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Winter 2011

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On Teaching
Mary Reid, PhD

"The Seven Ps" for Elevating Collaboration Skills

The classroom is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise, so it stands to reason that elevating classroom collaboration to a high level will engender learning. Success in collaboration will also help students transition successfully from the classroom to a professional career where the ability to work effectively with others can be paramount. To that end, I thought it would be valuable here to explore skills known as the “seven norms for collaborative work” (Bill Baker, Group Dynamics Associates, Berkeley) and to think about their relationship to classroom experiences.

I am a relative newcomer to this skill list, but the relevance of these norms to our experiences as teachers and learners is immediately obvious. You can incorporate these approaches in your role as a leader of classroom activities, but you also can employ them as you supervise students in their group work. By adopting these norms as a graduate teaching assistant, I think you’ll find that you have acquired valuable skills for both your professional career and your day-to-day interactions with others.

1. Pause
Perhaps you’ve heard this observation: typical instructors allow approximately one second for students to formulate an answer to a question, yet response rate and quality rises if you allow three to five seconds. Giving students more “think time” (or wait time) to respond is essential for them to catch up with what they’ve just been told, realize whether a question has been asked (or realize that they have one), and frame a response.

Despite its simplicity, pausing is surprisingly powerful. It lets students know that you are serious about learning (theirs and yours), that you want students to listen and weigh each others’ thoughts, and that you are sufficiently confident in your role as a teacher that you don’t feel the need to fill up the sound vacuum. Besides literally incorporating moments of silence (whether or not preceded by a question), pausing can take other forms, such as asking students not to blurt out answers so that others can have the opportunity to contribute or having students write down questions/answers before opening the floor to them.

2. Paraphrase
In your own classes as a graduate student, note whether and how your instructors paraphrase. When a question is asked, do the instructors simply answer or repeat the question verbatim, or do they restate the question in their own words? Do the instructors confirm their own and class members’ understanding by summarizing what the student said or by providing an example that might apply rather than simply saying, "Did everyone hear that?"

Two examples of how you might start paraphrases are “It sounds like you’re saying…” or “You’re thinking that….” To engage students in practicing paraphrasing and to help students value their own words, you can ask them to put another’s response into their own words: "Can you say that another way?" "How does what you said fit with what X said?" The paraphrase communicates how important it is in collaborative learning activities to hear and understand what’s been said. It also helps to model forms of expression appropriate to the discipline and lessens students’ frustration at misunderstanding.

3. Probe
You can further your own and student understanding and assess students’ progress if you ask for clarification on a question or answer by gently probing. Probing seeks to clarify something that is not yet fully understood, whether because terms need to be defined or more information is needed. Moreover, it can help students clarify their thinking.

As with paraphrasing, try letting fellow students take the initiative to probe. In this way, you not only help students build valuable, discipline-specific communication skills, you also build trust and a sense of inclusion among students through collective engagement in understanding. Phrases to initiate probing include “Please say more” and “Then, are you saying…?”

4. Put ideas on the table
New ideas drive business, industry, exploration, and engineering. They also are the heart of meaningful conversations. Students should be encouraged to voice a variety of ideas during collaborative work as their team is called upon to analyze, compare, predict, apply, and/or relate information or data. Students can learn to listen to proffered ideas without being judgmental, nurturing their fellow students' confidence and minimizing the perception of risk. Offer students ideas for sentence stems such as:

  • “Here is one idea…”
  • “One thought I have is…”
  • “Here is a possible approach…”
  • “I’m just thinking out loud…”

5-7. Pay attention, Presume the positive, and Pursue a balance
Other essential skills for collaborative work are paying attention to self and others, presuming positive intentions, and pursuing a balance between advocacy and inquiry. As the leader in the classroom, be aware of what you say and how others respond to it. At the same time, notice whether some students dominate the collaborative experience while others are reluctant or disengaged.

To minimize misunderstandings and hurt feelings and to promote productive interactions and teamwork, assume that comments, questions, or statements are coming from a positive place; carrying a negative view of students or other team members shows. Sentence stems for promoting positive interactions include “I appreciate what you are saying because…” and “What you are saying makes sense because….”

Finally, it is important throughout the collaborative learning process to balance one’s desire to promote a position (advocate) against the value of regularly questioning that position (inquiry). Advocacy leads to decision-making and problem resolution, but don’t rush it—or let it be rushed— at the expense of the greater understanding that inquiry can provide.

I’d like to close this article by linking the foregoing norms of collaboration to skills often identified as important for success in the professional world. If you think about what these norms promote, you’ll be able to identify respect, effective verbal communication, critical thinking, initiative, and leadership. When considered in this light, adoption of these norms in your teaching will not just advance discipline-specific learning, but also will prepare you and your students for the world beyond the classroom.

Professor Mary Reid

—Mary Reid, Professor and Program Chair, Geology, and NAU President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow