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Stepping into Collaboration

When speaking from a teaching and learning perspective, collaboration means building a classroom environment wherein educators and learners share in the creation of a learning space by sharing the responsibility for teaching and learning. And for that reason, collaborative learning is a fundamental quality of inclusive pedagogy.

As learners, many of us likely experienced a very faculty-centered education defined by "chalk-and-talks" and a "sage on the stage." We have likely replicated many of those strategies and environments in our own teaching because they helped us to be successful learners. But what we probably did not notice was all of peers not being successful: being too afraid or intimidated to ask questions and relying on peers for explanations, answers, and guidance. Education and learning theories have also advanced our understanding of the way learners encounter, understand, apply, and retain information, and we know now that learner engagement and involvement are the ways to make learning "stick."


Levels of Collaboration

Transitioning your classroom from one that is faculty-centered to one that's collaborative takes effort, patience, and most importantly, time. As such, it's okay to step you and your course into collaborative learning slowly. Here's a way to think about the different levels of collaboration and the timeline for starting them:

If you’re relatively new to the concept of collaborative teaching, you may not want to try a highly collaborative technique like building a rubric with your learners. Instead, start with a very easy technique like giving options for a final project that will help you understand the ways the educator-learner dynamic changes in a collaborative space, some of the issues that may arise as a result of those changes, and ways to help support you and your classroom when challenges arise.


Using Very Easy Techniques

To get you started with collaborative learning, use some very easy techniques:

Let's talk about the ways you can use these techniques in your courses:

Use Polls / Surveys. At the beginning of a course, you can send out a short "get to know you" survey that asks learners about practical considerations (computer hardware, internet access) as well as learning considerations (learning goals, organization). During the course, you can use polls to "check-in" after a difficult concept and see how learners are managing with it. You can also do a "Stay. Stop. Start" survey that asks learners what you, as the educator, should "stay doing, stop doing, and start doing." You can also have them reflect on what they and the class need to "stay, stop, and start doing."

Create Assignment Options. You should start this technique by looking at learning outcomes. All of the options should allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the learning outcomes, but also give them the autonomy to show off what they know in a format that’s most comfortable to them. For instance, for a final project, maybe give students the option of writing a research paper, an academic blog, or conducting interviews. Even this small gesture shows students that you see them as active participants in their learning progress.

Use Check-in Discussion Boards. A check-in discussion board can be a space for learning decompression. You and your learners can post about their experience in the course, with a particular lesson, and/or with an assignment. This low-stakes or no-stakes thread can help everyone get on the same page with where they are, share resources, offer support, and provide encouragement.


Collaborating with our learners invites them into the construction of the course, and shows learners that you are invested in their voices, perspectives, and experiences, which is why it is one of the building blocks of inclusive classrooms.

You can learn more about collaborative learning as well as more advanced strategies by watching the replay of our webinar, Collaborative Learning in Online Classrooms. You can learn more about of the characteristics of inclusive classrooms in our five-part course The Role of Faculty in Designing Inclusive Classrooms.

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