Deep Dives

5 Dos and Don’ts of SEL-Based Collaborative Learning

October 20, 2023
Katie Dineen
Social studies teacher
5 Dos and Don’ts of SEL-Based Collaborative Learning

It’s 94° F in room 374. The air is stagnant. This is the third time you’ve found the box fan unplugged in this room, today. In your four minutes of passing time, you’ve sprinted from a freshman class three wings over and two flights down with all of your belongings in tow to find your juniors already settled into the space – all of them jabbering with friends, horseplaying, or just doomscrolling on their phones as if the start of class will never come. You’re tired, they’re tired, and a daunting 46 minutes and 24 seconds remain until dismissal. 

Here’s the question: Do you prompt the class to move their desks into table groups to get your lesson started? It’s bound to be at least a five-minute process on a day like today, and the other teachers who use the classroom will need the desks to be reset into rows. On more than one occasion, I’ve given up on whatever group work I had planned, despondent and defeated by circumstance. But not you. Not today. You’ve seen through the fog to the beacon of light that is collaborative learning, and you’re getting after it.

But why? It’s true that collaborative learning can require additional prep work, a higher volume of curriculum materials, active monitoring of working groups, constant verification of student accountability, and much more from the teachers who champion it. It’s true that on some days, it can seem more mentally and emotionally draining than it’s worth. However, I’ve come to know collaborative learning as an essential support for social and emotional learning (SEL) that’s worth every effort. In my classrooms, it has strengthened students’ sense of belonging, provided a framework for differentiation, and made lessons more engaging and accessible for all students, just as it has in countless others.

How Does Collaborative Learning Support SEL?

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Collaborative learning that is inclusive, differentiated, and intentional supports several of the key tenets of SEL. By working in a carefully structured group toward a common goal, students practice feeling and showing empathy for others, building supportive relationships, and responsibly making both individual and collective decisions in a safe, supportive, and controlled environment.

Furthermore, when collaborative learning is meaningfully integrated into curricula and instruction, it creates a basis for more equitable SEL. Specifically, collaborative learning models can expand all students’ access to cognitive, social, and emotional growth by:

  • allowing for structured differentiation
  • extending direct teacher- and peer- support where it’s needed
  • presenting new, interpersonal challenges to academically advanced students
  • fostering a sense of belonging in classroom communities
  • increasing student agency in their individualized learning processes
  • providing more intimate settings for challenging discourse

But these outcomes are only possible when a collaborative learning model is effectively designed and implemented.

Five DOs and DON’Ts of Collaborative Learning

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Below are five dos and don’ts intended to help you choose strategies for implementing collaborative learning aligned to SEL in your classrooms. Each of the five dos and don’ts pertain to student working groups of four to five students.

1. Assigned Roles

Don’t forget to plan roles and responsibilities.

Clear direction is paramount to student productivity and decision-making. Additionally, without intentionally-assigned roles, groups’ workloads are often unevenly distributed, which denies some students the opportunity to learn.

Do create intentional group roles.

This strategy promotes self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making.

With differentiated roles, each student in the group can be held individually accountable for their assigned learning tasks. Roles should vary based on the learning objectives, critical thinking skills, or themes emphasized in each group work activity.

See students weigh in on assigned roles:

2. Student Choice 

Don’t overspecify learning tasks.

It is important for students to take ownership of their learning, so they should have agency in the learning process. In collaborative settings, students can decide together what means of engagement and expression work best for them.

Do use a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to create space for student choice.

This strategy promotes self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills.

UDL provides students with multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression to ensure that all learners have options that play to their unique strengths and interests.

See students weigh in on choice assignments:

3. Responsive Group Creation

Don’t tie yourself to heterogeneous or homogeneous grouping strategies.

Here’s one key example: often, advanced learners can effectively support developing learners. Other times, they take learning tasks upon themselves, excluding developing learners from group tasks; such advanced learners could benefit from homogeneous groups where they can be more directly challenged by their peers.

Do be responsive to student needs when creating groups.

This strategy promotes self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills.

There are myriad strategies for creating student working groups. It is important to understand each student’s learning needs and strengths to build complementary, responsive working groups.

See students weigh in on responsive grouping:

4. Group Rotation

Don’t keep student working groups stagnant.

Re-assigning groups just once per quarter can allow students to collaborate with at least half of their classmates, which can help build a sense of community in your classroom. 

Do change student working groups frequently and provide several opportunities for collaboration across groups.

This strategy promotes self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills.

Regularly creating new groups can support student adaptability, self-awareness, and sociability. To encourage collaboration across groups, try using four-corner jigsaw, rotating resources, chalk talks, or structured, multi-panel discussions or debates.

See students weigh in on group rotation:

5. Accountability

Don’t assume that students know how to collaborate.

Collaboration is a skill that needs to be taught, practiced, and regularly assessed for growth and development. 

Do engage with student groups, model accountable talk, and individually assess students’ performance.

This strategy lays the foundation for successful group work and promotes all five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Individual accountability is crucial for successful group work. It is important to instill habits of self-assessment and self-regulation in metacognitive environments. This can be achieved through open, restorative dialogue, student reflection, qualitative, holistic, and growth-oriented assessment, targeted feedback, and consistent routines and expectations for student collaboration.

See students weigh in on accountable collaboration:

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Katie Dineen is a high school social studies teacher in the Princeton Public School District in New Jersey, ambassador for the New-York Historical Society’s Women and the American Story Digital Curriculum, and candidate for an EdD in Curriculum and Instruction at the University at Buffalo with a research background in educational psychology and gender equity in history curricula. Throughout her ten years in the classroom, equitable and abolitionist pedagogy has been at the center of her practice, professional development, and academic research.

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