Wednesday, 06 November 2013 16:44

Student Collaboration: Managing Learner Expectations

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Student Collaboration: Managing Learner Expectations
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There is a misconception that student collaboration in the college classroom is ineffective. However, it’s only ineffective if learners’ expectations are unclear. What it all boils down to is managing learner expectations by predicting and managing the different interactions, both positive and negative, which may take place during your collaborative lesson.

There are many interactions that happen both inside and outside the classroom between learners, instructors and content. Terry Anderson (2004) developed a model of online interactions that my colleagues and I have adapted to illustrate the interactions in a face-to-face classroom.

Adapted from Anderson et al., 2004, Figure 2-3.

Essentially there are six types of educational interactions.

Table 1
Six Educational Interactions

Educational Interaction


Learner to learner

Peer-to-peer instruction

Instructor to instructor

Sharing ideas between instructors

Content to content

Usually online-content is programed to interact with other content e.g. weather tutorial that uses real-time data

Learner to instructor

An instructor helping a student one-on-one with a problem or leading a class discussion

Learner to content

Student reading the assigned chapter

Instructor to content

Teacher creation of content-e.g. a graphic organizer

When you are discussing student collaboration in the classroom, the three highlighted interactions tend to be the most important.  You want to bolster positive interactions in these areas and diminish negative interactions. For example, you may want to increase students having small, on topic group discussion or actively participating in a teacher led demo by asking questions and decrease activities such as off topic texting or surfing the net. It is impossible to design a lesson that will eradicate all negative interactions and only promote positive interactions in your classroom; however, predicting the possible interactions and then planning accordingly to mitigate negative ones is the first step to managing the collaborative classroom environment.

Recently a colleague and I designed and ran a professional development workshop on Managing Learner Expectations. We began the session with instructions on the board for students to:

  • Set up the desks in groups of three
  • Assign each team member a role based on descriptions provided
  • Gather materials for their group from the side of the classroom
  • Open their notebooks and transcribe the picture on the board

Once everyone was settled and drawing the picture we then moved into the lesson. Throughout the lesson there were moments when one of the facilitators was leading the whole group, or the small groups were working together, or each person was working individually. At no point was anyone off task.

About three quarters of the way through the session we were having a group discussion about how they might implement something like this in their own class. One of the participants commented, “I’m not sure how to do it. Our work here today happened so organically!” I countered with, “was it organic, or was it purposefully structured to feel organic?” This was an “Aha!” moment for everyone and at this point we began deconstructing the afternoon to figure out how we had “tricked” them into thinking their collaborative effort was due to their attitudes rather than our planning.

Here’s what we did (The link to the lesson plan is below for further analysis):

  • Participants were engaged the minute they walked in the door with the tasks written on the board. If they weren’t engaged we purposefully spoke to them and directed them to the task at hand. There was no chance to get “off task” even at the start of class.
  • Elements of the afternoon were chunked into short time periods that were appropriate to the outcome we were trying to achieve, so no one had a chance to get bored.  Plus, we told them how long they had and gave continual time reminders to help them stay focused.
  • We varied the instructional strategies in each chunk to keep things interesting and moving.
  • Collaboration happened at specific moments, not for the entire session. This allowed us to pull the participants back in to regroup, summarize and introduce the next chunk.
  • Each group member was given a role and a description of their role. This prevented confusion about who was supposed to do what and kept people on task while working in small groups.
  • We provided a graphic organizer, or rather had them create their own (this was the image they transcribed from the board), so at the end of each chunk they could take notes, summarize their learning and reflect on how each chunk of the lesson connected to the other.

Managing Learner Expectations Lesson

I’m not going to lie, designing and facilitating a collaborative classroom is more work than the standard lecture, but the learning benefits your students will achieve from being actively involved will be well worth the investment. Plus, once you have done it enough times you begin to figure out what works when and the workload decreases.

Have you used student collaboration in your classroom? Share your ideas and successes, and even your failures, in the comment section below.


Anderson, T.  (2004) Toward a theory of Online Learning.  In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning (p. 46). Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University.

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Christie Robertson

I remember what it was like being a new instructor: too many questions and too many resources to sift through. My goal as a writer for Learning Connections is to help instructors with common teaching issues, whether they are f-2-f, blended or online. I want answers to those frequently asked question to be easy to find!