Encouraging student collaboration – Steven Herder

“Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.”

Collaboration helped me to launch the idea of MASH Collaboration among my fellow MA students and gave me the confidence to face the enormous challenges of joining a team to build an International Teacher Development Institute called… iTDi.

“Collaboration may not be for everyone, but for me it is everything.”

Why bother with encouraging student collaboration?
Collaboration works. There are countless success stories based on collaboration: The Beatles in music, Apple and Microsoft in corporate giants, the Wright brothers in inventions and Warner Bros in entertainment. The list goes on and on…

What are the advantages of collaboration?
It makes it easier for people to take a chance and try things. Everyone is good (or good enough) at something. They can choose to do the things that they have confidence to do. Collaboration builds confidence by letting individuals shine at what they do best while being supported in their weaker areas. Collaboration creates an incredible balance between many important functions of learning: confidence, motivation, support, pressure, expectations, success and achievement.

Samples from the classroom
I have done many collaborative writing and group projects. Here is a synopsis of one – My second year high school students had to (or more appropriately “got to”) write an original story and produce the actual story book in groups of 2, 3 or 4 students (based on their proposal of how many people were needed). We spread the activity over three 90-minute periods. Most groups couldn’t finish in three periods but eagerly did the homework necessary to be finished on time. There were several steps and several different roles to be filled:


  1.     Brainstorm a story genre
  2.     Decide on the characters
  3.     Draft a storyboard of 16 pages
  4.     Sell the story to the teacher (i.e. get approval to continue or revise)
  5.     Begin to write the story (35 – 50 words per page, depending on the class)
  6.     Peers check the grammar. Then check it again, and again.
  7.     Final check by the teacher, then revise towards a final draft
  8.     Design the pictures to match the story
  9.     Draw the pictures, and then color the pictures
  10. Design a front and back cover
  11. Present the book to the class
  12. Give a speech about the experience, discussing problems and solutions
  13. Put your book on the shelf for all other students to read


  • Leader
  • Ideas generator
  • Schedule maker
  • Writer
  • Editor
  • Illustrator
  • Reporter (to teacher)
  • Speaker (to class)

What did students learn?
We have done this activity a number of times and the same comments emerge:

“I didn’t know hard it would be to make a book from start to finish.”

“I was really glad to work with my partner because she was really good at writing/drawing/English, etc.”

“I realized how important grammar is for the first time because I wanted people to understand my story.”

“I want to try this again someday, because I know how to do it now.”

“I learned that I have to give and take when I work on a team.”

“I felt a lot of pressure from my partners to do my best.”

For output activities like writing and speaking, especially from low-level beginners to intermediate-level secondary school students, doing collaborative activities is an excellent way to provide fun, meaningful and successful learning opportunities.

How do you encourage student collaboration? I’d love to hear your stories…



About Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.