In the Classroom–As in Life–Collaboration Leads to Your Best Ideas

the Classroom--As in Life--Collaboration Leads to Your Best Ideas

Have you ever struggled to come up with new ideas for your class projects or assignments? Collaboration with classmates can help you develop and/or refine your initial thoughts, turning them into ideas for meaningful class discussions and assignments. Many students believe that their involvement in the learning process is meant to be solitary in nature and that they do their best work on their own. However, as noted in a Science Daily News article, the best ideas “often emerge when people refine their ideas in response to suggestions and comments received from colleagues.” This is relevant for employees in the workplace and for college students.

When you collaborate with other students you become involved in a process that promotes cooperative efforts and helps build community, which can lead to new ideas. As part of this teamwork you can obtain feedback, both positive and negative, which will let you know if you are on the right track or need to conduct additional research. Collaboration in the classroom is often thought of as a process that is used only with group projects or learning team assignments; however, it can also occur through class discussions and interactions. This is why it is important to be actively involved in class and develop connections with other students – you can initiate collaborative efforts with your classmates, even if there isn’t a mandatory group activity.

Collaboration Essentials

1. Teamwork: As a member of your class, you are part of a team. When you interact with classmates you are working as a team, which allows members to share their thoughts, experiences, and problem-solving suggestions, through a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. This contrast can spark thoughts and ideas that you may not have developed on your own. Terence Brake, author of Where in the World is My Team?, believes that these interactions alone do not guarantee that collaboration will occur. Brake defines collaboration as “people with different skills and perspectives co-creating ‘something’ that none of the individual members could have created alone.” Being able to function productively as a team is only a starting point for collaborative efforts.

2. Cooperation: Similar to teamwork, gaining cooperation among team members or your classmates is an essential quality necessary for collaboration to occur. Cooperation involves being able to get along and function productively; whereas, collaboration is working towards a specific goal. For example, when students are given a task – whether a group project or class discussion question – they must develop their thoughts and cooperate as a team in the process of sharing their perspectives. Students move into cooperative efforts when they are able to analyze issues, synthesize their ideas, and develop new solutions collectively.
 
3. Community: Collaboration brings students together for the purpose of mutual learning and through their interactions they develop rapport and build a sense of community. Moira Murphy, Ph.D. and Cecilia Valdez believe that “rapport is an integral part of preparing a classroom for the implementation of collaborative learning techniques,” and more importantly, good rapport “means that individuals can relate to each other.” The element of rapport is important because students must feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, questions, concerns, and contributions with each other.

Groupthink and Individualism

While teamwork and cooperation are necessary components for collaboration to take place, there are two factors that can influence collaborative efforts – individualism and groupthink. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, wrote an opinion post in the New York Times, The Rise of the New Groupthink. Cain believes that “people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” These are some of the common complaints among students who are asked to work in groups. Some team members may not contribute to the group and others may simply go along with the group consensus in order to maintain harmony and get the project completed. What I’ve found is that this is usually the exception rather than the rule.

Cain also shared a perspective from organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham who stated, “if you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.” What this implies is that the only way to avoid negative group interactions is to promote individualism. Cain further points to recent studies, which “suggest that academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals.” Instructors understand the value and importance of students working together. While individual efforts are needed to produce the initial thoughts and ideas, it is through classroom interactions that these ideas become productive outcomes.  

Collaboration Among Students

The process of collaboration, in any classroom environment, provides students with an opportunity to share beliefs, views, opinions, prior experiences, and knowledge. When students are encouraged to work together they are provided with an opportunity to examine those beliefs, while working with new information and ideas. Collaborative activities provide a new context and way of thinking as students discover alternative solutions, ideas, outcomes, and knowledge. As a cooperative team, students can discuss their similarities and differences, becoming co-creators in the learning process.

Within a traditional or on-ground classroom, students are encouraged to work together or collaborate during discussions, along with group work and learning team assignments. For an online class, discussions are the primary method instructors use to promote collaboration. Melanie Misanchuk and Tiffany Anderson emphasize the importance of these discussions within an online classroom and believe that “without active participation in discussions and other class activities, the learner is not part of the community; indeed, the learner does not even exist.” Collaborative opportunities become even more important in an online environment because students who do not feel connected to their class will likely to become disengaged from the class.

D.I.Y. Collaborative Tools

Class discussions are typically focused on a specific topic or subject. If you are not provided with group assignments and would like to have an opportunity to collaborate with other students, you can create your own collaborative opportunities. In my post, All Online Students Can Benefit from Peer Support, I discussed the development of a study group. The use of a study group an effective collaborative option for students as it helps develop connections based upon course topics. Instead of looking for a general support group, students can create a study group whenever they want to ask questions or exchange ideas.

Blogs are another effective tool for collaboration. Some of the most common blogging platforms include Posterous (recently acquired by Twitter), Blogger, and WordPress. You can create subject or topic specific content, share it with your classmates, and invite them to provide their comments and feedback. Another similar tool is the use of a wiki, which can be used to create and share projects as a means of collaborating with other students. PBWorks and Wikispaces are both free wiki platforms.   

For a majority of your work as a college student, you will be expected to develop your own thoughts, create meaningful responses, and submit well-crafted assignments. On occasion, you may be asked to work as part of a group and complete an assigned project. Through all of your interactions you are part of a functioning team and this presents an opportunity, either created by your instructor or through the use of your own collaborative tools, to collaborate for the purpose of expanding your thought processes. Any time you want to increase your involvement in the learning process, find a way to collaborate with your classmates. This may enhance your critical thinking skills and increase your productivity, while developing a supportive network.
 
You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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