How to Promote Effective ELA Classroom Collaboration

Published November 4, 2015

By Social Team

Student collaboration in the classroom has many well-documented benefits. Lev Vygotsky’s educational theory proposes learning as a social process. A study out of the University of Manitoba suggests that collaborative activities are even more impactful when used to introduce new material in a classroom. Student collaboration is even included as a key skill in the Framework for 21st Century Learning.

While the benefits are clear, teachers do not receive a handbook on the first day of school that outlines how to cultivate successful student collaboration or how to get students to buy in to this collaborative process. Katherine Bensel, a former teacher and current Curriculum Developer for StudySync®, notes that she “tried multiple different approaches to incorporate collaboration into my lessons – from fishbowl discussions to Socratic Seminars to small group novel study – but it never quite reached its full potential.”

Based on her experience in the classroom and current role in developing content, Katherine responds to common questions with quick troubleshooting tips to improve student collaboration in the secondary ELA classroom:

Q: I want to incorporate student collaboration and meaningful discussions into my classroom, but how?
As a teacher, I knew I needed more collaboration and discussion in my classroom, but didn’t always know when and where to incorporate it. When I tried, my student conversations were engaging, but not necessarily meaningful, or didn’t necessarily further my students’ understanding of the text. When I first saw an episode of StudySync TV® from StudySync, my mind was blown. With this tool, teachers have the opportunity to see a modeled, realistic student-led discussion about the exact text his or her students are reading. This allows teachers, from a planning perspective, to better envision how to incorporate these strategies into the classroom. In addition, the video models the discussion for students and provides an aspirational example for what their discussions can look like. As they follow along with the material and content, they are also observing and analyzing the behaviors and habits that lead to successful student-centered conversations. Teachers and students need to envision what a collaborative conversation entails and then take steps to emulate it.

Q: I’ve got my students talking, but can I use that momentum to further their learning?
While it is generally accepted that student collaboration leads to higher engagement, which leads to deeper reading and better comprehension, I’ve worked in several high-stakes schools where the immediate need for student improvement overshadowed the long-term pay off that collaboration promises. This is where the peer review component of StudySync really shines. This feature helps students become better writers and thinkers by analyzing each other’s work, and applying those same practices to their own responses. The prompts and questions focus students’ attention to ensure constructive feedback, but the repeated practice leads to more universally self-reflective writing habits. Peer review allows students to become more comfortable giving and receiving feedback, and encourages them to see each other as collaborative partners in furthering their learning.

Q: I’m excited about student collaboration, but how can I increase my students’ investment?
One word: Blasts! These little bite-sized pieces of collaborative perfection from StudySync are easily one of my favorite pieces of the program. They really have it all – discussions, polls, tiny written responses, reviews – all on topics that are extracurricular and/or current and relevant. They are effortlessly engaging, and are presented in a format that takes advantage of educational technology while giving a nod to the social media platforms that students feel connected to and comfortable with. Equally important – the driving question focuses the entire experience back on the student and their peers, ultimately asking “enough about us, what do YOU think?” Give students relevant content and familiar platform to interact with peers about topics that matter to them to increase their excitement about student collaboration.

Modeling student discussions, practicing peer review, and working on quick, social media-like assignments about current events and issues can further collaborative learning for students.