has the potential to trail off into socialization or apathy.

6. Assign roles to the members of each group

With roles delineated, students are able to better understand what is expected of them. With roles like leader (directs the group’s actions for the day), recorder (takes notes and does all writing), encourager (enables discussion and gives positive feedback) and checker (checks the work and hands it in), its clear how each student needs to fulfill his or her responsibilities.

7. Use real-world problems, not imaginary ones

With practical, real-world assignments, students find information through research and forming real opinions. If you find a scenario that they feel involved in – an environmental issue, a recent Supreme Court case, a complicated social issue – they will take more ownership of the project. Even better, select a problem from the students’ own community and challenge them to solve it.

8. Consider giving each group a different task

Delegating tasks gives each group a sense of importance and emphasizes the fact that large problems are solved by people working together. By solving different pieces of an issue, your student groups will have a more personalized learning experience and will better refrain from ill-spirited competition or “borrowing” each other’s work.

9. Play a game to get students warmed up

This is particularly helpful for younger students, who may not be sure of their roles in the group or the classroom. Cooperative games require children to use the same skills that they do in collaborative schoolwork, and they can see results quickly. For example, Teach Hub offers cooperative classroom games that are appropriate for grades 1-3, grades 4-6 and grades 7-8.

10. Evaluate each group on its own merit

If you judge groups in relation to each other, students will feel like their success or failure is not entirely in their own hands. Try a system where you can give grades per how well each group met its goals, and/or how each student performed the duties of their assigned role. You can also reward by category, as in best discussions, best research or most original solution.

Shijina Rijesh