Steven Herder

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…



Published by

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”.

15 thoughts on “Encouraging student collaboration – Steven Herder”

  1. Thanks Steven for a great and inspiring post on collaboration.

    I really enjoyed your intro with some examples of collaboration and immedately thought of my favourite Tolkien story where only through collaboration they could succeed. So if you don’t mind I will stay with that comparison for a while.
    We all probably know Frodo;a little, insecure and shy hobit, yet capable of amazing things when supported and encouraged by the group of others with great abilities.

    Well, working in teams makes us realize our own strengths, gives enough space so that shy students feel comfortable, safe and even shine and at the same time even confident students feel needed and important (when empowered for example to help their peers).

    And of course part of that team should be a teacher who is a good observer.

    So thank you again Steven for a great post!

    Anyway, you asked for our stories. I always make sure everyone feels like a part of the team and it is safe to come up with whatever they want. I often point at the advantages of working together and after all they can see it from the results and works they do. Just recently I wrote a blog post on Collaborative writing&speaking in stages.
    They idea was simple – create a story but after this activity they realized it was a lot easier when they helped each other in stages.
    And fun!


    1. Very nice comments, Vladka. Yes, I have many Frodos in my junior and senior high school. I mean that on their own they appear small and weak, but when they put their energy together they accomplish so much more. My school builds many group activities into the school year – School music competition by class, culture festival, Christmas candlelight mass, sports Day and a few more, but all of the school events focus on teamwork and cooperation. In Japan, as you know, there is so much focus on the group rather than on individuals, so it is natural for them when invited to do collaborative work in English class.

      I’m really glad you are an iTDi Associate. You bring many good things to our community.


  2. Thank you so much for your post, Steven. What you are writing about steps and roles is so much true. Cooperation is a skill that we ought to teach students and breaking it up into little steps is key number one, I think. Assigning roles- or better- let them choose the roles that they feel more comfortable with, is something that I also try to promote. However, I’d like to share a concern of mine with you; should we encourage students to take a different role each time or just let them do the things they enjoy doing? In theory, encouraging them to move beyond their comfort zone may be the best thing to do but I’ve found that, in practice, it may prove to be demotivating. After all, some of them will never be leaders, illustrators or public speakers so why challenge them that much? I know every class is different and that there are no wrong or right approaches but I’d like to hear what you- or others- think 🙂

    Thanks again for the great post,


    1. Great question, Sophia. My opinion has changed over the years. Let me explain.

      When I was a junior high school student we were able to get a special pin if all of our grades were over 70%, and if we were able to get all of our grades over 80% we got a rare pin indeed. The pins were simple but had a big 70 or 80 on them. All the students wanted one. Well for two years, I got over 80% in everything except Science. Of course, I got a 69 in Science two years in a row… and no pin at all. For two years I tried to improve my interest and ability in Science but without success.

      The sad part of the story was that I was naturally good at French, and so because I tried to be good at Science I lost all interest in making an effort at French. The result was that neither my Science nor my French improved very much at all.

      I continued with this approach of putting effort into subjects in which I was below average. No matter how much I tried, I was always only a little bit above average, while the naturally talented students crushed me with their scores.

      After I finished university, I finally realized my mistake. I should have put my best efforts into things in which I had some natural talent. I should have aimed to become an expert at something. I’m sure that it would have been much more motivating than just being average.


      The point of the story is that I always tell my students to find their natural talents and aim to become experts.

      That’s my opinion. What do others think?

  3. Hello Steven,
    Thank you for sharing your excellent idea. Some of my students have done a similar project, but not as many pages. Actually, I still have one story book made by a group of my students and coincidently, it is based on the Lord of the Rings, mentioned by Vladimira above. The story was called the Load of the Curry. I didn’t have 3 lessons to work on the project – just 2, and the 2nd was the presentation, hence I couldn’t catch the spelling mistake before the final book was done. Still, it was a great little book. I love how Japanese people make characters out of food: Anpanman, Tacoyakimantoman etc. My students have also done story board projects, you can read about them in the English Teaching Professional article I wrote with Adam Murray, which can be accessed here: (membership required, sorry, not my fault :-P), or you can just ask me and I’ll send it to you. I was part of a project at Kanto International High school that involved all the 1st year students and teachers in the English Course, so we had teacher collaboration as well as student collaboration. It was called the social issues project, and a variation of it still happens every year at Kanto. Each class read a graded reader version of a literary classic and then focused on a social issue in the story and produced a poster about it. My students read Oliver Twist and produced projects on homelessness. The project culminated in a big poster presentation, which took up the entire floor of a building. The students went from room to room listening to their peers present their posters. It was marvelous. You can see some of my students’ work on the project here:
    Thanks again for a great post. Cheers!

