I. Teachers demonstrate leadership. · II. Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students. · IV. Teachers facilitate learning for their students. · V. Teachers reflect on their practice.

Collaborative Learning: Misconceptions, Misrepresentations, & What We’re Doing About It

Students and parents, raise your hand if you jump up and down when you hear the words “group work”?! If you’re raising your hand, you are not the norm. For most, phrases like “group work” or “group projects” create anxiety, dread, and resent. But why??? Collaboration as a means of 21st century learning has been a buzz word since before I started teaching 4 and a half years ago, and for great reason! Collaborative learning is an authentic replication of work in the real world, a way for students to learn from one another and experience other perspectives, a way of appealing to the interpersonal intelligence for those whose are motivated to learn with others, and so much more. Sure, collaboration is challenging…no one every said that putting a bunch of different ideas in the mix made it easier to come to an agreement. But collaborative learning should be seen as an engaging and worthwhile challenge for both those participating (students) and watching from afar (parents). I’ve noticed parents requesting more worksheets over collaborative learning, and heard of parents not choosing particular schools because of a focus on collaborative work. So why do the people being affected by collaborative learning often dislike it so much? They are the ones who should be benefiting!

In shifting from the role of a student myself to a teacher, I’ve gradually noticed a shift in my own perspective on collaboration as a means of learning. As a student, I generally didn’t care for it. As the stereotypical student overachiever, working in groups generally resulted in me attempting to micromanage the whole project as if it were my own individual project, or if that didn’t work, resulted in me stressing over whether others would follow through with their parts or negatively affect my grade. In both types of scenarios, grades were the focus and learning was stifled for me and/or other group members. Additionally, these types of activities were more about dividing the large project into smaller “sub-projects,” so each group member usually ended up working independently rather than collaboratively. But my shift to the role of teacher has opened my eyes to the value that collaboration can genuinely have on both social-emotional and content-specific learning. So what exactly are the problems students are experiencing in this dreaded type of collaborative learning, and what can we teachers do about it?

1. Teamwork vs. Collaboration

First things first, let’s be clear on the definitions of terms. Many “group projects” are not collaborative in nature, but activities requiring teamwork.

Teamwork is when everyone takes on a smaller piece of the larger project; and when each of those small pieces are put together, the larger project is complete. There is definitely a time and place for teamwork, whether students each take on a specific job in the work or complete a certain section of the work. Yes, in the real world, this is a realistic model for work completion. But the goal of these activities should not necessarily be to teach the concept of working together, or collaboration. When taking part in teamwork, people work more so individually.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is when a group creates something together from the ground up. The team creates the idea collectively, and all members pitch in however possible to put the idea into action. These collaborative activities are the ones that genuinely teach students how to work effectively with others, appreciate perspectives different from their own, and respond to different ideas and opinions.

2. Grades vs. Reflection

In either situation, whether teamwork or collaboration, the emphasis should be on reflection to become better rather than on grades.

Grades often squelch learning, particularly collaborative learning, which is already a challenge without tying a grade to it. Placing a grade on collaborative activities creates a pressure that causes the learners involved increased frustration and resentment. When disagreements arise, now the goal has shifted from “How can we effectively come to an agreement?” to “If we don’t hurry up and come to an agreement, we won’t get a good grade,” or “If these people don’t listen to my idea we’re gonna fail.” Grades have the potential to teach ineffective collaboration and add frustration to an already challenging process.

Reflection helps learners think back on the experience in an honest way. Without the pressure of grades, students can feel freedom to be realistic about their learning and collaborative efforts in a given activity. When reflecting honestly, students can acknowledge mistakes they might have made during the process, in efforts to learn from those mistakes and become better for next time. In fact, reflection (over grades) might help learners see the positive, rather than the negative and failure, in mistakes.

3. Culminating Projects vs. Learning

Collaborative learning often takes place at the end of a unit, as a summative project reflecting what students learned (to give a grade), rather than as PART of the learning process.

Culminating projects involving collaboration usually remove learning from the experience. Often, collaborative projects are simply supposed to reflect what members of the group have learned for a final grade. Similar to the idea of projects versus project-based learning, a culminating project may as well be the word “test,” again creating added pressure to an already challenging skill.

