January 21st, 2013

Promoting Student Success Through Collaboration


Last week, a student named Mary visited me during my office hours and presented me with an interesting dilemma. In one of her classes, a professor had distributed a study guide with a series of questions to help the students prepare for an upcoming exam. Mary, being the millennial student that she is, decided to upload the study guide into Google Docs and invite the rest of the class to contribute to the document. Students answered the study guide questions from each of their individual notes and then refined the answers from their peers.

As the collaboration continued, Mary realized that she had created a unique opportunity where the entire class was helping each other learn. With more than 30 students actively collaborating on the document, she was certain that the whole class would be successful on the exam. That’s where Mary’s internal alarm went off and that’s why she came to see me.

Mary is an education major and was a student in one of my classes last year. From our work together, I know she’s going to be a great teacher one day. Mary was concerned about the collaborative study guide and wondered whether it could be misinterpreted as cheating. Education majors are held to a high ethical standard at our institution and disposition concerns can lead to someone being removed the program. If everyone got A’s on the exam, would the professor think that somehow the class had cheated? As the person who started the collaborative document, would she somehow be to “blame” for the class’s success?

I tried to calm Mary’s fears. I explained that I was proud of her since she was implementing the concepts we had discussed in our class. In our Instructional Technology class, we had talked about 21st century skills like collaboration and communication and Mary was actually applying the concepts to help her peers learn and succeed. I really didn’t believe that her actions would lead to disciplinary actions but I offered to speak to the professor to alleviate any concerns. Mary left my office relieved and encouraged.

Despite her reassured departure, Mary’s situation has been on my mind for the last few days. As educators, I believe we’re motivated to help all of our students learn. We want to provide them with the tools to help them succeed and hope that they’ll meet the high standards we set for them. As a student, Mary had created a collaborative learning environment for her peers but worried that if everyone was successful that the success could be misinterpreted or worse, devalued. In a somewhat ironic twist, success for everyone was undermining the very concept of success. It’s almost as if for success to be real, authentic or earned, there had to be some unsuccessful students as well. I know Mary didn’t really think this way but her internal alarm went off nonetheless. As educators, we need to move past the concept of education as competition. Learning shouldn’t be a race with winners and losers. Learning is about personal growth and meeting high expectations. As educators, we should be embracing student-led collaborative efforts that lead to class-wide success and looking for ways to foster it ourselves.

Here are a few ways you can help to stoke the fires of collaboration in your class:

  • Make your expectations clear. You don’t need to necessarily provide a grading rubric for your assignments, but you do need to make sure students know what you expect. While students always want to know page length and formatting criteria for papers, I choose to provide leading questions to help students assess their own work and the work of their classmates. By knowing the expectations, students can better help one another work toward meeting my learning goals.
  • Introduce students to Google Drive (the new home of Google Docs) or some other collaborative writing tool. With their chaotic schedules, students can’t always meet in traditional study groups like they once did. By introducing an online space that they can use, you help to endorse their collaboration.
  • Avoid grading on a curve. While this may sound counter-intuitive, grading on a curve can undermine student collaboration. Students who don’t want to see a classmate “ruin the curve” won’t be motivated to collaborate with them and help them succeed.

If students work together and an entire class meets our standards, we should celebrate it. We need to promote a culture in our classrooms and on our campuses where success isn’t defined or guided by failure but attributed to success in itself. That’s a huge undertaking but I think it’s more aligned to the promise of education, especially in the 21st century.

Dr. Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University.

  • Sarah Chauncey

    I can certainly understand her concern. See my response to this article regarding Harvard's concern over student's working together to develop answers to a take-home exam… https://plus.google.com/u/0/103116978968812361432

  • Sarah Chauncey

    students working together (sigh — too early to be commenting)

  • lisamnoble

    It's worrisome, isn't it, that her internal alarm went off.I think it's because she's caught in the middle in the shift between two pedagogies, I think. I love the collaborative activity that Mary set up, and we all should – it's ideally what we want to see happening in our classrooms when students are asked to help each other review a concept. But, her brain still said – wait, this means we're all going to know it, and the professor will think there's something wrong. Yikes! the outcome that we ideally want, and yet it sets off alarm bells. Thanks so much for sharing, and for thought-provoking.

    • Ken Long

      i don't think it's worrisome; i think its a tribute to her critical thinking skills that she was able to anticipate what could be the intersection of competing values in a complex world, and surfaced her concern to a trusted professor who took appropriate action. This is exactly what should have happened, if we are teaching on the boundary of knowledge and across cultures

  • Steve

    I too believe deeply in the power of collaboration and do many things in my teaching to promote it. However I have some concerns about the student approach in this essay because learning must also be ACTIVE.

    For example: I encourage students to actively work through old exams and make sure they all have online access to many. But, despite my warning, many (most?) will just read through these exams with the posted keys open in another window and passively note "yep, I knew that", "I knew that too", etc. What they're really practicing is PASSIVE RECOGNITION and it does not prepare them for the critical thinking that will be required when they take the real exam. They are shocked when the exam goes poorly because they "did great" on the old exams. What I urge them to do instead is use the old exams as unknowns, ideally working collaboratively, and then only after committing to an answer use the posted keys to check their answers, read the explanations, and consider the noted most common mistakes.

    What I fear the students described here are doing is actually DIVIDE AND CONQUER. By dividing up the questions among the class, they only engage actively with a subset of those questions. They passively encounter answers to the other questions via their classmates work. Of course it is possible to have a strategy that requires students to engage on every question. That would require extraordinary student discipline when, as here, the process is voluntary and materials are easily accessed via Google docs. The students who are most likely to coast on their colleagues' work are likely the students we most worry about and who are most in need of active learning strategies. Things are never as simple as they seem on first pass I guess. Making expectations explicit, as the author argues, is almost always best.

  • Paul C.

    Collaboration seems good in general.

    But does collaborative studying for exams contribute to learning? Arum and Roksa (2010) find that time spent studying with peers correlated with "negative consequences for learning" for students (p. 103). Something to consider.

    Those students in the class who did not contribute to the study guide, would having access to it help them learn?

    What kind of exam was it? What kind of study guide?

    Were the students who worked on the study guide simply gathering information for other students to memorize, saving them time from gathering it themselves? Were they doing the thinking for their classmates? Something else?

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  • DrSuzette

    Unfortunately, in the world of academics…the definition of a violation of academic integrity is evaluated through subjective eyes. In a similar situation of nursing students working together and studying using questions from their textbooks were expelled because it was felt that this activity represented cheating instead of collaboration. One professor sees it as collaborative study, the other as an unacceptable way to prepare…

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  • Emma Emma

    Would you please write a summarized lesson plan of a grammar lesson including an example of a grammar lesson plan.