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The Importance of Preparing Students for Life After Graduation Through Collaborative Learning

Kathy Murphy, a seventh-grade math teacher in Worchester, MA, often has both students and parents question her about the value of her group work assignments. It’s only after presenting them with the challenge of explaining what they already know to a peer that they see the value of collaboration. “Even the kid who thinks they are the top student can learn something from the other students,” Murphy told Edutopia.

Few problems in the real world are solved by a single individual, and teaching through collaboration in the classroom presents a number of benefits that will stay with students long after they graduate.

Researchers at Pearson teamed up with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning to lay out just what makes teaching students how to collaborate such a vital skill to learn. Students who learn how to productively work in a team setting not only strengthen communication, task management, and conflict resolution skills, but are more likely to thrive in the job market. Whether it’s peer-to-peer or in a group of several students, the success of collaborative learning largely depends on the direction of the teacher to foster good teamwork strategies and productive behaviors.

Both group formation and role assignment have shown to be important factors in enhancing the success of collaborative learning assignments in the classroom. Smaller, heterogeneous groups tend to yield higher success rates and while students may prefer to self-select their own groups, these can be more difficult to manage and teacher-assigned groups tend to offer a more level playing field. As certain tasks will require different strengths, grouping students into teams where each student can utilize a skill encourages teamwork. Assigning specific roles to students in each group such as a moderator, helps students to feel more comfortable with participating and prompts collaborative behavior.

"If I know a kid is particularly going to struggle with some construction aspect, they’re going to be balanced with somebody that isn’t as challenged by the construction aspect,” said Shannon Hammond, a University Park ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-grade teacher.

As far as encouraging a familiarity with working in a collaborative setting, helping students to get comfortable with the process through introductory activities can be helpful. For example, Murphy uses a warm-up exercise in which she has her students line up by their street address, saying only their house number. The exercise helps demonstrate that when they talk and listen to one another a goal can be accomplished more quickly. For all collaborative teamwork tasks, it’s important that the assignment’s demands are designed to students’ skill levels with task management, conflict resolution, and communication taken into consideration.

While the educator should of course monitor and assess the collaborative work of each team, peer feedback should be taken into account. Using peer evaluation through defined levels or scales of collaboration to provide constructive feedback can lead to student improvement.

Through constructive and well-defined collaborative learning tasks, teachers not only help students refine already learned skills, but teach them the value of accepting the contributions of others. It’s an educational tool that gives real-world weight to the old saying “two heads are better than one.”

 

Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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