Tips for Encouraging Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

— Kate, Owl Eyes Staff on

How do we invite collaboration and teamwork into the classroom? It can seem easy on paper, but actually getting our students to work together in an open-minded way often proves more challenging. Collaborative learning gets students working together to solve problems and complete tasks—unlike than the more traditional, isolated approach that many of us have experienced. Collaborative learning helps students solve problems, ask more questions, and dive deeper into topics than they might on their own. In studying literature, these actions are imperative in getting to know a text. Let’s examine a few tips on how to encourage students to share ideas and make the classroom a welcoming, open space for all.

Tip #1: Encourage expression of individual perspectives.

Picture a socratic seminar, that discussion style dreaded by so many students. One student builds up the nerve to make an observation to the rest of the class, and it is immediately shot down. Maybe the class disagrees with the observation or aren’t used to interacting with ideas that don’t come straight from the text or the teacher. Next, imagine a student who takes a chance on an assigned essay and offers an unconventional view. However, their grade suffers because either the teacher found it too perplexing or the student did not have an opportunity to express their ideas earlier.

In order to foster individual perspectives and avoid these situations, it’s important to establish our classrooms as safe spaces for expressing thoughts and ideas—no matter what. This is especially important when discussing subjective questions, which, as we need to emphasize, have no clear answer. Let’s take this further. If we create the right environment to encourage students to express themselves, they’ll feel more comfortable with ambiguity. This will encourage them to think outside the box as opposed to attempting to find the conventional answer. As physicist Albert Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Tip #2: Allow all voices—even the quietest ones—to be heard

Some students view class discussions as their worst-nightmares. While others may have no problem speaking up and sharing ideas, these students may suffer from some serious stage-fright.

We have to keep this in mind when planning discussions. Make sure all students have the chance to be heard, but include different kinds of participation activities that may be less scary for your shyest students.

One solution is to simply break up classroom-wide discussions into smaller group discussions of 3-4 students. We really enjoy activities that allow students time to reflect, discuss with a partner, and then share with a small group or the class. Scaffolding discussions in this way allows all students the opportunity to contribute at multiple levels.

Tip #3: Encourage the sharing of ideas

When asked to analyze a text, most of us have felt the pressure to discover the hidden meanings and wisdom of the author—often alone and without resources. This pressure on all of us to come up with unique, original ideas on our own is damaging because it inhibits creativity and can harm learning. The reality is that collaboration helps us come up with better, more functional ideas because it gives us multiple starting points and perspectives to learn from.

By using annotation tools like Google Docs, Owl Eyes, or Hypothes.is, students can “piggyback” off one others’ annotations and thoughts with their own. This allows them to build off of one another’s ideas, creating a productive environment for discussing texts.

Tip #4: Emphasize that there are no wrong answers

Since our classrooms should be open-minded spaces for discussion and idea-sharing, we also need to make it clear that in discussing literature, there are few wrong answers. If teachers and students alike have a mutual understanding of this, students will feel more comfortable sharing new ideas.

This understanding helps clarify how important it is that no one’s ideas be shot down, ridiculed, or heavily criticized. This is not to say that students cannot disagree with one another; disagreement can spark rich discussions, as well. However, consider pointing out that some answers can be insufficient. For example, if an argument lacks evidence in the text, that’s something to discuss. That being said, we should never tell students they’re outright wrong; this damages student-teacher relationships and hurts their inclination to share in discussions in the future.