For students, the best learning can often happen from one another. As a professor, ensuring you give your class ample opportunity to collaborate in pairs or small groups helps solidify concepts and can indicate whether or not your students understand new material. Collaboration in the classroom provides students with valuable skills that will inevitably be required in their future careers. Follow these five stratgies to help collaboration thrive in your remote classroom today.

1. Promote team building exercises

It’s possible that students may not know anyone else in your course. Ensuring you provide them with adequate opportunities to engage with one another in informal ways prior to a collaborative exercise is key. Not only are students provided with a chance to learn more about one another, but it can help them form academic connections. After engaging in a variety of team building activities, students are likely to feel more comfortable with selecting groups on their own.

Team building activities help students improve their interpersonal communication skills and encourage collaboration early in the learning process. If you only have a handful of collaborative exercises in your course, it’s possible that students won’t always work with everyone in the class. These informal, fun tasks can help students get to know those they might not have had the opportunity to work with otherwise.

2. Allow for flexibility

Swap rigid guidelines and procedures for flexibility in the learning process. What may work for one class may not work for another. In terms of assessment criteria, for first-year courses, you may want to have a more robust rubric that students can refer to. For upper-year courses, you may wish to abandon a strict set of grading criteria and, instead, let students determine the direction of their assessment. 

A group may work towards the same overarching goal, but a particular activity can help to address students’ individual learning needs. Here, flexibility is key in how students approach a problem. An activity engages all students, but the results that students produce may differ from group to group based on individual biases, needs and perspectives. Flexibility in how students learn can prevent feelings of being pigeonholed, where students don’t have the option to direct their own learning. On the other hand, having flexible—rather than static—groups that stay the same for all group assignments can be beneficial for students. Regularly placing students with different peers in collaborative activities can help to diversify your class and can create new opportunities for growth and discovery.

3. Leverage different technologies

In a remote learning environment, technology remains essential. It can be used to keep students connected both in and out of the digital classroom—for example, your students may want to use Google Docs or Slides to simultaneously work on a deliverable from multiple devices. If you teach a synchronous online course, breakout rooms in tools like Zoom can give students the necessary space to have intimate, hands-on discussions among themselves. Take some time to familiarize yourself with both synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods to ensure your students get the most out of their learning experience. 

Certain tools such as discussion boards—available in some learning management systems or in all-in-one platforms like Top Hat—can provide you with an indicator of your students’ progress, while threaded discussions keep students accountable for their contributions to a project. Encourage students to take advantage of technology in the early phases of a group project. You may want to remind each group member to gather one another’s phone numbers or add each other on Facebook to ensure all members actively contribute to an assessment.

4. Equalize labor with group roles

For larger assessments, it’s important to ensure that your students equally pull their weight. It can be unfair to students and their grades if one or two students do most of the heavy lifting while the others get rewarded with the same mark. Instead, assign a list of task-specific roles at the beginning of a project for your students to negotiate among themselves. This allows students to select roles that play on their strengths and minimizes the chance of relying on peers to complete a section outside of their scope of work. Assigned roles can make for more informed, focused interactions, with each student actively contributing to the larger group. Roles encourage accountability and can help keep a project on track with all members working on their deliverables at the same time.

5. Assess before and after collaboration 

Pre- and post-tests can measure students’ baseline knowledge and how their understanding of a concept changes after collaborating with peers. Before administering an assessment, a pre-test—synonymous with a diagnostic test—can help to reveal students’ preliminary understanding of specific concepts. On the other hand, a post-test highlights how students’ comprehension has changed after completing an assessment as a group. From a student’s point of view, was it beneficial to work with peers to solve a problem? Were they able to learn from others, and likewise, able to offer their own knowledge in meaningful ways? These are some of the items that students can respond to after working in groups.

Pre-tests can help students determine the goals and desired outcomes of working in groups. They can help students identify areas in which they want to work together. Post-tests can help instructors gauge the effectiveness of group learning. These insights can be leveraged to inform group composition and tasks for future assignments. For larger group projects, you may wish to give your students an opportunity to break down who has completed what parts of an assignment in peer evaluations. This gives students a chance to voice concerns over group members who didn’t adequately participate, and simultaneously, it can give instructors an in-depth look at task distribution, informing assigned grades. 

Collaboration is a must-have skill in any workplace today. In academia, team-building exercises, flexibility, technology, group roles and pre- and post-collaboration evaluations can ensure you and your students get the most out of collaborative learning. Incorporating all five tactics into your teaching practice can help to optimize students’ learning environments and can better prepare them for their future careers.

To learn more about how Top Hat helps collaboration thrive in remote learning environments, click here.

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