Successful Collaborations

As the last stretch of the academic year winds down, I’ve been reflecting on the big projects I’ve been working on this year. Over the next few weeks, three of the projects will reach their culmination or conclusion in some way, which has been the impetus of my reflective journey. Looking over the three projects, one of the clear aspects that I want to celebrate is the collaborative nature of the teams and people I had the opportunity to work with. For example, our university is revising its general education curriculum and I’ve had the pleasure to work with a group of diverse colleagues from across campus to develop new curricular models. The campus is currently selecting which model to adopt, but regardless of the outcome, I know the team we assembled for the project were the best folks for the job. I’m proud of the work we did.

But it’s not the only project I’m proud to have worked on. I’ve also been collaborating with a colleague on a research project that we’re almost ready to submit to a journal. The project has been time consuming and thought provoking, but it has also been tremendously rewarding personally and professionally. Additionally, I’ve also been working with a bunch of science teachers and teacher educators to lead a series of professional development workshops across the state in support of the science teaching standards that were recently adopted in Pennsylvania. While most of the workshops have been virtual, the overall project culminates with a two-day, face-to-face workshop in a few weeks.

To be clear, I’m not sharing these projects as a way to pat myself on the back in any way. Sure, I’m proud of this work and I think it’s impactful. More than that, I’m sharing these because they represent awesome examples of successful collaborations. Again, I’m not saying “Hey, I’m an awesome collaborator” or anything. I’m just highlighting these successful collaborations because unless you work in a solitary profession, you know how rare these types of collaborations can be. To be involved in three projects simultaneously where the collaborations have been so effective is a true blessing.

At the end of a meeting with one of the groups recently, I shared these feelings. I said that I didn’t know what made our group function so positively and effectively, but I wanted to celebrate it. About an hour after the meeting ending, one of members emailed me a research article that might offer a clue to the success.

In an article published in Physical Review Physics Education Research, a group of researchers studied a physics class to better understand what factors made some groups more effective than others. Over the course of a semester, thirty students in a university-level physics course were given activities and problem to discuss in small groups. Students were randomly assigned to groups and the groups would change weekly. The researchers collected both video and audio recording of the group discussions and coded how individual students positioned themselves within their groups and how effective the groups were. For me, the positioning aspect of the article was the most interesting part. The researchers identified five different “positional” roles that students can hold during group conversations: expert, intermediate expert, intermediate novice, novice, facilitator. For example, when students made “firm statements of fact or firm or strong disagreement” they were identified as an “expert.” When students “asked questions” or “made softened statements or disagreements,” they were identified as “intermediate experts” or “intermediate novices” respectively. From these roles, the researchers examined what combinations contributed most to effective collaborations. In their discussion, the authors write:

“We have found a correlation between group effectiveness and group equality as indicated by the amount of time group members spend positioning themselves in the positions of intermediate novice and intermediate expert. From our quantitative and qualitative analysis, it appears that the most effective groups display a cluster of behaviors that complement each other in a myriad of ways…. they have more equal conversations and are better able to sustain their attention during periods of adversity and frustration... Our analysis shows that the underlying factors of respect and psychological safety are also key for a group to be successful. We suggest that the theme of respect that emerged from our qualitative analysis is connected to positioning because it is difficult or impossible to convey mutual respect if group members are constantly positioning themselves as experts” (Brookes et al., 2021, p. 11).

This description really resonated with me as I reflected on my experiences with these successful collaborative projects. While the collaborators were all really smart people and experts in their respective areas, they positioned themselves in a way to provide space for other contributors and their ideas. Their positioning also helped our group navigate the disagreements and debates that eventually happened. And that’s the real takeaway. There’s that old adage about being able to disagree without being disagreeable. The research shows that how we position ourselves in collaborative groups can contribute how disagreeable we are and how effective the overall group will be.


Brookes, D. T., Yang, Y., & Nainabasti, B. (2021). Social positioning in small group interactions in an investigative science learning environment physics class. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 17(1), 010103.


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