2 Creating conditions that favor collaboration


Bringing people together around a task is a prerequisite but not a guarantee of collaborative effort (Chang & Brickman, 2018). Johnson et al. (1998) therefore formulated five key elements, referred to as “internal dynamics”, which make collaboration work. We note that the original literature places these elements in the context of ‘cooperation’, but they also apply to collaboration. These five elements overlap with factors that determine the aforementioned group beliefs. The elements are: 1) positive interdependence, 2) individual accountability, 3) face-to-face promotive interaction, 4) employment of social skills and 5) group processing.  In regards to interdependence; the task must be complex, ideally authentic, and require the use of multiple skills to be successfully accomplished. Students, or company personnel, must be able to make unique contributions. In education, the task must also align with cognitive and social skills objectives; in companies, it must be clear what the shared purpose is.  Individual accountability means that group members are responsible for their contribution to the group activity and for their acquired knowledge or understanding. It implies that individual performance is assessed and the results are fed back to the group and/or linked to an individual grade. The need for individual accountability is based on the findings that some people work better, or harder, when their input is also recognized outside the group (Slavin, 1996). Collective contexts that provide a great deal of information about individual contributions are perceived as more important to individuals than contexts that provide less information (or none) (Karau & Williams, 1993), hence this may explain why people may make a greater effort. Along the same lines, positive group experiences are expressed primarily in terms of good and helpful contributions by individual members (Chang & Brickman, 2018). In conclusion, individual accountability is perceived as very important. Moreover, groups may find it unfair if non-productive members share the group grade (Freeman & McKenzie, 2002). Anticipating unfairness, or not feeling recognized for your input, can have a negative effect on commitment to subsequent collaboration.

Face-to-face promotive interactions, the fourth element, are defined as a type of social interaction that encourages members to participate and contribute to group work (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). The use of social skills has much to do with empathy, finding out the needs of other team members. The fifth element, group processing, involves an ongoing process of feedback, where groups are given dedicated time to discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective working relationships between members.

In the collective effort model (Karau & Williams, 1993, 2001), individual accountability is described as a factor that determines “individual outcomes.” The joint individual outcomes constitute the essential reward of a group project (described as “valence of outcome”): the higher the perceived valence of outcome, the stronger the individual effort (described as “motivational force”). An expected lack of “individual outcomes,” due to limited recognition of personal commitment (because the group is too large, or due to lack of individual evaluation), would reduce commitment to a group project (and is considered one of the causes of “social loafing”).

Collaboration Steered by Teacher Interventions

Following Johnson’s et al. (1998) five key elements, in order to promote collaboration, teachers may give students separate resources (jigsaw approach) (Mesch, 1991) and complementary roles thereby creating interdependence. Teachers may use individual tests to check if students had learned from their peers and use these test results in the calculation of the group grade (element of individual accountability). Teachers may also eavesdrop on groups and intervene if group members are not supporting each other. They may give instructions about problem solving techniques, and show how to communicate one’s knowledge with peers or challenge students to reason their conclusions. Teachers must teach leadership, trust-building, decision-making and conflict-management skills (element of social skills). Finally, teachers must ensure that students take time to engage in group processing. They must observe how members have participated in stream-lining the learning process, how they have alerted group members of unskilled and inappropriate actions and what actions have been undertaken to improve the group work (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). The term teacher can be replaced by “manager”, “superior” or “leader” in case of work-organizations. Collectively, group functioning instructions and individual tests are generally appreciated by teaching-staff and students and they facilitate collaborative effort, reduce social loafing, steer towards positive group-beliefs both in academic (Chapman & van Auken, 2001; Gillies, 2004; Ko, 2013; Mello, 1993: Slavin, 1996; Strong & Anderson, 1990) and in professional settings (Salas, 2008).

Limitations to top-down interference

There are however limits to what a teacher/leader can do and should do. For instance, individual testing is hardly feasible when the tasks are complex, open ended, and requiring different skills that are impossible to measure individually (Strong & Anderson, 1990). Also, with respect to monitoring and correcting group functioning, in numerous occasions group members will spent more time working on their task “out of sight”. Moreover, we repeatedly observed, as bystanders in evaluation sessions at school, that teachers (and probably also company leaders) have biased views of group functioning. Indeed several studies revealed that teachers differentiate their behaviors towards individual students based on their expectancies of those students (Domen et al., 2019; Harris & Rosenthal, 1985). This is an undesirable situation for collaborative projects because it may force students (or employees), who now have the unique opportunity to express themselves differently, to resume the role they have been “assigned” in traditional class teaching (or work settings). Finally, too much top-down involvement and too many instructions to make collaboration work contradicts a fundamental characteristic of collaborative effort namely that ownership and control of the task should be given to the group members (Blatchford, 2003). This is beyond our competence, but it is quite possible that too much top-down intervention is a major cause of poor transactive dialogue in work organizations; it makes collaboration “busy work” (discussed in “a potential loss of autonomy”). In architectural terms, it is more about form than function and leads to staff malfunctioning (Cross et al., 2016). In both education- and work settings, this can result in members focusing on teachers or on managers, rather than on the task and the group of which they are a part.

Importantly, it is our experience that students at the end of high school or at the beginning of University are quite familiar with behaviors that lead, and do not lead, to productive collaborative efforts. The ground rules for group functioning that they propose (Kramer & Kusurkar, 2017; Student vs Expert ground rules) are not short of what educators and psychologists have produced (see for instance, Gillies, 2004 and Ohland et al., 2012). And since many workers have completed at least high school, this knowledge of group functioning should also apply to work organizations. 

Scientific literature on group work gives the impression that school and university students, as well as employees, are incapable of good collaboration because they have never been properly trained. Whether you take primary school classes or company employees, group work training always increases the effectiveness of the group processes (Gillies & Ashman, 1996; Prichard, Stratford & Bizo, 2006; Salas, 2008; Yager et al., 1986). While there is an undeniable role for group training, starting early in education followed by “reminders” at later stages (because people tend to forget) it is our view that whether group members deploy their knowledge of groupworking is largely determined by: the importance they see in the task, the responsibilities they are given (Scager et al., 2016) and how collaborative effort is evaluated and valued. In terms of evaluation and appreciation, it is the same as with traffic rules, people know them, they passed the test, but without external control many will slip into a rather free interpretation that is generally not conducive to overall road safety. There are other factors that determine engagement in group work, which are more difficult to control, such as previous experiences and the overall goal orientation (extrinsic or intrinsic) of individual members (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Collaboration Steered by Group Self-Evaluation

As an alternative to the teacher/leader-based interventions described above, group self-evaluation can be applied. In this evaluation, also known as group “auto-rating” (Brown, 1995) or “self-assessment” (Conway, 1993), group members either give an overall judgment of individual contributions, holistic approach, or they measure individual contribution against a set of rules, category-based approach (Brown, 1995; Conway, 1993; Lejk & Wyvill, 2001). In an educational setting, the evaluation reports are then converted into individual weighting factors (IWF) which, when multiplied by the group grade, result in an individual grade. Group self-evaluation, when applied during and at the end of a collaborative task, addresses three elements of the internal dynamics mentioned previously (Johnson et al. , 1998), namely individual responsibility, employment of social skills and group processing. Like for teacher-based evaluation described above, group self-evaluation encourages individual accountability because it is a way of uncovering individual contributions to the group effort. Self-evaluation may also influence group beliefs, it may lead to enhanced psychological safety and cohesion. The underlying reason is that group members have a formal way of airing problems and therefore have a sense of control, “a sense of autonomy” (see next page about “Self-Determination Theory“).  Group self-evaluation does not go without a flaw, especially as a result of overly generous (to others) or overly self-promoting members. Numerous studies have therefore considered mathematical strategies to better ensure the fairness of peer evaluation by limiting possible excesses in individual assessment (Goldfinch, 1994; Ko, 2013; Neus, 2011; Spatar, 2014). We do not think correcting for large interrater differences is a good idea because the quality of self-evaluation is a good measure of the extent to which a group member is truly group-oriented. we discuss this in “self-evaluation feedback”. The overall results of these studies suggest that group self-evaluation works well and that the beneficial effect on group functioning more than compensates for any problems that may occur (Forsell et al., 2020; Freeman & McKenzie, 2002; Kaufman et al., 2013; O’Neill et al., 2018; Weaver & Esposto, 2012).

Research on the impact of group self-evaluation has focused primarily on the need for individual accountability and the sense of fairness experienced by students (citations above). As for secondary or higher education, few studies deal with the potential beneficial effects on collaborative learning. Three studies report an increase in student engagement (Kench et al. 2009; Mello, 1993; Weaver & Esposto, 2012) and one study reports that self-evaluation encourages equal contributions by group members and controls free-rides (Freeman & cKenzie, 2002). As already mentioned, an additional benefit of self-evaluation is that it gives students a good opportunity for self-control, a sense of autonomy, the subject of the group self-evaluation procedure that we discuss in the next pages.


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Freeman, M., & McKenzie, J. (2002). SPARK, a confidential web–based template for self and peer assessment of student teamwork: benefits of evaluating across different subjects. British Journal of Educational Technology, 33: 551-569. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8535.00291

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