• Jeffrey Hinton

PBL design essentials: Building collaborative teams

"Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results." ~Andrew Carnegie

"Without the cooperation of its members society cannot survive, and the society of man has survived because the cooperativeness of its members made survival possible.... It was not an advantageous individual here and there who did so, but the group. In human societies the individuals who are most likely to survive are those who are best enabled to do so by their group." (Ashley Montagu, 1965)

"Great things in business are never done by one person; they're done by a team of people." ~Steve Jobs

Collaborative teams

Soft skills have become increasingly important to employers in the modern technology-rich world. Soft skills are the personal characteristics that enable a person to interact with others effectively and harmoniously. According to The Future of Work Monster 2022 Global Report, while prospective employers believe hard skills like reading comprehension and mathematical ability are important, soft skills have become much more in demand. They can be the difference between being hired and not. Soft skills include:

· Teamwork

· Collaboration

· Communication

· Problem-solving

· Critical thinking

According to a recent report that identified critical entry-level job skills sought by employers, more than four-fifths of HR professionals indicated that teamwork was essential in hiring decisions. When employees work together effectively, productivity and innovation increase. Students can get experience developing this vital skill through collaborative learning. Collaborative learning (CL) is defined as "an instruction method in which learners at various performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal. The learners are responsible for one another's learning as well as their own" (Laal, Laal & Kermanshahi, 2012). In the CL environment, students learn how to work within a group to achieve shared goals or outcomes effectively and efficiently. They learn critical listening skills and how to work for the good of the whole. They know how to take shared responsibility while maintaining personal accountability. They learn effective ways to manage conflict. In other words, CL teaches students consensus building and cooperation (Laal & Ghodsi, 2012). Further, research has shown that CL can benefit students socially, psychologically, academically, and in the assessment processes. A breakdown of the benefits of CL is as follows.

Social benefits

· CL helps to develop a social support system for learners.

· CL leads to building an understanding of diversity among students and staff.

· CL establishes a positive atmosphere for modeling and practicing cooperation.

· CL develops learning communities.

Psychological benefits

· Student-centered instruction increases students' self-esteem.

· Cooperation reduces anxiety.

· CL develops positive attitudes towards teachers.

Academic benefits

· CL Promotes critical thinking skills.

· CL involves students actively in the learning process.

· CL improves classroom results.

· CL models appropriate student problem-solving techniques.

· With CL large lectures can be personalized.

· CL is beneficial in motivating students in specific curricula.

Alternate student and teacher assessment techniques

· Collaborative teaching techniques utilize a variety of assessments.

In addition to being an essential soft skill, research indicates that students working in collaborative teams typically experience higher student achievement. For example, an analysis of over 168 studies that compared the efficacy of cooperative learning to competitive and individualistic learning on student achievement revealed that collaborative learning yielded higher student achievement than competitive or individualistic approaches (Johnson et al., 2014). Further, students are more intrinsically motivated to learn when they are engaged in CL activities (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). In addition to student achievement, CL improved productivity and helped to develop more caring and supportive relationships between students. Further, CL enhances students' psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem (Laal & Ghodsi, 2012). However, despite the common practice of "group work" in school, CL is not an innate skill that all students know how to do. Teachers must show students how to be good members of collaborative teams through explicit instruction.

How to implement cooperative learning

When implementing CL for the first time, you must be explicit with the purpose and goals of the collaborative groups. This means stating why they are working collaboratively in the first place and the expectations for participation and conduct. In addition, teachers should discuss with students how to build consensus, manage conflict, and resolve disputes.

Student Teams

The power of PBL is that it mirrors life outside of school. In the "real world," employees often do not get to select whom they work with and must be able to work with a diverse group of people. In informal situations where students need to get into groups quickly, allowing students to self-select is fine. However, in a more formal setting such as CL, research points out that teachers should place students into heterogeneous groups with a diversity of academic skill levels (Johnson et al., 2006) and racial makeup to encourage cross-racial collaboration (Slavin, Robert & Cooper, Robert. 2002). Further, gender, language, and socio-economic backgrounds should be considered when placing students into CL groups. The ideal CL group size regarding productivity and accountability is four students (Sugai, Horita, & Wada, 2019). But groups can range from three to six students.

Before cementing students into immutable CL teams, it may be beneficial to have preliminary groups participate in "low-stakes" collaborative activities to see if the group dynamic is a good fit before the PBL begins. Allow students to adjust as necessary at the beginning of the PBL, but point out to students that future adjustments will be harder to come by as students must learn how to manage conflict as the project moves forward. Teachers should also allow collaboration time in class so students can have face-to-face meetings once or twice a week. Students will most likely need to meet more often as the project moves forward but should be encouraged to use digital tools such as Google Docs and Meets when possible.

Team Contract

One of the biggest mistakes teachers make regarding CL is throwing students into groups and assuming they will know what to do. This could not be further from the truth. All students new to CL must receive explicit instruction on how to participate as a member of a collaborative team, and those familiar with CL should be reminded of the norms and procedures of CL. Students should know each student's role and responsibilities in the team, how to conduct and participate in meetings, and how to be productive team members. An effective way to develop students' ability to work with one another is to have them create a team contract. The team contract should contain the following information:

· The purpose of the CL team

· Individual member's names and contact information

· Individual CL team member's roles and responsibilities

· The ground rules for the CL team

· Steps for accountability

Please see my sample PBL contract.


Conflicts within a team are bound to happen and generally arise due to differences in personality, expectations, and communication. Teachers can help students mitigate conflict by teaching them how to interact productively within a group. For example, students must practice being present through active and engaged listening. That means putting their devices away and giving one another their full attention. Students must learn to use eye contact and appropriate body language to show their team that they are fully immersed in the team’s work. When conflict arises, students must learn to respectfully disagree with their peers and base their arguments on evidence, not emotion. Students must avoid ad hominin personal attacks. Further, students must be able to ask one another clarifying questions, restate each other's ideas and ask follow-up questions. As discussed, these are not behaviors that all students innately possess and must be explicitly taught. An excellent way to do this is to model the behavior you want to see by roleplaying various scenarios. Additionally, it might be helpful to provide students with the following stems as either a handout or displayed throughout the classroom to help them manage difficult conversations and conflict (Frey, Fisher & verlove, 2009).


· I agree with____because____.

· I like what____said because____.


· I disagree with ____because____.

· I am not sure I agree with what____said because____.

· I understand that____; however, I respectfully disagree because____.


· Could you please repeat that for me?

· I am not sure I understood you when you said____. Could you say more about that?

· What is your evidence?

· May I point out____?


· I think____.

· I believe____.


· I don't understand____.

· I am confused about____.

· What did you mean when you said____?


· I was thinking about what____said, and I was wondering what if____.

· This makes me think____.

· I want to know more about____.

· I would like to add____.

· Can you tell me more about____?

If the students have taken the necessary steps to manage their conflicts, but the problem is too large or complex for students to solve on their own, then the teacher must intervene and provide fair and equitable mediation.

Assessment and accountability

One of the main reasons students and their families dislike group work is that some students do not pull their weight. Typically group projects end up being done by one or two motivated students who want to do well with a few other students along for the ride and easy grade. One way to address this issue is to hold individual students accountable for their output and contributions to their team through peer assessment. Peer assessments encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and to be productive team members by holding them individually accountable.

Additionally, peer assessments are excellent ways to provide students with constructive feedback regarding their performance on the team. Peer evaluations can be used at any point in the project, and along with teacher observations, they can be used to identify struggling students so that appropriate interventions can be made. Teams should outline in the PBL Team Contract specific steps they will take to hold individual students accountable. In addition, there should be language describing the process of removing a student from the team as a last resort.

If you found the information in this blog post useful, please check out my latest book, An Education for the 21st Century: A Handbook for Teachers


Brame, C.J. & Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work:

Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved 08/01/2022 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/.

Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Everlove, S. (2009). Productive group work how to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding. ASCD.

Group Roles: Maximizing Group Performance. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365-379.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 85-118.

Karali, Y., & Aydemir, H. (2018). The Effect of Cooperative Learning on the Academic Achievement and Attitude of Students in Mathematics Class. Educational Research and Reviews, 13(21), 712-722.

Laal, M., & Ghodsi, S. M. (2012). Benefits of collaborative learning. Procedia-social and behavioral sciences, 31, 486-490.

Laal, M., Laal, M., & Kermanshahi, Z. K. (2012). 21st century learning; learning in collaboration. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 47, 1696-1701.

Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of student centered learning, 2(1), 9-34.

Slavin, Robert & Cooper, Robert. (2002). Improving Intergroup Relations: Lessons Learned From Cooperative Learning Programs. Journal of Social Issues. 55. 647 - 663. 10.1111/0022-4537.00140.

Sugai, M., Horita, T., & Wada, Y. (2019). Optimal Group Size for High School Students' Collaborative Argumentation Using SNS for Educational Purposes. International Journal of Learning Technologies and Learning Environments, 2(2), 35-53.

Tran, V. D. (2019). Does Cooperative Learning Increase Students' Motivation in Learning? International Journal of Higher Education, 8(5), 12-20.

Van Ryzin, M. J., & Roseth, C. J. (2018). Cooperative learning in middle school: A means to improve peer relations and reduce victimization, bullying, and related outcomes. Journal of educational psychology, 110(8), 1192.

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