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April 4, 2019

Deepening Student Understanding with Collaborative Discourse

Instructional Strategies

Most educators can agree that asking students to engage deeply with the content they are learning is quite different from asking them to recall surface-level information. Knowing what deeper understanding looks and sounds like will help teachers employ collaborative discourse as a go-to strategy for almost any lesson.

This approach requires first knowing what rigor is and dispelling some common misconceptions ("All students cannot think deeply"; "Rigor just means doing more or harder work"; "Deeper thinking should not require scaffolding"). When adults engage with complex tasks, they don't simply do more or harder work. They develop a deeper understanding of the work, benefiting greatly from scaffolding (such as seeing exemplar models) and collaborative discourse with peers. There is no reason to think that children cannot do the same.

In my work with Depth of Knowledge and cognitive rigor, I've uncovered six ways we can move students' thinking to deeper understanding. I've applied these ideas to the design of teacher-friendly tools that facilitate classroom implementation. The Collaborative Inquiry Plan is one such tool.

We can observe evidence of deeper thinking when:

1. Students make connections to consolidate their learning.

New information has to a) connect to something you already know, even if it challenges something you think you know; and b) be meaningful, relevant, or personally useful (Sousa, 2015).

2. Students apply what they've learned to novel situations.

The ability to transfer knowledge and skills effectively involves the capacity to take what we know and creatively, flexibly, and fluently apply it in different situations or to new problems (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

3. Students have "just right" support and can productively struggle.

Strategic scaffolding is the purposeful use of supports to achieve a balance between cognitive complexity and student autonomy as a task becomes more challenging (Hess, 2018).

4. Students apply higher-order thinking (analyzing, evaluating, and creating) to interact with content.

We frequently use verbs (analyze, synthesize) to talk about rigor without considering students' depth of interaction with, or the complexity of, the content. For example, analyzing the data in a graph is not the same as analyzing potential flaws in the experimental design that generated the data. To determine task complexity, we should always ask, "What comes after the verb?" (Hess, 2018)

5. Students engage in collaborative discourse that makes thinking visible.

Collaboration and teamwork can be powerful instructional vehicles for learning and support creative thinking (Hess & Gong, 2014). When small, collaborative groups take on a challenging task, they can understand more complex material, engage with content more deeply, and learn at a faster pace (Hess, 2018).

6. Students ask questions that indicate a shift in teacher-student roles as they learn to construct their own meaning.

After you give an assignment, your students shouldn't only be asking procedural or clarifying questions (Where do we get the sign-out sheet for the microscopes? How long does this have to be?). They should be asking more rigorous questions that address the quality of their work (Can we use both primary and secondary sources? Do we have choices about the form of our final product?). Rigorous questions spark deeper understanding and lead to both metacognitive thinking (strategizing while engaged in a task) and reflective thinking (evaluating effectiveness of learning processes afterwards). Student-generated questions are clear indicators of who is directing the learning (Hess, 2018).

Make Thinking Visible

From the early work of researchers through today, we find compelling support for thoughtfully designed small-group work. Robert Slavin's research (1991) on "team learning" identified two essential elements of collaboration: shared group goals and individual accountability of all group members. The work of Nottingham, Nottingham, and Renton (2017) stresses the power of group dialogue to move student thinking from surface-level knowledge to deeper understanding of concepts.

It is the structure of small-group investigation combined with collaborative discourse that teaches students how to think, how to express ideas clearly, how to respectfully listen for divergent viewpoints and give critical feedback, and most of all, how to formulate their own reasoning.

The research is clear: Collaboration activities that are intentionally structured for shared goals, individual accountability, and focused discourse drive deeper thinking within groups and can have a major positive effect on each student's learning.

Designing Learning for Collaboration, Engagement, and Meaningful Discourse

The Collaborative Inquiry Plan (see table) is designed to assist teams in thinking through the first phase of completing a complex task. Thinking through the task requirements together helps students to clarify and take responsibility for monitoring their own progress. When students learn to organize how they will work to accomplish their goals, they become more independent learners.

