The Benefits of Collaboration in Project-Based Learning

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By: Veronica Buckler, High School PBL Facilitator

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech

Columbus, IN

@bucklekat13

Collaboration is a key element in the PBL process, but it is often overlooked when discussing the benefits of project-based learning. In fact, it is usually the one tenet of project-based learning that we get the most grief about from some of our students. During every project, our classes go through the Know and Need-to-Know process to set the stage for the necessary workshops and lessons for a successful outcome. One Need-to-Know I can just about guarantee is, “Will we have groups?” The group of students that I hear from the most on this are our high-achieving ones. They tend to struggle, or just disagree, with the need for the collaboration aspect of academics. However, I believe they are missing out on some of the significant benefits of collaboration. Below, I have listed my top five skills associated with collaboration our high-achievers (and all students) gain from engaging in a PBL environment.

Learning How to Listen
Our highest achievers are usually, but not always, our most vocal learners. They love to be the first person to share their responses, to take a guess as to the correct answer, or to display their knowledge on the board. This can also be the case when working in their groups. They know a correct answer and are eager to dive right into completing the task. However, this can lead them into encouraging the group to move on without allowing for that crucial brainstorming step. 

Just recently, I held a literary circle discussion with my Honors English students. I invited a few other students to participate and engage in a higher level discussion of the book, Life of Pi, which we were reading at the time. I had two fairly articulate and analytical students take charge of the conversation right off the bat. The fact that they both have North Compass personality traits also assisted in this demonstration of speaking before listening. They had rather insightful and thought-provoking ideas about the book and its themes, but did not leave a lot of room for others to step in and share their own ideas. When it came time for others to speak up, the more reserved students ended up surprising the more vocal students, forcing them to reconsider their own views and better understand a part of the story. This was a great moment for all involved because it allowed the “take charge” students to learn from the more reserved students. Furthermore, the more reserved students had the chance to teach their classmates a new perspective. It allowed all present to see the merits of taking a moment to listen for a new understanding. 

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Succeeding with Others
Through collaboration, students have the opportunity to share in each other’s successes. This is comparable to the shared success and encouragement players have as a part of a sports team. Working together to succeed is a great feeling and allowing students to be a part of a larger goal helps build confidence, but it also helps build lasting relationships. The same can be true for the classroom, too. When students work together to be a part of a presentation, they can share in that success and build a relationship with their comrades.One of our second semester projects, Dystopian Masterpiece Theatre, which I mentioned above, asks the students to write and perform their own dystopian plays. Students get a chance to learn from the creative process of a think tank, while also having someone to share in the elation of stepping outside their comfort zone and succeeding. During the project, students are stressed about the performance and often develop stage fright. After the performance, students express their joy in the presentation of their work and reflect over the highs and lows of being on stage. For every project, we encourage this same process of celebrating and reflecting on their process, their successes, and their failures, which allows students to continue to learn what works for them and what does not. Our reflecting usually involves gathering up into a tight circle and having each student share a rose and a thorn from the project. One skill, process, activity that went well for them, and one that did not go well. We then ask how they would design this project for next year to make it even better and more engaging for the next class.

Holding Others Accountable 
The last skill that our high achievers learn from PBL collaboration is the ability to have a difficult conversation with a peer. This often occurs when one group member asks to see the work of another group member who is not performing to expectations. This is something adults in the workplace have to cope with no matter the job specification. It is also a tough conversation to have with a group member who is considered to be a close friend, or that has seniority over the worker. Too often this conversation leads to some kind of confrontation or accusation, between students, or adults. 

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In order to equip students with the skills to deal with these conflicts, we teach our them to establish a group contract with agreements and steps for accountability, such as agreeing to contact
group members when absent, or agreeing to letting one student get up and walk around when they need to. Steps for accountability include the twenty-four hour check-in rule: if something someone said is eating away at you and you cannot let it go, you must check in with the person within twenty-four hours and address your feelings about the matter. Early on, we role-play these steps and work on the best way to approach a conflict brewing in a group. Since the group is dependent on each other for success, we encourage students to think of strategies that allow for everyone to feel heard and be supported. By setting up this framework, we ensure that when a student finds his/her self doing all of the work, that student has the chance to learn through collaboration, build a stronger group relationship, and potentially succeed in a more unique and creative way by having this conversation together. 


Our goal is to always encourage rigor and in depth knowledge of content throughout a project. Yet, we have also found encouraging the soft skills of collaboration, agency, and oral and written communication pushes students to be more well-rounded, employable applicants in the workforce. A project-based learning environment builds into a student the ability to not only excel on their own, but to also excel as part of a group, or more specifically, a community: a community of high-achievers, leaders, followers, and every other student who has unique traits to bring to their groups.

*Blog originally posted October 1, 2018