Activity Design for Collaborative Learning

True collaboration does not come easily to students, especially in the short time frame of a university course. In the artificially collaborative structure of the "group project," students typically don't have time to develop the mutual trust needed to challenge one another's ideas candidly in order to achieve an integration of purpose. For expedience as well as for fear of offending one another, students are likely to look for ways of accomplishing group assignments by continuing to work as individuals.  The result is typically the "divide and conquer" approach, which results in submitting work that is collaborative in name only, being a compilation of barely related parts brought together with very little critical thinking.

If you want to promote greater collaboration among students, make sure you build in enough time for groups to become comfortable as groups, and include experiences specifically designed to help your students discover the value of their peers' contribution. One model that can be used to promote authentic collaboration is Larry K. Michaelsen's "4-S" approach to group activity design, adapted here below from his book, Team-Based Learning. If student collaboration is a strategy you'd like to pursue, TBL might have elements you find useful.

Michaelsen's 4-S Approach to Collaborative Task Design

1.         Significant Problem
2.         Same Problem for all groups
3.         Specific Choice to report as "collective decision"
4.         Simultaneous Report by all groups, for comparison
1. Significant Problem: A good problem for students is one that is at the intersection of what matters in your discipline AND what can be made to matter to students because of its accessibility and interest. What are the kinds of interesting decisions that experts typically have to make in your discipline? (Render a judgment? Conduct an analysis? Make an estimate? Determine the significance of new data? Find the cause of a new phenomenon? Predict the consequence of an action?) Your answer to this question will be a good guide for identifying “significant” problems.Most often the problem takes the form of “Given X information, what should I do in this new situation?” Framing your content as “actionable information” will help students see the relevance of what they are asked to read, because they will experience immediately its benefits in decision-making.  Design tasks around specific, important decisions that students need to be able to perform when they leave your course—your tasks are giving them practice en route to becoming experts.
2. Same Problem: Group assignments are truly effective only if they inspire discussion between as well as within groups, and this will only happen if all groups work on the same task. When students hear that other groups, given the same question and having access to the same information, decided differently, they will be interested in hearing what those other groups have to say about their own decision. This makes the whole-class debrief of the question something of interest to everyone.
3. Specific Choice: Framing the problem/decision as a choice among limited options (see bottom of page) will raise the stakes and improve the focus of students. A specific choice requires comparative analysis, unlike an open-ended, constructed response which can open the door to lazy thinking with no consequence. The restricted reporting format, reported publicly, ensures that students will get immediate, focused feedback, which is an important motivating force.
4. Simultaneous Report: One way to avoid the deadly sequential report (where many teams will be tempted just to say “I agree”) is to create a mechanism by which groups report their answers simultaneously and visibly. This is most easily done with cards or other visible signifiers. This allows you and the students get all the data at once and begin processing it as a whole class—rather than just a series of conversations between the instructor and individual groups.  When students can immediately see whose answers differed from their own, they will be ready to engage in cross-group discussions. If well managed by the instructor, groups will learn to respond directly to other groups, rather than back to the instructor.
Tried-and-True Formats for Group Tasks—these promote cohesiveness and lend themselves easily to “simultaneous report”
  • Select from limited options (e.g. multiple choice: which is the best, worst, etc.).
  • Rank these things from 1 to 5.
  • Put the following objects in order (chronological; procedural; logical; narrative).
  • Give this thing a score (on a scale of 0-10).
  • Binary: T/F; up or down; left or right; yes or no; more or less
  • Which of the following does not belong in the designated category/group?
  • Summarize, Define, Describe, Make a claim, etc.—in one simple sentence.
  • Distill your analysis to 2 (or a limited number of) words.