methods & strategies
Teacher strategies for supporting student engagement in long-term collaborative inquiry
Two students stand holding an air-powered rocket that they’ve built from common household items. One tries to fire the rocket but the rocket doesn’t move. The second student tries to diagnose the problem, then turns to a third student. “Ours doesn’t work. Can you help us?” A moment later, the third student joins the group to offer suggestions for rocket redesign.
This vignette captures an ideal moment of student collaboration in project-based science. Such moments are valued by science educators because they help students work together to further their scientific investigations, just as many professional scientists do. However, supporting student collaboration can be easier said than done. All too often, group work can disintegrate into arguments, off-topic chatter, or a single student doing all the work. So, how do we support students to work together? In this article, we step into the classroom of an experienced third-grade teacher to observe research-based strategies that support successful collaboration.
The instructional context is a six-week collaborative inquiry focused on force and motion. During this unit, students worked with a partner to build, test, and improve the motion (i.e., speed, distance, direction) of a moving toy. The teacher assigned the partners, pairing students who she felt would treat each other respectfully and help each other learn. The partners worked together for 15 days, for between 15 and 20 minutes per day. Throughout the unit, students investigated scientific concepts including balanced and unbalanced forces, contact forces, and friction. At the end of the unit, students redesigned their toy and then investigated whether their original or improved toy would travel farther. Although any collaborative effort comes with challenges, the ultimate success of the collaboration in this classroom can be seen by multiple measures of growth, documented as part of the Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning Project (Easley and Palincsar 2018) as well as increased frequency in student collaborative behaviors and dispositions (described below).
The classroom teacher was keenly aware of both the benefits of collaboration and the potential challenges. Throughout the unit, she consistently worked to provide support for student collaboration, while also fostering the growth of collaborative skills. The following vignettes from her teaching exemplify research-based strategies that can be used to support a wide range of collaborative activities in science.
Class culture can play a key role in fostering collaboration (Mercer et al. 2004). By setting norms for collaboration and explicitly teaching collaboration techniques, teachers can foster the kind of community in which collaboration flourishes.
On the first day of the unit, the teacher was already at work establishing a culture of collaboration. She gathered all the students together and asked them to imagine that it was the first day of school and they were entering her classroom for the first time. She asked them how they would have felt if she’d sighed in disappointment as soon as she saw them. Several students laughed. The teacher kept her expression serious. “It’s only funny,” she said, “because you know it would never happen.” The laughter stopped. The teacher went on to say that she expected each student to greet their assigned partner with kind words and a welcoming smile. Then she began to read the list of partners—and, indeed, all her students greeted their partners with respect.
Throughout the unit, the teacher maintained and reinforced her initial high expectation for respectful collaboration. She modeled and reinforced specific collaborative skills including:
These repeated conversations, held across the course of the unit, helped to establish an atmosphere that prioritized cooperation and mutual respect. See Figure 1 for a list of questioning strategies the teacher uses to determine effective student collaboration.
Clear expectations help set students up for successful collaboration (Cohen 1994). When students understand both the purpose of their collaborative work and the recommended procedures to begin their work, it is easier for them to coordinate their efforts.
Before releasing students to engage in collaborative work, the teacher would review her expectations. For example, before students built their initial toy, the teacher reminded them that their overall goal was to design fun moving toys that other kids could build. She also reviewed procedures such as where to find online instructions, where to gather materials, and what to do if they got stuck. By consistently making both the goal and the procedures clear, the teacher supported most students to begin work efficiently and focus on science ideas. This did not eliminate off-task behaviors, distractions, or confusion, but it did minimize them, freeing the teacher’s attention for checking in with partners who needed some extra support.
Teacher support during work time plays a key a role in supporting successful collaboration (Cervetti, DiPardo, and Staley 2014). By joining collaborative conversations between students, teachers can provide timely conceptual, procedural, or interpersonal support.
The teacher circulated throughout the collaborative work time. Often, within the space of less than 20 minutes, she would find time to check in with most or all collaborating partners. Her check-ins were usually short and focused and often included supporting students to help each other. If the partnership was having trouble collaborating, the teacher would offer some on-the-spot coaching in collaborative techniques. If the students were struggling with the work itself, the teacher would often bring in another student to help. For example, when both members of a partnership seemed unsure how to model the forces acting on their toy, the teacher called over another student to assist. She watched for a short period to make sure the mentor student was helping without taking over, then moved on to support other groups.
Whole-class conversations can be crucial to improving the quality of peer collaboration (Tasker and Herrenkohl 2016). They provide students the opportunity to engage in guided reflection regarding successes and areas for potential improvement.
After collaborative work time was finished, the teacher would typically call students to the rug for a conversation. Often, this conversation would involve workshopping whatever the partners had written and/or drawn in their science notebooks. For example, one day the teacher invited students to share written models they had created to answer the question “What causes your toy to start to move?” The teacher projected one student’s model and invited the class to share compliments and feedback. As a result of this conversation, the author of the model decided to add several new components to his model. Throughout the conversation, the teacher explicitly highlighted the importance of giving feedback respectfully. She was also careful to point out that the publicly shared feedback might also apply to each partnerships’ individual model.
