The Primary Connections approach to collaborative learning in science is grounded in research and trialled in classrooms across Australia. Students engaged in collaborative learning observe and consider multiple perspectives, take on different roles in investigations, and contribute to rich evidence-based discussions.
When students are given regular opportunities to work together, they can develop effective collaborative learning skills. Developing these skills takes time. Teachers are encouraged to group students in ways that provide opportunities to experience a range of roles and responsibilities.
By working in collaborative teams students:
- communicate and compare their ideas with one another
- build on one another’s ideas
- discuss and debate these ideas
- revise and rethink their reasoning
- present their team's understanding through multi-modal representations.
The development of these collaborative skills aligns to descriptions in the Australian Curriculum: English, and to the Australian Curriculum General Capability ‘Personal and Social Capability’.
Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) about Collaborative Learning (2021) reiterates that it can benefit students in the following ways:
- Enhanced cognitive development
- Encourages students to be more explicit when articulating their ideas and questions
- Students practise justifying their responses and ideas
- Increases opportunities to reflect, and increases awareness of their learning.
ACER’s research aligns with the approach Primary Connections recommends - assigning roles and responsibilities for each student, and suggesting that teachers facilitate collaborative learning groups only when the task is enhanced by working collaboratively when compared to working individually. The ACER paper goes into detail about assessing collaboration skills, including a guiding framework (Figure 1, on page 3).
The first step towards supporting students to work collaboratively is to organise team composition, roles and skills. Consider the following suggestions when planning for collaborative learning:
- Assign students to teams rather than allowing them to choose partners.
- Vary the composition of each team.
- Give students opportunities to work with others who might be of a different ability level, gender or cultural background.
- Keep teams together for two or more lessons so that students have enough time to experience working together successfully.
- If you cannot divide the students in your class into teams of three (years 3-6), form two teams of two students rather than one team of four. The smaller the group size, the more optimal for learning.
- Keep a record of the students who have worked together as a team so that by the end of the year each student has worked with as many peers as possible, or encourage students to keep records in their science journals.
It is recommended that students are assigned roles within their team (see suggestions below). Each team member has a specific role but all members share leadership responsibilities. Each member is accountable for the performance of the team and should be able to explain how the team obtained its results. Students are therefore encouraged to support their team members to fulfill their role. It is important to rotate team roles regularly so that all students have an opportunity to develop a range of skills.
In F - Year 2, teams consist of two students: Manager and Speaker. In Year 3 - Year 6, teams consist of three students: Director, Manager and Speaker.
To identify student roles, each member of the team could wear something that indicates their role, such as a wristband, badge, or colour-coded peg or sticker. This makes it easier for you to identify the role of each student and it is easier for the students to remember what they and their team mates should be doing.
The Manager is responsible for collecting and returning the team’s equipment. The Manager also tells the teacher when equipment is damaged or broken. All team members are responsible for clearing up after an activity and getting the equipment ready to return to the equipment table.
The Speaker is responsible for asking the teacher or another team’s Speaker for help. If the team cannot resolve a question or decide how to follow a procedure, the Speaker is the only person who may leave the team and seek help. The Speaker shares any information they obtain with team members. The teacher may speak to all team members, not just to the Speaker. The Speaker is not the only person who reports to the class; each team member should be able to report on the team’s results.
Director (Year 3-Year 6)
The Director is responsible for making sure that the team understands the team investigation and helps team members focus on each step. The Director is also responsible for offering encouragement and support. When the team has finished, the Director helps team members check that they have accomplished the investigation successfully. The Director provides guidance but is not the team leader.
The Primary Connections approach focuses on social skill development that will support students to work in collaborative teams and communicate more effectively.
Students could practise the following team skills throughout the year:
- Move into your teams quickly and quietly
- Speak softly
- Stay with your team
- Take turns
- Perform your role.
To help reinforce these skills, display enlarged copies of the team skills, team roles, and discussion skills in a prominent place in the classroom.
Download Team Roles and Team Skills as posters to display in your classroom
Tracking collaborative learning skills development
Primary Connections has developed the Working in teams self-assessment tool (WITSA). Used by students, WITSA is a tool that guides self-assessment and reflection of team activities. Students record the role they played in the team, rate their effectiveness in performing the role and their contribution to the team, and suggest areas for improvement.
This self-assessment, along with teacher observations, can support teachers to make informed decisions about future collaborative activities and provides a record of student personal growth when compared to Personal and Social Capability learning continuum.
Frequently asked questions
For Foundation-Year 2, teams consist of two students — Manager and Speaker. For Year 3-Year 6, the teams consist of three students — Director, Manager and Speaker.
Assign students to teams rather than allowing them to choose partners and vary the composition of each team. Give students opportunities to work with others who might be of a different ability level, gender or cultural background. Keep a record of the students who have worked together as a team so that by the end of the year each student has worked with as many other students as possible.
The best practice approach is teams of two students (Foundation – Year 2) and teams of three (Year 3 – 6). If you cannot divide the students in your class into teams of three, form two teams of two students rather than one team of four. It is difficult for students to work together effectively in larger groups. This might look like this:
F – 2: Allocate pairs first. Use teacher judgement to create one team of three students. Allocate the 'extra' student as a 'Speaker'. Ask the two students with 'Speaker' roles to take turns to ask questions of the teacher or other teams.
Year 3 – 6: Allocate teams of two students using 'Manager' and 'Speaker' roles.
Students need to practise working collaboratively. Keep teams together for two or more lessons so that students have enough time to learn to work together successfully. Another approach is to allocate teams at the commencement of a term (approximately 8-10 weeks). To enable students to experience varied roles and responsibilities across collaborative learning tasks throughout the term, invite students to rotate roles. It's helpful for students to note their role for a particular task, and self-assess working in a team.
Roles can be colour-coded according to the Team Roles posters: Manager (red), Speaker (yellow) and Director (blue). Colour-coding enables teachers to be creative to support students to remember their role and helps the teacher identify the students' role. Affix coloured sticker dots or pegs to student clothing as a fun way to manage this.
Students need to be taught how to work collaboratively. Most students learn skills of collaboration through experience and with practice. Students need to work together regularly to develop effective team skills. Provide encouragement and structure to support students who find collaborative learning challenging including use of visuals (Collaborative Learning Team posters).
No, teams are used as a strategy when the potential for learning is enhanced because of the collaborative learning structure. Opportunities for working in collaborative learning teams are highlighted throughout Primary Connections units as appropriate.
Teacher observation is key to noting student behaviour and assessing learning. During tasks where students document ideas or responses, it is helpful to ask students to work as a team, discuss as a team, but record as an individual. Students science journals are a great way to document ideas. Another strategy is to invite students to record ideas on a shared poster or document where each student uses a different colour so that you can track responses to particular students.
Roles are assigned within teams so that students have a specific focus on their allocated tasks and responsibilities. This helps to keep students on task, and so too the team. Although each member has a specific role, all members are accountable for the performance of the team and should be able to explain how the team obtained its results or created the learning product.
It is not a good idea to allocate a 'scribe' for a team. All team members are responsible for recording their ideas and this is essential for assessment. Teacher observation is key to noting student behaviour and assessing learning. During tasks where students document ideas or responses, it is helpful to ask students to work as a team, discuss as a team, but record as an individual. Science journals are a great way for students to document their ideas. Another strategy is to invite students to record ideas on a shared poster or document where each student uses a different colour so that you can track responses to particular students.