Teach Students Digital Collaboration Skills

Create a positive, trusting environment to teach students digital collaboration skills.

Grades K-12 8 min Resource by:

Collaboration does not always come naturally to our students. Some of this is developmental, and some of it is because they have not yet learned how to collaborate effectively. Similarly, some students may have never seen productive collaboration in action and have little context for what it can look like. If we want our students to be effective collaborators, we need to intentionally teach them the skills involved, facilitate ample modeling, and provide opportunities for them to practice these skills in a scaffolded environment.

The first step in teaching collaboration is to create a positive, trusting environment. This environment is important both in a whole-class setting and in individual work teams. A trusting environment will not guarantee collaboration, but it will lay the foundation that will make collaboration possible. Without trust, true collaboration is unlikely, and group members will often disengage. Therefore, whenever possible, find ways to build classroom community and incorporate team-building activities into collaborative projects.

One effective practice is to start each group activity with some sort of icebreaker. This can be fairly simple and should ensure that everyone in a group knows each other’s name and something about one another. Activities like collaborative stories, where members of the group take turns adding on to a fictional story, can be fun and engaging while helping students feel more comfortable working together. Digital games, like Quizlet Live, are also fun and, because of the way the game is structured, students are forced to collaborate in order to answer the questions.

These mixers may look different depending upon your class setup. If you are teaching in a face-to-face or hybrid classroom, conduct the mixers in person. If you are teaching remotely, you can still do these mixers, but you’ll need to make some accommodations. Explore strategies for digital community-building in the AVID Open Access article on creating community in the classroom.

To teach collaboration skills, you must first identify what skills are involved. Once you’ve identified the components of collaboration, you will need to define them. Whenever possible, allow for student voice and input in the process of defining skills. While you will need to make sure that their descriptions are on target, allowing them to construct their own meaning can be very powerful. An effective strategy is to use a T-chart or Y-chart. A T-chart includes space for students to identify what something “looks like” and “sounds like” (Word Template, Google Docs Template). A Y-chart is similar but adds a third category—”feels like”—which can be very important during collaboration (Word Template, Google Docs Template).

Since students will be collaborating digitally, be sure to describe what the skills look like, sound like, and feel like in the digital spaces that you will be using. While there will be similarities to face-to-face collaboration skills, digital spaces may require some modifications to how students interact and connect.

The following are some key components of an effective collaboration process:

  • Communication
    • Active listening
    • SLANT strategy
    • Asking questions (or wondering)
    • Responding respectfully
    • Seeking clarification
  • Idea Negotiation
    • Respectful disagreement
    • Reaching consensus
    • Compromising
    • Discussing ideas, not people
  • Task Management
    • Identifying clear goals
    • Division of labor
    • Tracking group progress
    • Group roles

It is essential that students have a chance to both see the skills in action and to practice them. Part of the skill-building will be around the concept of collaboration in general, and part of the learning will be how to collaborate in a digital environment. You shouldn’t assume that students can automatically make this transfer from in-person collaboration to remote.

This stage should be scaffolded, so students can get comfortable with core skills before adding new ones. While older students will need less scaffolding, building skills upon each other is still very important at all ages.

There are several good strategies for scaffolding skill-building practice.

  • Experience/Debrief: In this strategy, have students engage in a group problem-solving activity, with little or no setup. Ideally, this activity is enjoyable but will also encourage differences in opinion. Consider having students solve a mystery or puzzle together. If you are teaching in a live video format, use breakout rooms to allow students to work in small groups together. Once the activity is finished, introduce a key collaboration concept, define it as a class, and then apply it to the completed activity. This will give relevance and context to the new learning. Once you have debriefed, have students engage in a second activity—this time, practicing the new skill.
  • I Do, We Do, You Do: In this classic strategy, you will gradually release control of the practice to the students. First, model the skill. It can be effective to include a student participant during the modeling. Then, facilitate group role-playing, where students pair up to practice the skill that they have just seen you demonstrate. An alternate “we do” option is to conduct a fishbowl role-play, where some students model in front of the class while the others watch and take notes. After the role-play, the class describes what they have seen. Once students seem comfortable with a skill, you can move to the “you do” phase by introducing a collaborative activity for students to apply the learning on their own.
  • Sentence Stems: Students often need help knowing where to start. Sentence Stems can be a powerful way to support student growth by giving them words from which to choose. With this support, students who are unsure how to enter a conversation or respond can review the list of sentence stems for a skillful way to begin. This is especially empowering for language learners.
  • Whole-Class/Partners/Groups: It might seem counterintuitive to begin with the whole class, but this may be the best environment to guide the modeling and practice of a skill. Once you have established the basic understanding of a term or skill, have students work in pairs to practice in a less-threatening environment. This is an excellent place to leverage the power of collaborative documents. To help your students get started, you may need to point out the collaborative features of these documents, such as comments and suggesting mode. Online discussions can also be an effective place to practice back-and-forth conversation/discussion. Once students have practiced in pairs, you can scale the activity up to small groups. Again, collaborative documents can be powerful during group practice.

If you are teaching in a face-to-face or hybrid classroom, you might consider practicing face-to-face first before transitioning to the digital space once students become comfortable with the process. This will allow you to provide more targeted feedback in real time. If you do not have the option of face-to-face practice, consider practicing during a live video class or posting a screencast example in your learning management system (LMS).