Lending structure to collaborative work

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Kathryn Parker BoudettKathryn Parker Boudett, Lecturer on Education, carefully structures the way students learn to collaborate with one another in her course, Data Wise: Using Data to Improve Teaching and Learning. For example, she models collaborative learning through an open discussion of student feedback, or “pluses and deltas,” collected in the previous session with the whole class. She also makes sure students receive plenty of experience putting into practice the ideas from one of the core texts for the course, Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators. She does this by teaching them to use “rolling agendas” (which can be used by student groups working in any discipline) via Google Docs. The template makes it easy for students to remember to collaboratively set objectives, delegate tasks, and document the ongoing work of their teams. Boudett, or one of her teaching fellows, can then access the shared document to provide formative feedback in real time.

The benefits: This approach holds students accountable, tracks both individual and group progress, and levels the playing field for students who may not be as comfortable as others voicing their views within a collaborative team. Students have noted that without the structure they “would not have realized what everyone in their group had to offer.”

The challenges:  Some students naturally resist using such a structured format for collaborative work. But once students understand that a primary course goal is to learn “a whole new way of doing business professionally,” they tend to see the value of intentional collaboration practices and generally find an increase in their productivity. Many report using the rolling agenda structure for group projects in their other classes and when they graduate and are working in contexts where meetings are the norm.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Align activity with course. One way that Boudett introduces the rolling agenda format is to have students think of it as a team-generated syllabus, and the actual work done in each meeting as a lesson plan.
  • Name tangible skills. The provision of formative feedback is key, and Boudett finds that using the comments feature of Google Docs to reinforce professional skills with explicit feedback rather than simply saying “good job” makes a difference. She trains her teaching fellows to do this as well so that the comments on the rolling agendas call out when students are using analysis effectively or are failing to bring in all voices during a particular meeting.
  • Provide a technical primer. Boudett provides extensive guidance on accessing and using Google Docs, since there is often variability in how familiar students are with it, and she makes sure to have IT support available for the initial run of the application with each new class.

Bottom line: Scaffolding students’ experience with collaboration by providing guidance on effective meeting structure and feedback on meeting documentation increases productivity and allows them to practice a skill that is used intensively by most upon graduation.