Developing Collaboration Skills

Team teachers must develop respectful relationships with each another if they wish their students to exhibit positive relationships with others in their group projects.

One cannot model that which one doesn’t practice regularly, so the first step is setting norms. This may be a fairly lengthy process, and unfortunately a lot of people go through a norm-setting process only to watch them cast aside. Here’s a short activity a team can use to set norms:

  • Members each write down three behaviors they would appreciate from teammates during team meetings and one behavior that is simply a nonnegotiable for them. For example:
    • Focus on students’ strengths rather their weaknesses.
    • Don’t correct papers while we’re meeting.
    • Be on time (non-negotiable).
    • Listen without interrupting.
  • The non-negotiables automatically become team norms (unless they are outrageous or unacceptable—then the team has to have some serious conversations).
  • The team looks for commonalities among the other responses. These commonalities also become norms.
  • The team discusses the behaviors that were mentioned only once and determines whether they are covered by the norms already identified. It’s important to find out why the once-mentioned behaviors are important to the people who submitted them and then to negotiate an outcome everyone can accept. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, it’s time well spent in preventing a buildup of resentment that can later sabotage the team’s relationships.
  • Post the team norms and regularly reflect on how well the team is observing them. Don’t just put them on the back shelf; effective teams gently hold each other accountable for following their agreed-upon norms.

Identify the specific collaboration skills that students need.

Many of the skills required for success in group work are common speaking and listening skills such as listening without interrupting; summarizing, paraphrasing, or adding to others’ ideas; and asking questions to clarify someone else’s idea. Other skills necessary for successful group work include planning a project from start to finish, locating resources, synthesizing information, and deciding how to present the group’s findings.

After identifying all the necessary skills for group work, plan how the team will teach, reinforce, and assess these skills. Think also about how teachers will have students reflect on their individual and group progress as a precursor for assessing the work of the individuals and the group. This step is important because individual and group accountability are key components in successful group work.

Including interim steps of reflection and revision helps students improve the quality of their work before the final assessment and diminishes complaining and finger pointing about who did or did not do their share of the work.

Create daily reflection forms for everyone to use during collaborations. Teachers can use them as a Ticket Out the Door activity and review them to identify any groups that need an intervention. When students see similar expectations of individual and group accountability in all of their classes, they will realize that the teachers value this skill set. That which is valued is taken more seriously.

Furthermore, by sharing with teammates how the students are doing with their collaboration skill development, teachers provide valuable information for others as they plan future units that involve group work.

Jill Spencer is a teacher, consultant, and senior partner in Learning Capacity Unlimited, and author of Teaming Rocks: Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success, published by AMLE. E-mail: