Collaborative learning requires that students engage and communicate actively with one another in a group setting. Placing students in groups doesn’t mean that they know how to begin immediately coordinating their ideas and voices. Students need a safe, low-stakes space to practice synthesizing group input, rotating roles and responsibilities, building cohesion, and giving and seeking input.
This activity “gamifies” a group assignment, offering students a fun, active way to begin practicing and then reflecting on a range of collaborative behaviors. This activity can be used with ad-hoc teams assigned for one class period, or it can kickstart team projects by giving teams a light-hearted, metacognitive way to enter the “forming” stage (setting them up for healthier navigation of the later “storming,” “norming,” and “performing” stages). As a bonus, this activity can work in different instructional modalities, and it can be trimmed or extended to fit a range of timeframes.
1. Pre-Class Reading Assignment. Students must complete an assigned reading before arriving in synchronous class. In my business-writing class, I assign a textbook chapter on “document design” (the chapter addresses design elements such as bullets, fonts, white space, and graphics, as well as principles governing usability). The purpose of this step is for students to gain basic familiarity with key concepts and terminology.
2. Quiz and Discussion. Class begins with an individual quiz (3-5 questions) and then uses those questions to launch a brief classroom discussion (in Bloom’s taxonomy, these activate the lower-order categories of “Remember” and “Understand”).
- The Quiz. The instructor sets the quiz to automatically reveal the correct answers after submission. This helps students gain confidence in their knowledge (and/or helps them calibrate their knowledge) before the discussion begins. This reassurance is good for more reticent students.
- Discussion. This is where the game begins (but students don’t know it yet!). The instructor leads a class discussion that begins with the quiz questions (so that students have some low-stakes ways to enter the conversation, confident in their answers). For every question correctly answered, the student earns a point or poker chip (the first few students are curious and confused why you’re suddenly awarding them points/chips). The instructor can push the quiz questions further, asking follow-ups such, “yes, that’s correct – but why is sans-serif more effective for formatting headings?” The instructor can also share an example on a screen and invite analysis (e.g., I show an infographic and ask, “what design elements are featured here? Are they effective?”). As students answer more questions and attempt more analysis/application, they earn more points/chips. More complex, detailed answers can earn greater chips (suddenly students begin to notice that digging deeper gets rewarded with 2 or 3 points/chips instead of 1). As students see points/chips mounting, they tend to engage more actively in the discussion. This part of the activity moves students from the lower-order Bloom’s categories of “Remember” and “Understand” to the middle categories of “Apply” and “Analyze.” Most importantly, these two steps (quiz + discussion) give students time to process and articulate their learning individually, an important step before collaboration.
3. Relay Race. The instructor ends the discussion and assigns students to teams. The teammates pool their points/chips into a team pot. Their task now is to work together running a relay race where each leg earns them more points/chips for the pot. [Note: Because every student must be in charge of running one leg of the race, the instructor must ensure there as many “legs” as there are teammates, e.g., 4 people per team means 4 legs in the race.]. Before the game begins, the instructor puts the tasks/legs of the race on the classroom board, explaining each one and the rules.
Each “leg” of the relay is a task the team must complete. For instance,
- Task 1: Compare 3 example documents (posted in a Canvas folder), rank them strongest to weakest in terms of effective document design, and list three specific reasons for your ranking (using the terminology and concepts from the reading).
- Task 2: Find an example of document design from the web, insert a screenshot of it into your document, and list three of its most effective doc design elements.
- Task 3: Copy the sample text given to your team (posted in a Canvas folder), paste it into your Google Document, and revise three of its ineffective doc design elements.
- Task 4: Revise another three of its ineffective doc design elements.
Teams must follow the rules to earn points/chips. Failure to follow rules forfeits points/chips.
- Everyone on the team must work together in a shared Google Doc, but …
- Only ONE person can write in the document at a time; this must be the person running that leg of the race (when teaching f2f, I give each team a glowstick they can hand off as a baton between teammates; when teaching online, the baton is metaphorical). [Note: remind students you can check the “change history” in the Google Doc to see who authored which legs of the race, and that you’ll be checking their work at the end of each leg, so they should not be tempted to complete legs simultaneously]
- At the end of a task/leg of the race, the team cannot move forward until the instructor examines their work. The team must flag the instructor (when teaching f2f, students wave their glowstick in the air; when teaching online via Zoom, students work in breakout rooms and send an email when they’re ready for the instructor to join their room). Once cleared by the instructor, the baton changes hands and the team proceeds to the next leg.
- The instructor will award points to the team based on the quality of the work produced during that leg. Better quality = more points/chips.
- The team to complete all the legs of the race first gets 3 extra points/chips (i.e., both speed and quality count, so good communication is key!).
- The team with the largest pot of points/chips wins [X] (in my class, they win a 48-hour deadline extension for each student, which he/she/they can apply to any future assignment other than the final project).
4. Reflection on Content. Once all the teams have completed the relay race, the instructor can choose to spotlight some of the team-produced work. This supports the content learning. When teaching f2f, I put their Google Docs up on the classroom screen; when teaching online; I share my Zoom screen.
5. Reflection on Collaboration Practices. Before class ends, the teams are given 10-15 minutes to meet and analyze what they learned through this activity about working together: what was effective, helpful, confusing, frustrating? How did they operate under pressure? What worked best? How did it feel and how could it have felt better? The team must then generate “5 effective collaborative practices” that they write at the bottom of their Google Doc. Teams submit their Google Doc links via Canvas at the end of class.
Students have a blast with this activity. The energy in the classroom or Zoom session is high that day. Students also demonstrate rich learning at the level of both content and collaboration. Because this activity is “sticky,” the content becomes memorable (at the end of the semester and even years afterward, students tell me they’ve never forgotten what they learned that day about fonts, graphics, headings, etc.). At the level of collaboration, students become more attuned to the various planes of communication: verbal communication (especially the need to be clear and explicit), negotiation of information (how to add on, critique, and disagree in the synthesis and production of information), body language (how to convey enthusiasm, support, and cooperation versus aggression or pressure), and logistics of mediation (using Google Docs, etc.). As teams devise their 5 practices, I observe them having honest, thoughtful conversations that reflect their greater sensitivity to these fundamental elements of productive collaboration.