Collaborative learning works. It boosts engagement, gives students the opportunity to hone important communication and social skills, and creates opportunities to deepen students’ understanding of new content. When students talk about what they are learning, they are forced to reflect and explain their thinking.  This helps students learn more!

With the pandemic persisting to the end of yet another school year, teachers need to find new ways to engage students and address learning gaps. While we may need to put aside traditional group work that requires students to work in close proximity of each other, there are numerous collaborative learning routines and digital tools that we can use to get students talking about content, sharing ideas, and learning from each other. 

Collaborative Discussion Routines

It might sound crazy to someone outside the classroom, but teachers must plan for everything, including how to get their students to talk about what they are learning. Over the years, I’ve found a few strategies that consistently keep students accountable for contributing to group discussions, but also make learning fun. 

Stand up, hand up, pair up!

Socially Distant Group Work

With this strategy, the teacher shares a prompt for students to discuss. They then set a timer for students to find a partner and discuss the question. Each student is responsible for sharing their thinking as well as expressing whether they agree or disagree with their partner’s thinking. 

The teacher then tells students to “stand up, hand up, pair up.” After this, students must stand up, put one hand up, and then walk around the classroom until they find a partner. Students must give their partner an air high-five, and discuss the question until the timer goes off. During this time, I circulate the classroom, listening to students’ discussions and encouraging each child to equally participate. 

After students finish talking with their partners, I lead the whole class in a group discussion about what they learned from their peers. I ask questions such as, “Did your thinking change after discussing with a partner? Why or why not?” and “Did you and your partner share the same thinking? If not, why did your thinking differ?” Asking such questions keeps students accountable for listening to their peers but also increases the depth of the class discussion. 

Want to add a twist? Before instructing students to find a partner, turn on a song you know your students will enjoy. Tell students that they must silently walk around the room as the song is playing. Then, when the music stops, they must find a partner to air high-five and talk with. Repeat this process several times so that students have the opportunity to talk with several peers. 

Talking Chips

Talking Chips

Provide a prompt or question you want students to discuss. Put students in groups of 3-4 and assign them a designated space in the classroom where they can sit three feet apart. Give each student three to five manipulatives or “talking chips.” These could be paper clips, math manipulatives, or bingo pieces you already have for other uses in your classroom. Tell students that every time they speak, they must cash in a talking chip. After each student in the group has used all of their chips, they are done discussing. 

I like to use this strategy when I am teaching argumentative writing as it encourages students to back up their claims with reasons. This strategy can also be helpful when certain students dominate class discussions. The strategy gives each student an equal opportunity to contribute and share their ideas, no matter the subject area. 

Fishbowl Discussion

Fishbowl Discussion

Give students a thought-provoking problem or question that would beneficial for the class to discuss. Have students think about the problem on their own and answer questions surrounding it. Moving chairs or mats around in your classroom, create two circles, an inner circle, and an outer circle. Make sure students are an arm’s distance apart. 

Assign each student a spot in one of the circles. Tell the class that the inner circle will be the speakers. Speakers will be responsible for sharing their thinking. The rest of the class will be a part of the outer circle. Those in the outer circle will be responsible for listening to the speakers, taking notes, and communicating whether they agree or disagree with the speakers after their discussion is over. 

Encourage those in the inner circle to ask each other questions, challenge each other’s thinking, and provide evidence for their ideas. At the end of the discussion, debrief the fishbowl with students in the outer circle. Ask questions such as, “What did you resonate with that was shared? Why?”, “What did you disagree with that was shared? Why?”, and “What additional information would you like to add on to what was discussed?” By giving outer circle participants the opportunity to debrief, you will encourage self-reflection. 

Interested in learning more? Check out this Youtube video!

Digital Resources That Support Collaborative Learning

In addition to getting students to share and listen to their peers, teachers can encourage collaborative learning through the use of digital tools. 

Google Docs and Slides

Google Docs and Slides

While sitting on opposite sides of the classroom, students can peer-edit each other’s work by posting comments in real-time. They also can collaborate on the same documents and presentations. 

Whether students are making presentations for a math project or simply brainstorming a list together, Google Docs and Google Slides give students the capability to share their work miles apart. Don’t forget, students can quickly create a new document by typing docs.new into their browser! For slides, try slides.new. What a time saver!

PearDeck Vocabulary

PearDeck Vocabulary

Feeling in a rut with vocabulary instruction? Peardeck Vocabulary allows students to work in teams to create illustrations and examples for instructional vocabulary. After students work together to create digital flashcards, the teacher presents all digital flashcards to the class and gives students the opportunity to evaluate each others’ thinking.



Want students to play educational games at school but at a distance? Jamboard allows you to do so in a stitch! Create virtually any review game by uploading a board game PDF as the background and then allowing students to use the Jamboard sidebar tools to collaborate in real-time. Put students in groups and let the games begin! 


Seesaw is a powerful tool that allows students to review and comment on their peers’ work without even typing! Have students create short video comments to respond to each other’s work and engage in digital discussions.

Make It Happen

Make It Happen

Whether your goal is to help students develop social skills or debate a topic in class, there are numerous strategies you can use to help your students collaborate at a distance. To learn more about some amazing digital resources that have been tested by some of my colleagues at ReadTheory, check out this article.

Whether you are using technology or not, be strategic about how you design your learning space! Create classrooms that reinforce social distancing through visual cues and reminders. Set mats or hula hoops on the floor to indicate student learning spaces, tape the floor around desks to ensure students are familiar with their personal learning areas, and give students lots of verbal praise when they remember to stay at a distance from each other! 

Don’t be afraid to try a new strategy this week. The work you put in to plan meaningful group activities for your students will keep students excited, reinforce important social skills, and boost learning outcomes. 

Anne Andrews, Elementary Advanced Academics Teacher
Written by Anne Andrews, Elementary Advanced Academics Teacher

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