Teaching Toolbox: Coaching Students on Collaboration

30 October 2019

Carleton faculty members often encourage students to collaborate with each other in many different ways:

  • Informal opportunities to work together on class-related activities outside of class time,
  • Assigned group work outside of class time,
  • Informal partner or small group activities during class time,
  • Formal group work during class time, and
  • Long-term projects with the same group of students over an extended period of time.

However, we don’t always explicitly help students understand what we mean we encourage them to collaborate nor do we always provide them with the tools they need to address the inevitable difficulties that arise when working in teams. This term’s teaching toolbox provided an opportunity to discuss approaches that faculty are currently used, as well as exploring ideas from other institutions.

My sense is that that are many techniques out there for helping students collaborating on formal projects over an extended period of time. Some of the the tools that faculty use include:

  • Group skills inventory,
  • Team contract,
  • Peer evaluation, 
  • Group process assessment.

For a thoughtful discussion of how to structure long-term team projects, consider taking a look at the work by WPI faculty members Geoffrey Pfeifer and Elisabeth Stoddard. They have explored the challenges of designing group work with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind and developed a series of tools to help faculty structure teamwork.

The above approaches may not make sense for group work of a shorter duration, but discussing and assigning group roles and include a pre- or post-activity reflection assignment can be valuable, even for short-term collaborations. At the LTC discussion, Sarah Deel shared some excellent resources that she and others have developed for Bio 125, including document about Group Work Hints and Roles as well as some group work scenarios for discussion during class time.  

In addition to formal group work, our courses often include informal collaboration during class and outside of classroom. Some suggestions for informal group work include:

  • Asking students to report who they collaborated with outside of class on each part of an assignment that they submit
  • After an assignment, inviting students to write a short reflection paper about whether or not they collaborated and the associated benefits/drawbacks.
  • Being cautious about letting students self-assemble into groups as that students who don’t find a group right away feel unwelcome. 

During the discussion we also took a look at the Harvey Mudd Math Department’s Guidelines for Collaboration. That document does an excellent job of making explicit what collaboration (including informal collaboration) entails and provides tips on collaborating both on homework assignments and on projects. As always, being transparent about expectations helps make our learning environments more inclusive for all students. 

What approaches do you use to explicitly help coach students to build collaboration skills?