This class conversation, and others like it, served multiple functions. First, they gave students a chance to see and learn from each other’s work. Second, they gave students a structured chance to practice giving each other useful and respectful feedback.
Conflict can arise when students work collaboratively. This conflict can have a big impact on how students experience collaboration and what learning opportunities collaboration can provide (Cohen 1994; Kurth, Anderson, and Palincsar 2002).
When mediating student conflicts, the teacher balanced two goals. First, she made sure that each student was respected and heard. Second, she gave students the responsibility for coming up with their own solutions. Typically, the teacher would begin the mediation by creating a space for each student to speak. The teacher would prevent interruptions and remind each student that “they would get their turn, too.” After each student had a chance to speak, the teacher would invite the students to propose a solution. If students could not agree on a solution, the teacher would ask if they would prefer to work separately for a while. Typically, students did not wish to work separately and would be motivated to agree on a solution so that they could continue to work together. In some cases, students did wish to take a break from collaboration, and the teacher would allow them to do so.
The teacher’s approach allowed her to create a safe space for students to problem-solve, while still leaving the important work of problem-solving in the hands of the students.
It is of the utmost importance to support all students during peer collaboration, including students with special needs and English language learners. To support all learners, key ideas need to be presented at multiple times and in multiple ways. Furthermore, students need to be given different types of opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned (Capp 2017). Throughout the unit the classroom teacher was attentive to creating many ways for students to receive and share information.
Before each collaborative work session, the teacher facilitated a conceptually oriented review discussion. Later, while circulating among collaborating students, she would individually check in with ELLs and students with special needs and ask them to explain their work in their own words. She would then provide additional support if needed.
The teacher also used these check-ins to invite students to share specific ideas during the post-collaboration debrief. For example, she might say something like, “Wow! You’ve thought a lot about how balanced forces make your toy move. If I call on you during our discussion, will you share your ideas with the class?” These pre-invitations gave students lead time to think about what they wanted to say and had the overall effect of increasing the participation of ELLs and students with special needs in whole-class discussions. For students who still hesitated to participate in whole-class discussion, the teacher might differentiate by providing:
One of the hallmarks of successful collaboration is that, over time, students will begin to take up new collaborative dispositions and skills (Mercer et al. 2004). Over the course of several months, during which the teacher consistently used the facilitation strategies described above, the teacher observed multiple indicators of improved collaboration. These included:
However, the teacher also shared two caveats. First, success brought its own challenges. There were fewer passive/disengaged partners, but increased engagement could lead to more struggles for control, as each partner wanted to do things “their way.” Second, while collaboration generally improved over time, there were times when the class “relapsed” following unexpected snow days or the first warm days of spring. This meant that the teacher was never “finished” supporting collaboration. She re-taught specific collaborative skills as needed, while encouraging her students to notice and take pride in their improved collaboration.
The goal of students collaboratively engaged in long-term inquiry centered on real-world questions is a laudable one; actually beginning such work in the elementary science classroom can be daunting. It is often easier to have a calm, controlled, and respectful classroom when all the students are sitting in neat rows, copying down notes that the teacher has written on the board. When students are given the freedom to work together, even in structured ways, opportunities to be off-task or unkind can multiply. And yet, to support the next generation of scientists, we need to provide students with opportunities to work together with other people, to manage projects that last beyond the space of a class period, to identify questions and work on discovering answers. Long-term collaborative science inquiry provides learning opportunities that just can’t be replicated in a teacher-centered, silent classroom.
Research-based strategies such as those exemplified in the above vignettes can help support long-term collaborative inquiry in the science classroom, providing opportunities for students to respectfully learn from each other and take charge of their own work. This growth is not going to happen in one lesson; it’s not even going to happen in one unit. It’s going to build throughout the year—and it will be different one year to the next. Although the process is never easy, there is no doubt it is worthwhile.
Capp, M.J. 2017. The effectiveness of universal design for learning: a meta-analysis of literature between 2013 and 2016. International Journal of Inclusive Education 21(8): 791–807.
Cervetti, G.N., A.L. DiPardo, and S.J. Staley. 2014. Entering the conversation: Exploratory talk in middle school science. The Elementary School Journal 114 (4): 547–572.
Cohen, E.G. 1994. Restructuring the classroom: Conditions for productive small groups. Review of Educational Research 64 (1): 1–35.
Easley, K.M., and A.S. Palincsar. 2018. Investigating productive academic talk as third graders interact with one another, a project-based science/engineering curriculum, and mobile devices. In Promoting Academic Talk in Schools, ed. R. Gilles, 40–54. London, England: Routledge.
Kurth, L.A., C.W. Anderson, and A.S. Palincsar. 2002. The case of Carla: Dilemmas of helping all students to understand science. Science Education 86 (3): 287–313.
Mercer, N., L. Dawes, R. Wegerif, and C. Sams. 2004. Reasoning as a scientist: Ways of helping children to use language to learn science. British Educational Research Journal 30 (3): 359–377.
Tasker, T.Q., and L.R. Herrenkohl. 2016. Using peer feedback to improve students’ scientific inquiry. Journal of Science Teacher Education 27 (1): 35–59.
Web SeminarTransforming Science Learning: Part 2: Project-Based Learning: Principles to Sustain Student Learning and Teacher Change In Practice, December 7, 2022
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