Teaching collaboration skills from cradle to career

We’ve heard from Emily Lai, Ph.D., twice before. Last year, she shared the story of her work in Jordan to improve learning opportunities for the children of Syrian refugees. More recently, she offered her tips for parents and teachers on helping students improve their information literacy.

The Components of Collaboration

“Most of us know what collaboration is, at least in its most basic sense,” says Emily Lai, Ph.D.

“It means working with others to achieve a common goal.”

Emily is Director of Formative Assessment and Feedback for Pearson. Her work is focused on improving the ways we assess learners’ knowledge and skills, and ensuring results support further learning and development.

“We’ve been reviewing the research, trying to figure out what we know about collaboration and how to support it. For example, we know that collaboration skills have an impact on how successful somebody is in all kinds of group situations—at school, on the job, and even working with others within a community to address social issues.”

Teaching Collaboration in the Classroom

Teaching collaboration skills in the classroom can be harder than expected, Emily says.

“When a teacher assigns a group project, oftentimes students will divide up the task into smaller pieces, work independently, and then just shove their parts together at the very end.”

“In that case, the teacher likely had good intentions to help develop collaboration skills in students. But it didn’t happen.”

Checking all the Boxes

“Tasks that are truly supportive of collaboration are not easy to create,” Emily says.

Digging deeper, Emily says there are three sub-components of successful collaboration: 

Interpersonal communication – how you communicate verbally and non-verbally with your teammates.

Conflict resolution – your ability to acknowledge and resolve disagreements in a manner consistent with the best interest of the team.

Task management – your ability to set goals, organize tasks, track team progress against goals, and adjust the process along the way as needed.

Emily says she understands how difficult it can be for educators to check all three boxes.

Before beginning an assignment, Emily suggests teachers talk to students explicitly about collaboration: what makes a good team member versus what makes a difficult one, as well as strategies for working with others, sharing the load responsibly, and overcoming disagreements.

During group work, she says, observe students’ verbal and non-verbal behavior carefully and provide real-time feedback.

“Talk with them about how they’re making decisions as a group, sharing responsibility, and dealing with obstacles,” Emily says.

“In the classroom, it’s all about the combination of teaching collaboration skills explicitly, giving students opportunities to practice those skills, and providing feedback along the way so those skills continue to develop.”

“The research shows that students who develop strong collaboration skills get more out of those cooperative learning situations at school.”

Teaching Collaboration at Home

Emily is a mother of two daughters, 4 and 8.

At home, she says, there’s one part of collaboration that is especially valuable: conflict resolution.

“Most often, it comes in handy on movie nights.”

“The 8-year-old tends to gravitate towards movies that are a little too scary for the 4-year-old, and the 4-year-old tends to gravitate towards movies that are a little too babyish for the 8-year-old.”

“It would be easy to intervene and just pick a movie for them, but my husband and I do our best to stay out of it,” Emily says.

“We’ve established the procedure that they have to negotiate with each other and agree on a movie, and now they have a collaborative routine in place.”

“They know they get to watch a movie, and we know they’re learning along the way.”

“Taking turns in conversation is another big one for the four-year-old,” Emily says.

“She doesn’t like to yield the floor, but it’s something we’re working on.”

“I know from the research that if my daughters learn these collaboration skills, they are more likely to be successful in their future careers.”

Sharing the Latest Research

This week, Emily and two of her colleagues are releasing a research paper entitled “Skills for Today: What We Know about Teaching and Assessing Collaboration.”

The paper will be jointly released by Pearson and The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), a Washington, DC-based coalition that includes leaders from the business, education, and government sectors.

“We teamed up on this paper because we both believe collaboration is too important for college, career, and life to leave to chance,” Emily says.

It is the first in a four-part series on what is known about teaching and assessing “the Four Cs”: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.

“P21 is the perfect partner for this effort,” Emily says.

“Our partnership signifies a joint commitment to helping stakeholders—educators, parents, policy-makers, and employers—understand what skills are needed to be successful today, and how to teach them effectively at any age.”


To download the full version of “Skills for Today: What We Know about Teaching and Assessing Collaboration,” click here.

Three executive summaries of the paper are also available:

Pearson LearnEd originally published this article on April 24th, 2017, and it was re-posted here with permission.

About the Authors

Dr. Emily Lai is Director of Formative Assessment and Feedback and part of the Education Research team at Pearson. In that capacity, she leads a research agenda around assessment for learning and principles of effective feedback, particularly within digital environments. Her interests include principled assessment design approaches, such as Evidence Centered Design, performance assessment, and assessment of twenty-first-century competencies. Emily holds a Ph.D. in educational measurement and statistics from the University of Iowa, a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Iowa, and a master’s degree in political science from Emory University.

Dr. Kristen DiCerbo is Vice President of Education Research at Pearson. She leads a team of researchers focused on conducting and translating research about learners and learning in order to influence the development of curricula and digital tools. Her personal research program centers on interactive technologies, particularly the use of evidence from learner activity in games and simulations, to understand what learners know and can do. Prior to joining Pearson, Kristen provided research support to the networking academies at Cisco and was a school psychologist in a local school district in Arizona. Kristen received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational psychology at Arizona State University.

Dr. Peter Foltz is Vice President for Research in Pearson’s Advanced Computing and Data Sciences Laboratory and Professor Adjoint at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Cognitive Science. His work covers discourse processing, reading comprehension and writing skills, twenty-first-century skills learning, large-scale data analytics, artificial intelligence and uses of machine learning and natural language processing for educational and clinical assessments. Peter has served as the content lead for the framework development for several OECD PISA assessments, including the 2018 Reading Literacy assessment, the 2015 assessment of Collaborative Problem Solving, and a new assessment of reading literacy for developing countries. Dr. Foltz holds doctorate and master’s degrees in cognitive psychology from the University of Colorado, and a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University

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