Seven Ways to Boost Collaboration in P.B.L.

Over the last month, we have been taking a deep dive into project-based learning. One of the most frequent questions I hear about PBL is “how do we get all of the members to participate in group projects?” Both elementary and secondary education teachers ask this question. Teachers in private and public schools share this same concern. Collaboration in PBL can be tricky. We’ve all had moments when it felt like half of the class checked out during a group project.

It can be tempting to scrap the team aspect and push for solo or partner projects. And yet, when students engage in meaningful collaborative projects, they learn so many transferable skills. Through meaningful dialogue, they improve their communication and critical thinking skills. As they resolve conflict, they grow more empathetic. As they share ownership in the process, they become systems thinkers and learn to engage in iterative thinking. But this doesn’t happen automatically. It requires specific strategies that facilitate meaningful collaboration.

Sketchnote - collaborative projects

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What Happens When Groupwork Fails in a PBL Unit?

We’ve all been there before as students. The teacher announces a group project and your stomach sinks. You glance at the assigned group and try to determine just how much extra work you’ll need to do in order to pick up the slack for the members who do nothing. Chances are, you’ll have to spend a few nights and weekends finishing random tasks only to see a shared grade at the end. But looking back on it now, you get it. As a teacher, you recognize that it is hard to encourage full participation in group projects.

And yet, you have also experienced the positive side of group collaboration. You have experienced those moments when your team seems to be in synch; with each member sharing ideas, adding a unique voice, and working hard to accomplish a goal. In these moments, you have been engaged in true collaboration, where the group is able to accomplish more together than they would have accomplished individually.

So, how do craft our PBL units in a way to encourages full participation from every group member? How do we ensure that every student is actively engaged in the collaborative process? It helps to first think about why students are disengaging in the first place. If you consider why students aren’t participating, you’ll notice that it varies from student to student. Here are a few reasons why a student might disengage:

  • Insecurity: A group member is insecure and afraid of doing subpar work, so it’s easier to give up ahead of time. 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.
  • Low Skills: 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. One of the key ideas in Flow Theory is that the skill must match the task. When this doesn’t happen, students can experience intense anxiety.
  • Confusion: A group member might not 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. In some cases, the entire group might be checked out. This is, by the way, part of why I am a big fan of using UX Theory in project creation.
  • Unhealthy Group Dynamics: There’s an unresolved conflict that needs to be addressed but instead the group moves on and certain students start to check out.
  • 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 you’re following other people’s instructions. This is even harder if the project is something that doesn’t interest a student to begin with.
  • Lack of Creative Endurance: Sometimes a student disengages because creative work can be hard and even boring. And if other members are willing to step in and get the work done, it makes it easier for an individual to quit.

If we want every student to engage in meaningful collaboration, we need to embed specific strategies into our PBL units that address the reasons why students are disengaging.

Seven Strategies to Ensure Active Participation in Group Projects

Here’s the bad news: you’ll never have 100% active engagement in a PBL unit. Even with the most epic project ever, you’ll have students who turn away and talk about video games or who stare out the window or who shut down. But, really, isn’t that a part of the creative process? Think about your favorite projects you’ve ever done. True, you sometimes reached a state of creative flow. But sometimes you struggled to get started. Sometimes you had to turn away. Sometimes you looked like you were disengaged on the outside as you stared out a window, but internally, you were trying to solve a problem.

#1: Begin With Student Ownership

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) identifies “voice and choice” as one of their key design elements in PBL. If we want students to be truly engaged, we need to move beyond simply engagement and into empowerment. Students need to own the project process. I often think of the LAUNCH Cycle as a roadmap for student ownership in creative projects. Here’s what this looks like:

  • Students tap into their own awareness and background knowledge during the Look, Listen, and Learn phase
  • Students own the inquiry process as they ask specific questions in the Ask Tons of Questions phase
  • Students own the research process during the Understand the Process or Problem phase
  • Students are generating their own ideas and designing their own plans during the Navigate Ideas phase
  • Students are creating their prototoypes while engaging in project management during the Create a Prototype phase
  • Students own the revision and assessment processes during the Highlight and Fix phase
  • Students send their work to an audience that they care about and have built empathy toward in the Launch to an Audience phase

If you’re interested in using design thinking, check out this toolkit with structures, strategies, and a sample project. These are all designed to increase student ownership. And this ownership addresses the lack of buy-in that can lead to disengagement. If students own the process, they are more invested in the entire project. This leads to a better sense of clarity and an increase in creative endurance. Even so, some students will need additional scaffolding.

#2: Empower Students to Use Find the Right Scaffolds

As mentioned earlier, students are likely to check out during a project if the tasks become too difficult. However, this is where scaffolding comes in to play. You might provide sentence stems for language, additional tutorials for how to do research, or maybe even pull a small group to address a specific skill they need in the project. However, the process does not always need to be teacher-directed. When you empower students to find the right scaffolds, they are able to look for the structures or tutorials needed to accomplish a task.

This requires some initial modeling. Not every student will know how to figure out what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need in order to reach their goal. But as groups work independently, you can pull students aside and walk them through the thinking process. In some cases, you might even have group members talk through the scaffolding together. The key idea is that students are making the decisions on their own. One student might need to do a close reading with highlighters while another student breezes through the text. One student might need to watch a tutorial video on how to do programming while another figures it out intuitively.