    1. Well, Michael, you are my most regular follower and I always enjoy sharing ideas back and forth.

      I have been all through your blogs – a few years ago – when we first met (Marcos introduced us) and I’ve always been amazed at your prolific output.

      I hope we can share ideas for many years to come.

      If anyone wants to see more of Michael’s contributions, go check him out!

  4. Thanks for the very interesting post. I totally agree with you about how precious is collaboration; when people work hand in hand and put their efforts together miracles can be accomplished. There’s a saying in my language which goes “it takes two hands to clap” which is very true. So as teachers I think we should inculcate the values of teamwork and collaboration to our students and these go hand in hand with the teaching of notions of respect towards each others’ opinions, ideas or the little bit of contribution one can give to others.
    Collaboration in class can be achieved through assigning meaningful tasks that require the valued contribution of each student towards the accomplishment of a common objective which can be either the completion of a classroom task or a project work. It’s very important for the teacher to be very careful and ensure that good students wouldn’t belittle weaker ones and inhibit their efforts while performing the task; I’ve been confronted to this kind of situations from time to time which required swift intervention and careful handling. Each student should feel the value and worth of his or her own contribution and all should be proud of what they were able to accomplish together.
    There’s one story I chose to speak about; It might not be the best example of collaboration at work but one good step towards it. It was with my 1st year secondary students. As a follow up activity after the study of a poem, I divided the class into five groups. I put a good student in each group to help and assist the weaker ones. The poem was composed of five stanzas and five verses in each stanza; in each verse there was a dream followed by the consequence of the dream in the next verse. I asked each group to come up with their own dreams, the craziest if they wished, replace the original ones and think of the consequences. Some language in the original poem had to be kept. It was amazing how enthusiastic they all were and each student was contributing with his / her piece of language to rebuild the poem. I had of course to intervene to help with the language from time to time; I allowed the use of the dictionary as well. They produced five new poems out of the original, ranging from the most serious to the most insane or funniest ones. A student from each group read the poem to the whole class. I was happy; I think it was pretty a success!

    Many thanks again.


    1. Wow, Rima. You are a lovely writer and I left your post REALLY REALLY wanting to see the poems that your students created.

      It sounds like a great project.

      I had a similar experience asking students to write a sequel some graded reader stories. They absolutely loved the chance to be so powerful with the lives of the characters in the stories… We got many unexpected love triangle (maybe because my school was an all girls high school)

      I’d love to hear from you again, Rima.



      1. Oh, thanks. Really glad to know you liked the activity I did with the Ss. I’ll try to send you the poems as soon as I can.



  5. Hi Steven,

    I love the idea of the students creating a story collabratively – what better than to foster a great atmosphere, where everyone can share ideas, opinions and turn that into a beautiful story?

    Super post!

  6. Thanks for your post Collaboration is a work that I have never done with my students It might sound strange but in my country we dont use it. I am takung a course about Collaborative work at the moment I learned what it is Your post helped me to understand it too Every little work aboyt Collaboration helps me inspire I am planning to do it with my students (I haven’t not though yet what task to give them)

  7. I’m positive collaboration is the key for growing, but I have to admit not every time in my teaching practice it has worked out. I did an activity like the one you described and it was on wikispaces and let me tell you it was burdensome, even they chose the members of each group, the topic to work on and has some rules or things to do; it was very difficult to work collaboratively. I know maybe I need to try harder or look for a better way to collaborative learning classes, but this is very hard indeed. And you know what, I’ve discovered that my students can work collaboratively without having me assigned them any task. That’s why I don’t use much collaborative work in my classes, but through some tasks they can help one another. Of course, that’s not the case with all students, but I prefer to use very short collaborative activities, so we get no problem working thus. I know I’ve got to improve at teaching -I’m a very young teacher- therefore I look forward hearing some ideas about how can I do my teaching better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.