Will students collaborate during remote learning? | Tara Quigley | 6 Min Read

How can we support and instruct students in effective collaboration techniques when learning remotely? At face value, collaboration would appear to be a skill that is not easily taught while students are remote. However, it is clearly a communication style that is occurring regularly in the remote work world of today. As my colleagues and I learned during the course of 2020, it can be done effectively at school with a bit of tweaking and scaffolding. 

One of the competencies that is scaffolded into many aspects of my sixth-grade Humanities classes at Princeton Day School is collaboration. Over the past five years, my colleagues and I have made deliberate efforts to teach about collaboration and to provide students feedback as they develop this important skill. However, when we were thrown into remote teaching in the spring of 2020, we were faced with a challenge. We had to be creative and build in deliberate strategies for online collaboration. 

When PDS began our remote teaching program, Panthers Online, in the spring of 2020, we were completely asynchronous. Concerns about equity issues and student ability to get online meant that we did not require students to be online for classes. This posed a significant challenge for our ability to scaffold tasks and support skill-building that would have supported and guided our students in the development of their collaboration skills. Four weeks in, however, we were allowed to “offer” non-mandatory synchronous meeting times on Google Meet during our regular class periods, allowing for a much more robust collaboration to occur. 

Right before we began remote learning, we had started our “cross-cultural” Middle Ages study. As part of the Guided Inquiry Design model used in our classes, we present the driving question, How was culture shared and spread during the period 500-1500 CE? In previous years, after having spent time immersed in reading about the time period, students were divided into groups of three or four and assigned a culture to explore based on an indicated preference. The cultures have been chosen as ones that can provide solid evidence of the extensive cultural diffusion and borrowing of the late Middle Ages in particular, and they include Al Andalus, Medieval England, Byzantium, and the Silk Road. Students use driving questions organized by categories such as Trade/Navigation/Transportation, or Science/ Inventions/Discoveries to guide their research into their culture. These categories and questions serve as the scaffold upon which students begin to build their background knowledge and to understand the ways in which goods and ideas spread and influenced the development of these civilizations. Upon completion of research, each student is expected to write two paragraphs answering the questions for their particular category. Finally, the students work together with their group members to create a web page about their culture, addressing the questions. The final class product is a comprehensive web site about each of the four cultures. These web pages are then used as research resources by the students for the next project in Humanities.

However, as our spring break progressed in early March, it became clear that this collaborative project would need to be done remotely and asynchronously. Luckily, we had spent much of the earlier portion of the year creating our collaboration goals as a class and frequently reviewing them. We had a list of “What makes a good collaborator?” posted in the classroom, and we often asked students to set a goal for the class period. An image of these collaboration characteristics are here.

As our classes began again the last week in March, we slowly started bringing students together virtually with discussions on our LMS. Most days we asked the students to reflect on what they were learning using Visible Thinking Prompts, such as “I used to think, but now I think…” Students were asked to view one another’s posts and respond, creating a virtual discussion. After students felt more comfortable engaging in a solely asynchronous, or virtual, manner, using our LMS, we returned to using Google Docs for collaborative work. Images below of an assignment page illustrate how we had students discuss and choose who would research which topics. The teacher was easily able to monitor these discussions and support with suggestions or questions as necessary. From here, students moved into the research phase, finding sources and information to help answer the question(s) they had chosen. 

Choosing Your Culture Questions Screencast. mp4 (2.54 minutes)

During each stage of the research process, groups were brought together either on Google Docs, or Google Meets, and asked to share their information with one another. This encouraged the cross-pollination of ideas and allowed students to share helpful information and resources they had found along the way.  At the end of each period, students were asked to post to a discussion the main takeaway from what they had learned (see image below) and then encouraged to respond to their peers’ posts with comments or questions. 

Once students had completed their research and written one or two paragraphs with the answers to their questions, it was time to create the web page. At this point in the spring, we were allowed to “offer” Google Meet times for students during our regularly scheduled class periods. Most students attended, but everything was recorded if someone was missing. We provided guidelines about attending the meetings, including reminders about how to engage in a collaborative discussion, as shown below.

Students had spent time exploring and studying the web pages created by the former sixth-grade classes, as well as discussing elements of an effective and attractive web page, so they were prepared to make some choices about their final product. 

For the online meeting, students had a list of topics to discuss and decisions to make before beginning to build their web page. These discussions varied widely in length and topic. In one group, a student who had previously had some difficulty working with peers and collaborating, took a leadership role, including scheduling meetings with her group members outside of regular class times, working through the mechanics of her peers’ writings, and providing overall guidance about the look and content of the group’s web page. 

Ultimately, the quality of the web pages was as good or better than it had been in the past. The collaboration of the groups worked more effectively with the independence and highly structured nature of their meeting times. Without being distracted by the social aspects of being in the classroom, the students were able to focus on the work at hand and produce a product of which they were proud. 

My colleagues and I had several takeaways from this experience, which have informed the collaboration work we do this year. 

  1. Directions are crucial. They should be explicit and yet concise. 
  2. Clear, specific objectives and/or guiding questions are necessary to provide a framework for discussions and work. 
  3. Assigned roles help to get the work done. Titles like moderator, recorder/note-taker help students understand how to complete a task effectively. 
  4. Exemplars are necessary. Make sure that you have a high-quality example to share beforehand so that students have a clear understanding of what is expected. 

With remote and hybrid learning a reality of our school lives at least until next year, our conclusion has been that, yes, students will collaborate if given the opportunity. They are hungry for opportunities to work together and to make connections. If we take the time to create well-structured and intentional learning experiences that rely on collaboration, the students will rise to the challenge.

Tara Quigley

Tara Quigley, Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and 6th Grade Humanities Teacher, Princeton Day School (NJ), and OESIS Network Leader, has been a teacher since 1991. She has been serving as the Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies since 2014. She is dedicated to educating and empowering teachers to try new pedagogical practices and strategies, including: design thinking, PBL, inquiry research, Visible Thinking, and teaching towards mastery of skills and competencies. She is also a co-chair of the Academic Affairs Committee at Princeton Day School where she has been for 18 years. As an OESIS Network Leader and PBL cohort facilitator, Tara frequently shares her process and experiences with her colleagues at peer schools and at national conferences.

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