But ownership and scaffolding are not always enough. Students can have buy-in on a project and a sense of clarity in what to do but they still end up checking out. This is why it’s helpful to think about the way we structure our grouping during PBL units.

#3: Vary the Grouping

Create moments within a PBL unit where students can work independently and process things on their own. This is especially true for introverts. Even in a collaborative PBL unit, it can help to start the class period with an individual warm-up where students can answer a question, plan out their tasks, or reflect on their learning. But it also needs to be an integrated part of the entire project process. When we begin the inquiry phase, students start with their own questions before moving into a group. During brainstorming, ask students to generate ideas alone first before getting together to share ideas. When students engage in research, allow students to have individual reading time, where they are able to work at their own level and answer their own questions. In some cases, you might even ask students to curate and organize their own information individually first:

When students have moments alone, they are able to have a space of autonomy within the group. This can decrease the insecurity while also helping them engage in tasks that meet their skill levels. There’s more buy-in because they have a space that values their agency.

It’s also helpful to break up the grouping so that students can work with other groups in the class. In other words, students can take a break from working in their teams and share ideas with other teams. They can get feedback from other groups or even work on a small task within their own project. This isn’t anything big or profound. Sometimes students get annoyed with each other after spending hours working on the same collaborative project. Even well-functioning teams need a break from one another every so often. It helps to find small moments where they can work with other groups and then return to their main team.

But even still, there are moments when students will check out because they are afraid or insecure. This is why it helps to rethink the way we grade and assess student projects.

#4: Don’t Grade the Project

When I first started out on the PBL journey, I used project rubrics to grade the finished products. However, certain students who struggled with self-efficacy would simply give up and letting the more advanced students step in and complete the work. Later, I focused on the process. But again, this backfired as students asked, “Am I doing this right?” They would check the rubric to guarantee that they were following the correct protocol. In the process, PBL became a formula.

Eventually, I shifted to standards-based grading. Instead of grading the group, I would assess each student individually on the mastery of standards. This meant that students who were struggling with a particular skill were no longer scared that they were “bringing down” their group. They had the permission to make mistakes. In the process, we began to embrace a student-centered assessment model through self-assessments, peer assessments, and student-teacher conferences (note that these structures are all available to download in the PBL Toolbox).

This felt risky. If there was official project grade, wouldn’t students simply check out altogether? Actually, engagement increased because they were motivated by the challenge of the task and the ownership of the process. There were still a few moments when they didn’t meet their deadlines. However, overall, students were more engaged in the projects they were creating. Again, it wasn’t perfect. Certain students still felt insecure about their skills; especially when they were launching to an audience. There were moments when I had to pull aside a student who was taking over the entire process. But this is also why it’s important to create interdependent structures within your PBL units.

#5: Incorporate Interdependent Structures

The best projects are the ones where the group creates something way more epic than what any individual student could have created alone. This is why I love interdependent structures. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas.

The same is true of the inquiry process, where students are able to share their questions and work together to determine their research. During research, they all benefit from the new information that each group member shares. During project management, students depend on each other to do specific tasks.

Morever, when groups function well, they are then able to build on one another’s strengths so that each member is adding their own expertise to the project. In other words, they are actively looking for ways to find the hidden strengths of their team members within the project. I remember one student who was amazing with details and he excelled in video editing. Due to his autism, he had struggled with certain aspects of the documentary. Still, he contributed to the script and the planning. Then, when he was editing, he was able shine. His team members were amazed by his work.

This is admittedly difficult. True interdependence often takes time and intentionality. Younger students often have an easier time depending on another other but also a harder time navigating systems and structures. Older students can sometimes have a harder time trusting the “strangers” in a group but they are more adept at determining interdependent group roles. However, with this interdependence comes conflict, which is one of the key reasons students will disengage in project-based learning.

#6: Teach Students to Resolve Conflict

Over the years, I have asked some of my favorite project-based teachers to share some of their strategies for resolving student conflict. My friend Javi used to do scheduled group check-ins, where he would ask a series of questions to get a sense of any inherent conflict that might inhibit collaboration. This approach was proactive and required conflict-averse students to lean into the conflict in order to resolve it. My friend Alejandra taught specific conflict resolution skills to her students. She walked them through the process with specific norms and rituals and then asked groups to resolve the conflict first before talking to her. Another teacher, Amy, has specific mediators who will step in as a neutral party and talk students through the conflict. But sometimes it also takes a certain level of accountability. My friend Trevor has students put together group accountability contracts, where members might be asked to leave and finish a separate project on their own.

These structures can seem time-consuming, but they are worth it. By resolving conflict, students are able to work interdependently and get back on track. In the process, they learn a valuable skill that will help them with communication and collaboration in the future.

#7: Build Creative Endurance

Students struggle with reading when they don’t read. Similarly, they can’t run a mile if they never actually get on the track and run. The same is true of creative projects. Students will not learn how to design, communicate, and iterate unless they work on multiple projects. If creative work is something you do “when you have time,” you’ll find that students work slowly and give up easily. We often think of reading fluency or computational fluency, but students also need to develop creative fluency and this requires creative endurance.

This is why I love PBL. Instead of doing culminating projects on the side, students learn through the projects and, as a result, develop creative endurance. They also learn how to communicate and collaborate and solve complex problems. In the process, they grow into the kinds of project people who will know how to navigate an ever-changing world.

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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.

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