We’ve all been there before. You’re working with a few other people and everything just seems to click. It might be on a ballfield or court. Or it might be in a jam session or a rehearsal for live theater. If you’re lucky, it might be a collaborative team of teachers. You bounce ideas back and forth and offer honest feedback from a place of trust and mutual humility. The mood shifts from intense concentration to laughter to deep discussion and maybe even vulnerability.

In these moments, you realize that together you are creating something you could never create on your own.

However, we’ve all experienced the downside of small-group collaboration, where things move slowly with constant discord or flat disengagement. Deep down inside you wish you were working alone. In some cases, team dynamics can be downright toxic.

As teachers, we’ve seen both extremes as well. We’ve had students in small groups experiencing the collective sense of flow as they work together to accomplish a goal. You watch in amazement as they generate creative ideas, offer meaningful feedback, and create something together that they could never create on their own. In these moments, you realize that your students have moved beyond cooperation and into genuine collaboration.

But we’ve all had those moments when group work didn’t work – when one student dominated or when members simply checked out or when collectively they simply didn’t get started.

Creative collaboration is a critical component to project-based learning and design thinking. But it’s not as simple as assigning members to teams and then walking away. Collaboration is hard work because it’s deeply relational and all relationships have challenges. In other words, collaboration is hard because people are hard. However, as teachers, we can be proactive in the way we design creative collaboration to help mitigate some of the common pitfalls in student collaboration.

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The Four Biggest Pitfalls of Collaborative Grouping (And How to Avoid Them)

The following are some of the biggest pitfalls I’ve experienced in group collaboration. As an educator who has used project-based learning for over 15 years, I’ve made some big mistakes. I’d like to share the mistakes and some of the ways to avoid the mistakes through better design.

Pitfall #1: One Student Does All the Work

Remember those group projects in high school where you did all the work and other students still got all the credit? Researchers have a term for this. It’s cognitive loafing, where team members assume someone else will take care of the work and thus they pull back and do nothing. Why bother working if you know you can get full credit without the work? But actually, it’s a little more complicated. There are a lot of reasons why students might disengage from creative collaboration:

  • Fear and Insecurity: They feel that their skills are too low. Here, a member either doesn’t want to be discovered or doesn’t want to bring the whole group down. What looks like laziness is actually fear masquerading as indifference. The core issue here is often a lack of self-efficacy. Even if they want to do the project, these students believe they are incapable of completing the tasks successfully.
  • Difficulty: A group member might not have the skills to do a particular task and so it’s easier to let someone else with expertise handle it. After all, if the group shares a grade, this non-participating member might not want to get in the way of the two students who are aiming for an A.
  • Confusion: A group member doesn’t know what to do. There’s a lack of clarity in terms of tasks and this lack of clarity pushes a student to disengage from the group.
  • Lack of motivation: They simply aren’t interested in the project. This is the type of student who wouldn’t be doing the group project even if it were an individual project. Perhaps it’s boring or maybe they lack the creative endurance needed to go through the harder parts of the project.
  • No Buy-In: A group member who doesn’t have a sense of ownership will have a hard time sticking with a project. It can feel like they’re following other people’s instructions and they have no sense of agency or autonomy. This issue will be addressed in Pitfall #2.

 

Solution: Build Interdependency into Your Projects

Often, the default in a project is for one member to work independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. The solution is to have students work interdependently. If independent learning is fully autonomous and dependent learning involves students simply depending on another person, interdependence is the overlap, where students have autonomy but they must have mutual dependence on one another.

 

When students work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Each member has something of value to add to the group. So, what does this look like? One example is the following brainstorming strategy. Notice that students must listen to one another depend on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group. This is a core idea of interdependence. Each member has something valuable to add.

Similarly, when doing research, every student can add additional information to the group’s shared knowledge. They can read texts that are varying reading levels and interest levels and then share what they learn during an interdependent research debrief. However, as a teacher, you sometimes need to integrate differentiation into mixed-level groups. You might provide specific scaffolds for students, such as sentence stems or tutorials. You might even pull students aside for small group interventions or do quick direct instruction lessons for students who need extra support.

