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Collaborative Efforts

When students work together, they gain deeper understanding and build lifelong skills

May 10, 2016
Students working together on outdoor terrace

This post is republished (in slightly edited form) from Into Practice, a biweekly communication sent from Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning to Harvard. Into Practice shares evidence-based teaching advice and pedagogical practices of faculty from across Harvard. It grew out of a successful 2012 grant project led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Nonie K. Lesaux and Matthew Miller that aimed to create a new model for engaging and supporting doctoral students in their professional development as educators.

“By sharing perspectives and differing approaches, classmates can in some cases teach their students more effectively than the professor,” says Lani Guinier, describing the teaching practices she employs at Harvard Law School — practices that could be instituted in almost any educational setting. Guinier incorporates collaboration into her late-semester assignments to provide opportunities for self-improvement and self-reflection. 

The benefits: Whether encouraging lecture course students to take their final exam in small groups or asking seminar students to prepare and lead portions of late semester discussions, Guinier believes collaborative endeavors show students that understanding how to get the answer is as important as getting the answer.

The challenges: Guinier says that because merit is malleable, it is difficult to construct assignments that truly measure learning. The efficiency and quantifiable criteria of traditional tests are appealing, but do not wholly capture ability.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Collaboration combats competition. Guinier finds that students gain confidence working together, “and they don’t worry that others know the answers that they don’t. It creates a climate in the classroom I find very effective and engaging.”
  • Diverse perspectives yield stronger work. When collaborating with others, students have to explain their perspective and opinions, which ultimately produces a stronger outcome. “People look at problems from very different perspectives, and it’s helpful to have to deal with those alternative interpretations.”
  • Student-led learning is lifelong learning. Guinier first employed a group learning practice at the University of Pennsylvania where students helped to develop a seminar curriculum. She has continued the practice because it more accurately reflects the environment students will find upon graduation: “Your colleagues will give you feedback that can refine and expand your thinking. No matter how ‘smart’ you are, you alone may not know what your client needs."

Bottom line: Collaborative classroom efforts help students leverage the strength of a group and reflect on their progress through the semester, countering the “fixed intelligence" narrative. “When you graduate, you’re not just going into a world where you’re going to work by yourself. Being with other people can be a very effective way of learning, but also an effective way to solve problems.”

Relevant research: Researchers assigned participants to two groups based on their individual performance in a computational model. Groups composed of members representing a range of individual scores on the computational model outperformed those comprised of only the highest scoring individuals, highlighting the importance of diverse perspectives, tools, and abilities in collaborative work.

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