Helping Students to Collaborate

It’s a difficult time for students and educators everywhere. We know the pandemic caused students to lose interpersonal skills and affected their ability to relate to others. So how do we help them to talk to each other and learn from each other in our classrooms?

Collaboration is a tool that we know helps students to learn, but students don’t seem to remember how to do it effectively. As an educator who relies heavily on collaboration in my classroom, I was feeling this impact in my room. So I decided to teach my students HOW to collaborate.

How do you teach kids to collaborate? It’s a years long process and set of skills that need constant honing and development. But I wanted to condense that to a few weeks! This was going to take some careful planning.

I started with a rubric that described what I wanted to SEE and HEAR when students were collaborating. That rubric described what their body language should look like, what should be in their hands, and what they should and shouldn’t be doing during a collaboration. It also described the appropriate vocabulary words, accountable talk, and conversation I expected to hear; not off task conversation. And of course, the rubric addressed the finished work product I was expecting.

We spent some time discussing that rubric as a class. I asked for input from my students and adjusted the rubric to include their recommendations. When the final product was ready to launch, I had to come up with the right work to collaborate about!

Collaboration Rubric

I created a set of rich problems that had multiple steps and synthesized multiple skills. Think of a culminating task towards the end of a unit that pulls together different skills and has several steps to solve. I put those problems together in a packet with a larger font and placed ONE copy of that packet on each group table along with one rubric.

Students were instructed to work together to solve the problems in the packet. Each student was expected to work the problems and share their answers to reach consensus on each question before moving on. If answers differed, they were to discuss their answers respectfully and explain their work. Students were expected to find each others’ mistakes and agree on the answer to put on the paper. Students took turns reading the questions aloud, and recording the final answers.

Now here’s the most important part; while my students were working, I walked around the class and listened to their conversations and watched their body language. I rotated around each group 4 times. Each time I stopped and listened and silently marked their rubrics to indicate the level to which they were collaborating in each category. Body Language? 3 Conversation? 1 Work product? 2 The kids would look at my marks on the rubric and say to each other “we got a 2 because we were talking about the party this weekend” or “we got a 3 in body language because someone was sitting back and looking away where they couldn’t see the work”

Occasionally students would ask why I had given them a particular score and I would explain, but then say, “I’ll come back in a few minutes, let’s see if you can improve it”. On my next rotation around the room I would mark the rubric again, often at a higher level than the first time, because they were learning and collaborating more effectively. By the end of the collaboration the rubrics had many of my marks on them indicating the improvement in their work.

When the activity ended, I collected both the rubric, and the classwork. I gave each student two grades: one for the accuracy of the work, and another for how they collaborated. That collaboration grade was a holistic average of all the marks I had made on the rubric.

Accountable Talk Stems

In a very short time my students really started to learn how to help each other! I continued using the rubric once a week and eventually, I started to see more collaboration even when I didn’t formalize it with the rubric.

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One response to “Helping Students to Collaborate”

  1. […] they are expected to work in order to answer a rich problem with multiple steps. (See my post on structuring collaborative group work, or my post on collaborative activities for more on […]


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