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Collaborative Learning — With Structure

How one instructor intentionally models and fosters the key collaboration skills that students need, now and in their professional futures

January 8, 2018
a group of college students, seen from above, working together around a table

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.

Collaboration is an increasingly essential skill, in school settings and in professional life, but it's a skill that's not always intuitive. Like any other, it has to be taught — which involves fostering effective habits around meetings and efficient ways to document group progress. In her graduate-level course on the Data Wise process (which helps educators harness and use data to improve teaching and learning), Kathryn Parker Boudett carefully and intentionally structures the way students learn to collaborate with one another. She models collaborative learning through an open discussion of student feedback that was collected in the previous session, using a practice she calls "pluses and deltas" [scroll down for description]. She also makes sure students receive plenty of experience employing the ideas of one of the core texts for the course, Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators. She does this by teaching students to use “rolling agendas” (which can be useful to student groups working in any discipline) via Google Docs. The template makes it easy for students to remember to collaboratively set objectives, delegate tasks, and document the ongoing work of their teams. Boudett, or one of her teaching fellows, can then access the shared document to provide formative feedback in real time.

The benefits: This approach holds students accountable, tracks both individual and group progress, and levels the playing field for students who may not be as comfortable as others voicing their views within a collaborative team. Students have noted that without the structure they “would not have realized what everyone in their group had to offer.”

The challenges: Some students naturally resist using such a structured format for collaborative work. But once students understand that a primary course goal is to learn “a whole new way of doing business professionally,” they tend to see the value of intentional collaboration practices and generally find an increase in their productivity. Many report using the rolling agenda structure for group projects in their other classes and when they graduate and are working in contexts where meetings are the norm. 

Takeaways for best practice

  • Align activity with the course. One way that Boudett introduces the rolling agenda format is to have students think of it as a team-generated syllabus, and the actual work done in each meeting as a lesson plan.
  • Name tangible skills. The provision of formative feedback is key, and Boudett finds that using the comments feature of Google Docs to reinforce professional skills with explicit feedback rather than simply saying “good job” makes a difference. She trains her teaching fellows to do this as well so that the comments on the rolling agendas call out when students are using analysis effectively or are failing to bring in all voices during a particular meeting.
  • Provide a technical primer. Boudett provides extensive guidance on accessing and using Google Docs, since there is often variability in how familiar students are with it, and she makes sure to have IT support available for the initial run of the application with each new class.

Bottom line: Scaffolding students’ experience with collaboration by providing guidance on effective meeting structure and feedback on meeting documentation will help to increase productivity — and will allow students to practice a skill that most of them will use intensively after graduation.

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