So, how do we thoughtfully design small-group work for collaborative discourse and deeper thinking? An activity I call "Picture Search" can illustrate how a teacher might introduce use of the Collaborative Inquiry Plan to students. Small groups are presented with a photo or historical artifact and given a few questions to answer. Unlike yes-no or fact-based questions, the answers require investigation and must be supported with evidence from multiple credible sources.

Before students can begin their investigation, they must develop a plan: clarify the task, determine how they will approach the task, identify resources needed, assign a role to each member specifically describing what each will contribute, and restate the success criteria.

[[[[[ **** MISSING TABLE **** ]]]]]

Students first need to draw upon their collective prior knowledge (Does anybody know what this is?), use investigative skills to determine which clues in the picture might lead them to the answers (What monuments are there/not there? What kinds of transportation are depicted/not depicted?), and determine how to check credibility of sources.

Then, students must develop their inquiry plan and get approval from the teacher. Some teachers might want to codesign a plan with students before giving students more control over developing their own plans.

STEP 1: Start with a task worth doing.

Most students can do many familiar routine tasks (recall facts, apply basic skills) on their own. You want groups to do something more challenging than what individual students can accomplish independently. This is an opportunity to allow them to take risks, struggle through a problem, and learn together as they construct their own meaning.

To teach students how to use different text structures in their writing, have teams select a topic of interest and create a magazine with short articles that apply different structures to convey information (compare-contrast, description, cause-effect, chronology, proposition-support). Another team challenge might be developing an infographic to show relationships among historical, literary, scientific, or cultural influences on an event or time period. A special education teacher told me she uses the collaborative inquiry planning tool with her students to help them decide what snack to make and sell in their school store.

STEP 2: Be sure this is a task where everyone has a job.

We maximize simultaneous engagement when we structure group work that integrates multiple skills and concepts. To determine group size, answer two questions: 1) What is the purpose of the learning task? and 2) How many people should it take to complete the task? Consider the specific roles needed and how you will hold students individually accountable. For the Picture Search example, if each student researches a different aspect of the photo (types of transportation, monuments, land use), the teacher can ask for evidence from each individual about how they completed their role.

At first, you may want to assign and model each role. Later, shift this responsibility to students, asking them to plan how they will accomplish the task and who is taking responsibility for each aspect. Roles that are more task-specific lead to simultaneous engagement and positive interdependence: Researcher #1 will find out when steamboats and trains were the most common modes of transportation, Researcher #2 will develop a timeline of when each monument was constructed, and Researcher #3 will compare current land use with earlier maps reflecting what is depicted in the painting. Students should discuss what questions they are trying to answer and what each person will do to contribute.

STEP 3: Establish parameters and success criteria for completing the task.

Sometimes we give students too much time and too little direction. Saying, "Discuss this with your partner" is not as clear as, "You have one minute to discuss and write three reasons why___." Whether it is short, informal group sharing or a longer, project-based task over several days, giving students a set amount of time and clear success criteria holds everyone accountable for monitoring progress. You can always give groups more time if they need it, but giving them too much time initially is usually a recipe for impending chaos.


Hess, K. (2018). A local assessment toolkit to promote deeper learning: Transforming research into practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hess, K. & Gong, B. (2014). Ready for college and career? Achieving the Common Core Standards and beyond through deeper, student-centered learning. Quincy, MA: Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Retrieved from

Nottingham, J., Nottingham, J. & Renton, M. (2017). Challenging learning through dialogue: Strategies to engage your students and develop their language of learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Slavin, R. (1991). Synthesis of research on cooperative learning. Educational Leadership, 48(5), 71-82.

Sousa, D. (2015). Brain-friendly assessments: What they are and how to use them. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (expanded 2nd edition). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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