In my first year of teaching, Megan came to me on the last day of a month-long project with a bright red face and tears streaming down her cheeks.
“What’s wrong Megan, are you okay?” I asked her. I thought she’d just heard terrible news. She was visibly distressed and had trouble getting her words out. Finally she composed herself enough to say, “I ca- I ca- I can’t go another day working with this group!”
I responded, “Oh, is that it? Well it’s not a big deal, Megan. There’s only one day left of the project. Do you think you can make it one more day?”
Megan lost any composure she had left and screamed at me in front of the class that I clearly do not understand how bad her group is, and told me in very direct words how horrible my class is. She then stormed out of my classroom and headed down to the office to have her mom pick her up from school.
What just happened here?
After a little reflection and having been married for 10 years now, I think part of the issue is that no one wants to be told their problems are no big deal and then immediately offered a solution (This wasn’t the only time I’ve learned this lesson).
I also learned that this group had some serious collaboration issues that should have been addressed much earlier than the last day of the project. But I had no idea that her group was struggling. Every time I walked by them or stopped to check-in during collaboration time, they seemed to be on task. All of their assignments were submitted on time and I did not learn of any group struggles or warnings being given out. From the outside, there was no group conflict.
My perception was clearly off.
After talking to Megan the next day (and her mother and my principal), I learned that Megan was bearing most of the weight of the project. She was conducting most of the research, completing the collaborative assignments, and doing all of this while trying to manage group members who would rather play Minecraft than contribute.
It’s clear that Megan obviously struggled with holding her group members accountable, and there are tools and processes to help students with this important piece of collaboration. However, this instance also made it abundantly clear to me how easy it is to overlook group conflict and collaboration issues throughout a project or activity.
Simply relying on the ‘eye test’ to gauge how successful a team’s collaboration is is insufficient. Appearances can be deceiving, especially when students do not know how to advocate for themselves yet and voice their problems. The truth is, if Megan had never had her outburst, I would have thought her group was fine. The assignments were turned in and the project was completed. I wouldn’t have known that it was all done by an individual rather than a group.
This raises the question, how often are students struggling with collaboration and their teachers and instructors fail to realize it?
Using Formative Assessments for Collaboration
The key to identifying collaboration struggles and resolving them requires the same solution for when students struggle understanding content: formative assessments. Formative assessments are a means to evaluate a student’s comprehension of a subject or skill, used by an educator to determine further instruction and guidance to help that student achieve mastery. Formative assessments move the focus and emphasis of work from grades to mastery. Grading becomes a continuous process, indicating where improvement is needed so students gain proficiency.
In a traditional class, grades are treated as rewards or penalties for the work students do. However, when assessments are used formatively, they serve the sole purpose of improving student work. Like the use of formative assessments to improve a student’s mastery working with polynomials or the correct usage of semicolons, they are needed for collaborative skill building.
Teachers in a collaborative classroom should constantly be assessing student collaboration throughout an extended assignment or project. There are three primary reasons for this. The first, formative assessments for collaboration helps put out fires before they get out of control. Teachers serve as mediators in their classrooms, and provide wisdom and guidance that their students need. Therefore, the instructor has to have their finger on the pulse at all times in order to help groups work through issues. Assessments can serve as indicators of growing tensions within groups.
Another primary reason for collaboration assessments is to help instructors know how to adjust instruction to help students grow in skill. Like my example earlier, I thought the collaborative activities I had for the project were serving my students well. They actually weren’t, leaving Megan frustrated and burned out. Strong formative assessments throughout the project can let the teacher know if students are effectively collaborating or if adjustments are needed.
Collaboration in the gradebook.
The third reason for collaborative assessments follows a bit more along the traditional route of grading. The fact is, some students are motivated by achievements, which is why those students often ignore the group aspect of group work in order to complete assignments and get their desired grade. Essentially, if it’s not graded, it’s not important. We know this to be untrue, but school culture says otherwise. Content work often takes precedence over the “soft skills,” which includes collaboration.
Part of putting these soft skills on equal footing, or at least near-equal, is to measure growth for these skills as well. Essentially, one’s ability to collaborate should go in the gradebook! Otherwise, what message are we sending to students about the importance of this skill? Students should each have a collaboration grade at the end of a semester that reflects their ability to work with others.
The grade should be malleable and can always improve as the students grow and can demonstrate that growth. For instance, if at the beginning of a semester, a student is constantly getting warnings from their group members and earns a 70% for collaboration in the first project (more on how to assess this in a minute), that grade demonstrates their ability to collaborate at that specific point in time. However, as the year progresses, and students get additional opportunities to become more proficient at collaboration, and they demonstrate they are, then the gradebook should reflect that.
I’ve known many intelligent, high-achieving students who early in the year have no idea how to collaborate. They turn in excellent individual work, but when it comes to group activities, they are collaboratively illiterate. Using collaborative assessments, the teacher can give a grade to reflect this. And these grades can get those students’ attention real quick!
“Teacher! I’ve never received below a B in my life! Why are you doing this to me?!”
And the teacher’s response can be, “And you don’t have to get a B. During the next group project, work on _____________ to improve collaboration and I will give you a brand new grade.
In a true collaborative classroom, this collaboration grade should not be the primary motivator for students. The creative power of collaboration and the productivity that can come from it should be what defines the collaboration culture of a classroom. However, having a summative grade can help. It demonstrates how collaboration is valued just like the content of the class is. It also doesn’t allow students to decide not to be collaborative. It’s an accountability tool, and helps keep the slackers from slacking and the take-over students from doing all the work.
It’s no different than how collaboration is treated in industry. Strong collaboration is rewarded with success, while poor teamwork results in consequences.
Here is a rubric to assess collaboration in the classroom. Use it as a tool to evaluate students’ skills and growth. My next article will be all about how to use this rubric in a collaborative classroom so that you can assess skill and help your students become better, stronger, more skilled collaborators.