In some cases, you might assign roles that correspond to skill levels. When students move from inquiry to research, they often need to narrow down their questions to determine which ones will actually guide the research process. Here’s what the process looks like. See if you can spot the interdependency and differentiation.

  • Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
  • Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.
  • Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role:
    • Member #1: Is this question fact-based?
    • Member #2: Is this question on-topic?
    • Member #3: Is this question specific?
    • Member #4: Quality control
  • Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a top level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

When students work interdependently, they become more confident, which addresses fear and insecurity. When the tasks fit their ability, confusion and difficulty become less significant. It also helps promote buy-in, which can lead to more resiliency. However, even with interdependency, there is the risk of one student dominating the collaborative process.

 

Pitfall #2: One Student Dominates the Creative Process

This second pitfall similar to pitfall #1 but instead of one person doing all the work, this is where one person determines the entire creative vision for the group. In some cases, a single student is highly talented and it makes sense to the other members to let that person make key decisions. In other situations, a single member is more forceful or even manipulative and bulldozes other members.

In many groups, the student who dominates isn’t even aware of the behavior. This student might feel that they are passionately defending an idea or engaging in meaningful dialogue. However, if other group members don’t have a voice in the collaborative process, it becomes easier to disengage. It’s not a lack of motivation or even self-efficacy. Instead, it’s a sense of powerlessness. If your ideas aren’t being honored, why bother trying to collaborate?

Solution: Incorporate Individual Voice into Collaboration

This solution is similar to the first point about interdependency. It’s the idea that even within a collaborative project, students should have individual ownership of specific tasks. So, in the brainstorming structure, students have the opportunity to generate their own ideas first and share those with the group rather than working together on a group brainstorm where louder members might dominate.

Other times, it might involve breaking up specific tasks and allowing each member to work independently within the project. So, if students are prototyping on a STEM challenge, each member might work on specific components of the prototype and then meet up multiple times to seek out and offer feedback and ultimately create a cohesive single prototype. This process provides internal processing time for introverts who need that additional personal mental space.

It also helps to incorporate a shared leadership model. Here, you break a project up into multiple components and ensure that each student has an opportunity to own the leadership for a different component. For example, if it’s a shared documentary, one person might take the lead on key editing decisions, while another owns the storyboarding leadership and another owns the visual storytelling elements.

Note that this varies by age. High school students are sometimes able to negotiate roles and clarify responsibilities in a self-directed way while early elementary students might need assigned roles with role sheets and modeling from the teacher. Although this can take time, it saves time in the long run as students eventually master the essential soft skill of shared ownership.

 

Pitfall #3: Groupthink

The first two pitfalls involved a single person dominating the process. By contrast, groupthink occurs when the entire group makes collectively bad decisions. Irving Janis first coined the term “groupthink” in 1972 to describe what happens when group cohesion gets in the way of necessary critical feedback. Janis analyzed the disaster of the Bay of Pigs operation and contrasted that to Kennedy’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where members in his cabinet were encouraged to think divergently, question one another, and play devil’s advocated. Note that Adam Grant has since critiqued this (there’s a great section on this idea in Originals) suggesting that it’s often overconfidence in leadership and a lack of intellectual humility rather than group cohesion that leads to groupthink.

We see this to a lesser degree in group projects. Here, team members get tunnel vision and fail to see the whole picture. Often, these teams get along really well and there’s a collective overconfidence about how awesome their work is. They no longer engage in vital critical feedback and they fail to think divergently.

 

Solution: Use Intergroup Peer Feedback

It’s easy in a classroom setting for groups to work in silos – figuratively, of course, because silos would make for really awkward classroom design. Collaborative teams can easily work through an entire project without ever intentionally working with any of the other groups. This is too bad because other group members might have fresh ideas, necessary perspectives, and critical feedback that could help a group take their projects to the next level.

An easy solution is to have students send one member to another group during a small part of the project. They might, for example, do some research for another group during the research phase. Or during the ideation phase, you might have do a gallery walk and have every group rotate around and offer ideas with sticky notes.