Learning happens throughout a unit, not at the end. Collaboration is a great, engaging way to teach new content, while also building students’ collaborative skillset. A collaborative type of activity should more often happen along the way as students learn, not always at the end of the unit. If it could just be approached as part of the learning process, rather than a final “show what you know” group project, it might not be so intimidating and stressful.

In closing, if collaboration isn’t challenging students in a motivating way, something is wrong. So let’s reflect on our teaching practices, so that we can do something about it!

3 thoughts on “Collaborative Learning: Misconceptions, Misrepresentations, & What We’re Doing About It

  1. Hey, Nathalie.

    Your post is really making me think. I’m parked in your intro–which could be another post or three on its own…

    I wish you posted this reflection when I was in school (just a few years ago) doing tons and tons of group work. I was definitely the group member that cared way too much about earning the grade. As a result, I never once focused on what I was learning. Because I cared so much about the grade, I usually (coincidentally) got the hardest “sub-group project,” as you say. Then, I would do a really good job on my part, and be super-stressed out about why other group members weren’t pulling their weight. So, I would often help others finish, make it better, or pick up their slack for them. If we survived the terrible ritual with a “B,” then I was really happy and relieved, despite having sacrificed my own health and tons of relationship-building time with family, friends, and people close to me. I can’t help but wonder: If I could have been graded on a well-thought reflection on my own learning throughout the project (maybe like posting a blog like this), then my entire approach, experience, and outcome would have completely changed.

    Now, as I go back to proofread my previous paragraph before I “Post Comment,” I can’t help but think how the processes I experienced as a student in grades K-16+ haven’t really changed that much as an adult. And that makes me sad. Even in a jigsaw method (although #7 on Hattie’s: 252 Influences and Effect Sizes Related to Student Achievement, 2017) one person is always “stuck with” taking notes on the chart paper or “stuck with” presenting back to the group. It’s easier to be the group member that “gets by” doing the least work or always choosing the most comfortable path–but that seldom makes for a meaningful learning experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kyle, I couldn’t agree more with each of your thoughts here! And thank you SO much for taking the time to read and respond in such depth. I know as educators we work hard to facilitate collaborative experiences for students; and I didn’t want this post to be perceived as an attack on educators who may be giving grades on collaboration or implementing more teamwork types of experiences, but rather a post in defense of the students who for the most part aren’t enjoying these experiences. As educators, we always have to question our practices when students are using their voices to express frustration; but as educators, we also know the importance of collaborative learning. So we have to seek that balance and question ourselves until we find it.

      In response to your higher level education experiences with group work, a lot of the thoughts in this post came from seeing my husband go through exactly what you described while pursuing his MBA. All of what collaboration SHOULD be was sacrificed as students in the group basically worked independently on project sections and stressed about the final grade.

      On the other hand, some of the ONLY collaborative experiences I look back on fondly came at ECU when pursuing my B.S. in Elementary Education. In these positive experiences, other future educators and myself worked collaboratively (not “teamwork” style with independent jobs), created together as PART of the learning process in tasks that were of high interest to us, and learned WITHOUT a grade being attached to it. So while it is so discouraging to think that collaborative learning has been mostly frustrational for students for decades of time now, these few positive experiences bring me hope that it can be done effectively and in a way that gets student buy-in as well. We still, however, have a lot of work to do to get to that point.


  2. This is a terrific post, Nathalie! Having taught Earth and Environmental science for 20 years, I understand the challenges associated with creating group projects of any kind. One of the most frustrating things I dealt with in my subject was that many teachers in my field were afraid to take students outside because they perceived some management challenges. I found that it was actually easier to manage those kids outdoors as long as each student played an equally valuable role in the data that was being collected. The roles were chosen by the students so that they would have a comfort level and buy in to the project. What you are talking about is meaningful collaboration that allows students to have a choice, understand and utilize their strengths and learn about the areas they need to grow, and gives them equal voice in the product they create without the usual pressure associated with group work. I would love to see your kids in action! Keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

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