PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can Collaboration Skills Be Built in PBL?

Even teachers and students who are pretty experienced with project-based learning admit that working in teams can be challenging. Adults, too, find this is true in the workplace.

You know the challenges: personalities clash or there’s baggage from the past…a teammate slacks off and doesn’t pull their weight…someone takes over the group to make sure things are done their way…one person takes the easy job (“I’ll be the recorder!”) and leaves the heavy lifting/thinking to others…people miss deadlines or do low-quality work–and don’t welcome feedback.

Most teachers have learned enough from assigning “group work” to know that you can’t just ask students to “form groups of four,” give them an assignment, and expect them to work together successfully without some structure. Teachers may know about having teams assign roles or divide up tasks, especially if they’ve had some professional learning or preservice education around cooperative learning. However, a lot more needs to be done to move from group work to effective collaboration in a PBL classroom.


10 Tips for Building Collaboration Skills (in no particular order)

1. Understand that collaboration skills need to be taught and practiced.

You can’t assume students will be able to work well together naturally; they need scaffolding and support. Students who have little experience with collaboration, or who have had mostly negative experiences, will especially need time to learn and practice.


2. Build a classroom culture that supports collaboration.

In a PBL classroom, teachers emphasize the value and even the necessity of collaboration in order to successfully complete a complex project. Help students see that it is an important future-ready skill and that they can do more in teams than they can individually. Point out that everyone has skills, ways of thinking, and diverse perspectives that can help the team and improve the work being produced.


3. Create shared norms/community agreements for collaboration.

Teachers can lead a class discussion of what good collaboration looks like, perhaps starting with a think-pair-share activity to generate ideas. Encourage students to be honest about the challenges they have seen with “group work.” Ask them what teamwork looks, feels, and sounds like when it’s going well. Create a list of norms or guidelines that the class can agree on–using a process for arriving at consensus, not a “majority rule” vote, which models how teams should make decisions. Post the list on the wall and refer to it often.


4. Use a rubric or other set of criteria to guide and assess collaboration.

This is closely related to #3 above. You could lead the class in co-creating a collaboration rubric that captures descriptors of what “emerging, developing, and proficient” levels look like. Or perhaps your school has a common rubric all teachers use. Have students use the rubric to guide reflection, assessment, and improvement (see #8 below).


5. Have each team create an agreement or “contract” for how they will work together.

This practice builds on #3 above but gets into the details for a particular team. For younger students, it can be a simple list of 3-4 things like “We will do our work on time” and “We will help each other.” For older students, it could be more like a contract (or a “constitution,” for a civics lesson) with consequences spelled out for team members who do not follow the agreement.


6. Do team-building activities.

Activities where students make something together (like the well-known “spaghetti marshmallow challenge”), meet a challenge, or play a game have a dual purpose. They help students get to know each other and create emotional bonds, and they can point out the collaboration skills students used or could have used better. Such activities should not only be done once at the beginning of a project; they can help during the middle of a project when teams might need rebonding, an energy boost, or a break from hard work.


7. Model collaboration skills.

Help students learn what good collaboration is like by demonstrating it. You could bring in another teacher (with possibilities for humor) to show examples of what good and not-so-good teamwork is. Have a student team practice specific skills - like making a decision or giving helpful feedback - in a “fishbowl” activity while the rest of the class watches. Then debrief what they saw, and have each team try to do it themselves.


8. Ask students to regularly reflect on their collaboration skills–and take action accordingly.

Reflection is one of the six criteria in the Framework for High-Quality PBL, and one of the things students should reflect on is their collaboration skills. At regular checkpoints during a project (or at least once in short projects) ask students to discuss how well their team is working together: What are we doing well? What could we improve? Are we following our agreements? Does our contract need to be revised? Do we need support from our teacher?


9. Be aware of equity issues in teamwork.

I was first made aware of this by the work of Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan, authors of Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (2014). They note that group work can mirror and reinforce social inequalities. Hierarchies can emerge within student groups, based on ability (real or perceived), peer status, and gender, race, class, and nationality. Teachers need to pay attention to this and intervene when coaching teams–for example by “assigning competence” to lower-status students and pointing out their contributions. Another issue is English language fluency; monitor and coach students to make sure everyone on a team is included.


10. Avoid the “divide and conquer” approach.

Students may think collaboration means the work is divided up, everyone goes off on their own to do their part, then the “team” puts it all together at the end in a report or slide deck. That’s not collaboration. Instead, if students do some work on their own, they should bring it back to teammates for feedback and further work by others. Teachers should monitor project work being done in the classroom and look for signs of true collaboration, such as exchanging ideas, taking turns at a keyboard to write something while teammates make suggestions, or discussing how to create a product.


One bonus tip, which speaks to a stereotype about PBL:


11. Don’t think that students need to work collaboratively all the time on a project.

A common image of PBL is that students should be put into teams at the beginning of a project and do everything together. However, this can lead to “team fatigue” and students will be sick of each other by the end. And importantly, certain activities and learning experiences might be better done individually or in some other grouping, based on need or just for variety’s sake. You could even wait until the second half of a project to put students into the teams that will create the final products.

There’s a lot more to say about collaboration in PBL, such as how to form teams and assign roles, how to manage and troubleshoot teamwork during a project, how to assess collaboration, and other future-ready skills… which I’ll save for future posts!


Find more information about teaching collaboration skills in Defined Learning’s Knowledge Base.

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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