Other times, you might have every group member disperse and find a partner from another group. After partnering up, they go through the 20-minute peer feedback process:

When this is done, each group member goes back and debriefs the feedback with their original group. After each member shares in a round-robin, the group, as a whole, talks about trends they see and discusses possible critical feedback they might want to address.

 

Pitfall #4: An Inability to Resolve Conflict

Sometimes group members fight with one another and they simply can’t resolve their conflict quickly. This is especially true in projects where there is already mutual buy-in and interdependence. Sometimes the conflict is personal. Personalities will clash. Students can get careless with their words. In these moments, you might need to step in and engage in conflict resolution. I’ve known teachers who have specific conflict resolution structures to guide them in the process. Others have used peer mediators.

Other times, the issue is less about personality and more about clashing creative visions. When I was a kid, I used to watch VH1 Behind the Music. Nearly every band broke up due to “creative differences.” Part of this is ego, with member feeling that their ideas are better than others (addressed in the second pitfall) but sometimes there is a genuine difference in the creative direction of a project.

However, whether it’s a personality issue (he’s not doing his fair share of the work or she’s dominating the conversations) or a creative difference, conflicts tend to fester due to a lack of trust. Conflict resolution requires hard conversations and often vulnerability. But that can’t exist without trust.

 

Solution: Spend time building trust

Trust is vital for interdependent work, with member depending on other members to complete their tasks. It can feel risky and even vulnerable to let go of control. Trust is also vital in order to give and receive critical feedback. I recently created a sketch video showing the grid I developed to help students see the connection between trust and feedback:

In some cases, you might need to do team-building activities before you even start with a project. I’m not saying we go full-blown into trust falls or bust out the ice breakers (I’m an introvert, which means I’d rather let the ice melt slowly over days or weeks instead of shattering it all at once). However, spending a little time earlier on in team-building can help students develop long-term trust throughout the project. It also helps to establish group norms and expectations.

Trust takes time to develop, which is why, as an eighth-grade teacher, I often had teams work for an entire quarter on multiple projects before changing up the grouping. The same thing is true of the collaborative teams I have at the university level.

 

The Need for Structure

Notice that these solutions work in tandem to boost collaboration. Trust leads to interdependence but interdependence can help develop trust.  The following sketch video explores key elements of successful creative collaboration:

They also often require structure. This was a hard lesson for me. In my goal of empowering students, I worried that using specific structures would make the projects less authentic. However, outside of school, we often use structures in our shared work. True, you might keep it informal, but you might use a Mastermind Structure for peer feedback. You might not state it outright but you use a round-robin structure when sharing your ideas with one another. Some structures can crush creativity and feel cumbersome. But others can boost creative collaboration and actually facilitate ownership and interdependency.

And yet,  and even when we, as educators, plan things well, collaborative work will never be perfect. Students will argue with one another. They’ll check out and wander around the classroom. Collaboration takes practice and that includes mistakes. But that’s the beauty of it. Even when the pitfalls happen, they are opportunities for students to learn and grow and ultimately develop the vital soft skill of collaboration.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

4 Comments

  • Kirsten says:

    I just started following your blog and I think you have a great array of topics that will be helpful! Thanks! Kirsten

  • Patti Van Pelt says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I have my students sitting in groups of 4s and sometimes 3s depending on the number of students in the class. My students work in groups continuously throughout the 90 min. whether it is discussing a short video the class just watched, answering questions etc..but not necessarily collaborating to the extent that I would like them to. I believe I need to give them more time practicing this at the beginning of the school year, when getting to know one another and building the trust and foundation needed. I also know that I need to get them further in-depth, which I believe I will as we dive further into the standards. Thanks again.

  • Teresa Keesing says:

    You certainly did both today.

    What a fabulous article raising lots of points that many have experienced but the difference being…you’ve suggested workable solutions to the challenges!

    Congratulations….can’t wait to share this with my colleagues (and bosses!)

  • David Springbett says:

    Thanks John, a well timed article that I could use to provide strategies for a colleague who was posting about the downsides of group work…

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