Collaboration does not just emerge

It is a vain hope to believe that a group of people will learn together effectively simply because they have been admitted into a course of their choice. Hence, I propose that the course participants are given a clear structure of what is expected of them in terms of their collaborations. I refer to it as a protocol in the dictionary meaning “the customs and regulations dealing with diplomatic formality, precedence, and etiquette.”

In diplomacy, the protocol sets the rules for a meeting to ensure that it is conducive to the intended purpose and to minimize misunderstanding (or even conflict). It allows parties to meet who do not necessarily share common values, interests, culture, language or much else than the shared interest to meet over a well-defined topic. When I make this analogy for a course, I do not mean to ignore social aspects: rather to set the rules to ensure rapport among the course participants. Also, a pleasant social atmosphere is welcome but does not by itself ensure productive work (I have been in many pleasant but useless meetings, but prefer  them over the useless and unpleasent ones). The protocol sets the structure for the work and working relationships.

To exemplify, I have used this short instruction for students in classes I teach that are based on team-based learning (group work around well defined course modules). The students are given a task to work on; the interleave solitary work with collaboration (it is meaningless to try to do everything together, reading for example).

Instructions for students in team-based learning

In the course students work in small groups of two to five people and alternate between working individually and in groups. They take responsibility for each other’s learning to ensure that everyone in the group has learned what the task is intended to teach. Here is a general structure to follow.

      1. Each student reads individually the task to be solved to understand what is to be done. The group then compares their understanding of what the task entails and agree on an interpretation. Then each one works individually to solve it, if manageable; or they split the work so that two or more work on each sub-task.
      2. It may take different lengths of time for each one to solve the task. Those who finish early may then act as tutors for the others in the group to the extent that they need support. It is important to only provide guidance and not solve the task for the person receiving help.
      3. Those who are finished and who do not need to assist anyone reflect on the task and produce quiz questions in preparation for the tests (for example, as a flash cards in Anki).
      4. When everyone has solved the task, they go through the solutions together to compare and discuss them.
        • What mistakes have individual group members made, can they explain how they thought and can the group sort out what is wrong?
        • Are there differences between correct solutions? If so, can they be assessed qualitatively, for example in simplicity and efficiency? This gives everyone insight into how others think, what difficulties there are and it gives an in-depth understanding of the task even for those who solved it without support.
        • They also discuss how they worked and try to find effective working methods and learning strategies.
      5. Before exams, students test each other’s understanding by their own quiz questions as well as questions provided for the course module. If necessary, they hold reviews for each other to correct their misunderstandings.


The teacher can prevent uncertainty for collaboration by anticipating how the students need to work together to successfully learn in a course. The structure can be discussed to allow the students to understand, rationalize and internalize the suggested protocol. Especially students who work well and quickly on their own need to understand that they deepen their understanding by supporting their peers when needed. We teachers know how we learn our subject also by teaching it since the students’ questions require us to see the subject from other views than our own. Students might not have this experience and hence it is good to explain this at the beginning. Some quick learners will also need to confront that experience that they might not be as profound learners as some of colleagues who take time.

I firmly believe in structure for education to make it efficient and successful. The protocol design is my means to create a meta-structure that promotes learning the subject I teach. Surely students need to handle unstructured material, go through vast volumes of materials to select the purposeful and to organize an ill-defined task into actionable instructions. But also for learning that, they might need a protocol.

Topic 3 – Collaborative learning protocol design

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