Communication is key in any classroom. Students can enjoy working with and supporting their peers during learning tasks in a lesson. Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy (2015) promote peer collaboration in the classroom as a formative assessment strategy, activating students as learning resources for one another. Wiliam and Leahy explain, “It is worth noting that there are two rather distinct purposes that people express for cooperative and collaborative learning. The first is that because adults are required to work together in their jobs and communities, schools should prepare young people to work in this way. The second is that having students work together can produce greater learning of subject matter than would be possible by having students work individually or in competition with their peers.”
Students’ collaboration can be found in a wide range of settings. Peer collaboration is an essential part of many “hands-on” subjects like physical education, drama, and languages where speaking and listening play a key role. Peer collaboration can be found employed in a variety of different ages and key stages, as well as across various subjects and topics.
It is for good reason peer collaboration is so ubiquitous! There are many benefits to encouraging it in the classroom, including:
- The opportunity to share and discuss answers, ideas and views
- Students can gain a different insight and perspective from their peers
- Peers can offer support, guidance and advice to one another
- Peer collaboration can develop a wide range of skills such as working with others, cooperation, listening, and leadership
- Working with peers can help to develop positive relationships in the classroom, especially outside of their known friendship groups.
Despite the apparent benefits of peer collaboration in the classroom, there can are also challenges and considerations when trying to effectively implement this as a regular class activity. Here’s a list of some of the potential pitfalls that come with it:
- Behaviour issues can arise if students become distracted by their peers; this can impact attention, focus and overall outcomes.
- If group work is not structured and monitored carefully some students may do all or most of the work on behalf of their group; the others don’t invest the same effort.
- Working with others can lead to disagreements, conflict, and tension.
- Tasks can take longer when completed as a group. Students may work at a different pace; therefore group work can force students to work at a pace that does not suit them.
This list may be daunting or cause trepidation about using peer collaboration in your classroom. However, it need not be! Through knowledge of your students, your context, and your curriculum you can adapt and implement an evidence-informed strategy—thus increasing the chances of peer collaboration leading to more successful learning.
Equal participation is vital with peer collaboration, whether that is in the form of pair work or group. Wiliam and Leahy also argue that two key “active ingredients” should be present for equal participation:
- Group goals: “Students are working as a group not merely working in a group.” In other words, there are clear indicators of whole group success.
- Individual accountability: “Individual students cannot be carried along by the work of others.” The group is counting on every member; an individual can’t rely on the success of the whole group to success themselves.
One way to ensure individual accountability is by carefully planning and designating specific roles for each student. This will require more preparation time and consideration, but can lead to more focused students—and ensure each learner is held to account. The group goal won’t be a success unless every individual contributes.
Let’s take a look at one example of assigning different roles and responsibilities. This happens naturally in a PE lesson where students will have a shared group goal (e.g., a team trying to win a netball match). This group goal of low-stakes competition can increase motivation and participation. Each player in the netball team will have a position to play (e.g., wing attack or goal shooter). For the team to succeed, it is necessary for players to cooperate with teammates in order to defeat the opposing team.
When working on a theatre production for a drama class, the group goal is to produce an entertaining performance. The individual accountability relies on actors being able to confidently recall their lines and know when to be present on stage.
Assigning group goals and ensuring individual accountability can be more challenging to implement in other subjects, but it is possible. For example, groups and can be constructed so each member has a unique piece or prior knowledge, all of which are required for success. In another setup, each group member could have to show mastery of the topic for the group goal to be realised—thus making the group accountable to each individual.
Another key aspect to stress to students is the importance of listening. This is not a new concept; teachers insist students listen to them during teacher-led explanation, questioning, and feedback. It is equally important for students to recognise the value of peer collaboration and the need to listen to classmates. Students can only learn from one another if they are willing to listen to one another, just as they would listen to their teacher!
Teachers can structure pair collaboration to ensure all students listen and engage. For example, during a think-pair-share task, after students have been provided with the initial individual “think” time, they then have time to talk and listen to one another. To ensure one student does not dominate this conversation, each student can be assigned as either person #1 or #2. The teacher will instruct the #1 students to talk as the #2 students listen; they later exchange speaking and listening roles on the teacher’s signal. During the “share” phase, a student shares what their partner thought and if they were in agreement or not with their responses. In this situation, students are being held to account to both contribute and listen.
There are a lot of good reasons to implement peer collaboration in your classroom—and some great strategies that can be adapted to minimise the potential problems. It is another tool for effective teaching. By understanding the key components of why it is successful, you can faithfully adapt it to fit your students’ needs.
Peer relationships and collaboration factor into Dimension 2 of the Model for Great Teaching: Creating a supportive environment. The ‘Creating a supportive environment’ course is available online for teachers to complete as part of the Great Teaching Toolkit. This course provides an evidence-based overview for teachers to explore how and why a supportive environment helps both teachers and students, and what great teachers do to create it. It explores how these principles can be applied in the classroom and prepares teachers to implement the strategies in their teaching.
Wiliam, Dylan., & Leahy, S. (2015). Embedding formative assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 classrooms. Learning Sciences International.