3 tricks to improve student collaboration

May 09, 2024
female students in Malaysia working on a camera together

Hi friends, This post shares a few tricks I learned in recent pilot projects related to the Flex blended-learning model.

When you dream of the perfect school, you likely don't think of students working in solitude. You likely imagine a space where students are talking to each other and working together often.

That vision appeals to our instincts and is also supported by research. In the Christensen Institute book Blended, Michael Horn and I observe that one way to kindle student motivation is to embed friendship directly into the student experience. Students are more likely to engage in places where they have friends and feel wanted.

That's good news! 💡We can improve student motivation for schoolwork by designing friendship into the schoolwork itself.

Accordingly, when schools in Malaysia, Singapore, and Rwanda worked with me last year to try 12 weeks of a Flex blended-learning model, we featured "Collaborative Work" as one of four anchor elements.

Teacher feedback at the end revealed the usefulness of this approach:

  • "Relationships between teacher and students are closer as we discuss, exchange ideas, and more." - Nordiana binti Abduraman
  • "Students were thrilled to engage in classroom activities that moved away from the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ method." - Mohd Hafiz bin Abu Bakar
  • "Collaborative Work developed students’ 21st-century skills, such as collaboration, cooperation, creativity, critical thinking, and digital learning skills." - Aziah Yahaya

During the pilot projects, we discovered three methods that improved Collaborative Work:

1. Use a scaffold to create the Driving Question

Many learning designers (in our case, the classroom teachers in the pilots) struggle to create a quality Driving Questionthe main question students seek to answer during Collaborative Work.

At first, we provided a rubric to help them. It included indicators such as "the question is open-ended" and "the question is appealing to students." Despite the rubric, teachers struggled to draft their questions. We were asking them to do something so unfamiliar.

We had better success when we gave them a simple formula from Rhoni McFarlane:

As they followed the above formula, teachers found that composing a Driving Question was easier.

2. Plan a public showcase of the final product

Teachers and students alike found joy in sharing their final work with each other. These public exhibitions had the additional benefits of allowing parents and others to view the work, creating a firm deadline for project completion, and creating a feedback loop as students commented on each other's exhibitions.

For example, students at SK Tunku Intan Safinaz exhibited their answer to the Driving Question: "How can we reduce the number of street accident cases in Malaysia?" Here's the video that they presented to the public:

https://youtu.be/AsF2db4qLts?si=ZWp-e6iXKjvtPYdV

Their sense of friendship and joy in showcasing their homemade video is hard to miss!

3. Choose a platform that facilitates small-group collaboration

The third practice that we found helpful was to give student teams a safe way to communicate digitally. WhatsApp and text messaging didn't have a way for guides, teachers, or student leaders to view the discussions and intervene when they spotted inappropriate or antisocial behavior. Instead, our schools used Microsoft Teams, allowing teachers to create a private "Channel" for each student group. This solution worked great, giving groups a way to discuss, schedule, and collaborate. Meanwhile, the teacher could pop into any Channel to view the conversations. (Teachers did mention that this was time-consuming, however. Hopefully, the technology can improve to assist with this oversight task!)

The following screenshot shows how Singapore teacher Raymond Chan set up private Channels within Microsoft Teams to facilitate Collaborative Work for a science project.

Although I didn't structure Collaborative Work perfectly at first, we made changes over time that significantly improved our results. In the future, we'll continue to find methods that improve Collaborative Work as a worthwhile feature of Flex blended-learning models. We'll know we're successful when students exhibit excellent final projects that show real curiosity and creativity. But even more, we'll spot success when students report that their teamwork created happy friendships and, as a result, a greater love for school itself.

I hope that these observations are helpful to you! Bye for now, and good luck as you work to guide a Flex!

Sincerely,

Heather

Enroll in the Starter Course to learn how to set up a Flex blended-learning model. My next course features the use of Microsoft 365 for Education tools. (Stay tuned for future tutorials about tools from other software providers!)

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