Six collaboration skills every student should learn

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A while back I wrote about the value of Geeking Out in our lives and in education. Geeking out is awesome. Sometimes it's awesome because you can focus on something in isolation. Other times you want to connect with other people and work together. Yet too often in school this takes the form of the dreaded group project.

Group projects seem like they are going to be awesome because they mirror the setting in which most of us work: a team, group, or organization. But often we fail to provide the skills and structure needed for group projects to work effectively.

Here are the six collaboration skills I think every student should learn (and how you can use them in class this year).

Find Your Tribe

Every project starts with the forming of groups. The problem is most students are actually pretty bad at selecting team members... at least at first. The first group project of the year should start with teams formed by the teacher based on a good mix of gender, strengths, and experience. As projects wrap up ask the students to reflect on how effectively they completed the task and how each team member contributed to the goals.

As students come to understand each other better they will increasingly be able to self select teams based on the task at hand.

Teach Feedback

Asking students to reflect or provide feedback isn't the same thing as actually doing it well. I love the Plus / Delta model for high functioning teams but for beginners my favorite is the sandwich method.

To offer feedback begin with a compliment about the task or person followed by an opportunity to improve. Wrap up the feedback with another compliment.

I appreciated that you came up with so many creative ideas for our project. Next time it would be great to have them on time. You were also really willing to listen to the ideas of other people.
— Sandwich feedback example

Feedback is difficult but when done well it will enhance team performance and is a powerful lifelong skill.

Assign Roles

If you were working in an organization you probably have a pretty good sense of what is expected of you. In fact you might even have a written job description. When assigning group work consider providing the same kind of guidance. Of course everyone should be expected to contribute... but maybe everyone doesn't need to contribute in the same way. Here are examples of some group roles:

  • Team Leader - Responsible for the overall progress of the group and for communicating with the teacher.
  • Scribe - Captures ideas, takes notes, and gets everything down on paper.
  • Front Person - Takes the lead on presenting findings, in charge of speaking to the rest of the class
  • Quality Control - Makes sure the task is completed successfully, provides feedback on progress and quality.

You may need other roles depending on the project so use these as a starting point. Consider changing roles for every project so students get a feel of their own strengths.

Assess Differently

It can be hard to assess group projects. When you have group roles you can change how you assess to reflect process as much as product. Did the Front Person do a good job presenting findings? Did the Scribe contribute to the group Google Doc? Did QC ensure all the parts of the project were completed? Did the Team Leader get everything done on time and respond to teacher feedback? Instead of one rubric for a group project you could have one for each role!

When you approach collaboration more deliberately assessment comes naturally!

Set Goals Together

Here's a little secret I've learned from working with student teams: when given the choice students will often set much higher goals for themselves than you might. On the one hand this comes from inexperience... on the other hand it also comes from ambition and drive.

Next time you are setting a goal for your students consider taking their input into consideration or offering them a choice between several options. You may be surprised when they choose and deliver on the more challenging option!

It's Okay to Work Alone

Collaboration isn't the same thing as working together. Sometimes - even in group work - students should split off and work alone. Perhaps the team needs to break a big task into smaller chunks or one student is just really good a something and needs to be left alone to bust it out.

When working alone make sure the Team Leader has their eye on the big picture and can eventually bring everyone back together to report out.

What do you think? Do you teach collaboration in your classes? Do you do group projects? Is there a skill you think I've missed? Let me know in the comments!