Peer Collaboration Activities

We agree that an effective way to boost student engagement is to create opportunities for peer collaboration so that students may direct their own learning. Therefore our Pod explored ways of fostering peer collaboration in both the hybrid and online classroom in order to make courses as flexible and high-quality as possible for both in-person and remote students. 

In our exploration, we take 'collaboration' to include short-term and small-scale activities (such as class discussions) and more long-term, large-scale activities (such as substantial group assignments). The tools and techniques that we will address could include breakout rooms, Canvas course design, discussion board management, assignment design, and the use of collaborative software such as While this material will be aimed primarily at first-year students who are less familiar with both the technology and the intellectual demands of college-level work, much of it should also be helpful for faculty teaching upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.

Discussions boards are not only useful for asynchronous instruction; they can be a valuable component of hybrid and fully in-person instruction as well.  All modes of remote, hybrid, and in-person instruction routinely encounter the problem of students being either unprepared for class discussion, or reluctant to participate.  Requiring students to make one or more discussion board posts prior to class can ensure that more students do the assigned reading.  Additionally, requiring discussion posts ensures that when students come to class they have already begun to think specifically about the readings, and have begun to engage in productive conversation with one another.  (If Canvas Discussions are used for asynchronous instruction, then the number and length of required posts can be increased.)

This document includes a sample set of instructions for students, as well as an example of a detailed and specific discussion board prompt.  Instructors will want to make their own judgment about what degree of specificity is desirable in their prompts.


It is important to specify a required number of discussion posts, as well as a length limit.  One or two posts of approximately 100 words each is plenty: while it may not seem like not very much, actually reading and composing these posts does take students a substantial amount of time.  The length limit is important: while it is great if students are enthusiastic, it is very easy for them to unintentionally burden one another with extra reading, with the consequence that many great discussion posts may not be read at all.


I give my students a list of discussion prompts to answer.  I encourage them not to feel limited to the prompts, but to feel free to initiate their own angle of discussion; almost nobody ever does this, but I live in hope.


Canvas Discussion Assignment


This semester, in order to supplement and support our in-class discussions, you will be participating in our online discussion boards.  I have created a discussion thread on Canvas for each of our class sessions.  I will put some brief “lecture” material in the first post for each discussion thread, along with some questions to prompt discussion.


Prior to each class discussion, each of you will write ONE discussion post in that class session’s designated discussion thread.  These posts should be approximately 100 words long: try to be both substantive and concise!  In making these posts, you may "Reply" to my original prompt, or you may "Reply" to a post made by one of your classmates.


Remember that your discussion posts account for a substantial proportion of your Participation grade for this course.



March 30 – Douglass and Trethewey


I would guess that you are all at least somewhat familiar with Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).  He was born into slavery and, unusually, he learned how to read and write as a slave.  He escaped to the north in 1838, and he eventually became famous as a writer and orator, publishing an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star (bonus points if you know—or can guess—why it was called that).  This week’s reading by Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is a speech that he gave in 1852 to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.


Natasha Trethewey is an African-American poet, born in 1966.  She published a poetry collection called Native Guard in 2006, and this book received a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.  The book included this week’s assigned poem: “Native Guard.”  Trethewey was appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States for 2012 and 2013.  “Native Guard” is about the first African-American military unit, which served in the Civil War.


Below, I offer some question for discussion.  As always, feel free to introduce a different theme or idea, if there is something you are particularly eager to talk about that the questions below do not cover.


Question for Discussion:


1. In paragraph 6 of his oration, Douglass observes that to declare his agreement with the values of the American Revolution would be a trivial thing to do.  As he says, “Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. […] To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy.  Everybody can say it; the dastard not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies.”  Yet, he adds, “there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls.  They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.  To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day.”


There is a modern phrase that you may have heard: “the right side of history.”  Douglass is saying that it is easy to look back in time and say what was right and wrong; what is difficult is to look at the present and make the right judgement – to make the choice that will be easy and obvious to people in the future.  What do you think of this idea?  Is it a reasonable goal to try to be on the right side of history, to anticipate what the judgement of posterity will be?  Why is Douglass raising this idea?  What is his main rhetorical aim?


2. In the section of his speech titled, “The Church Responsible,” Douglass discusses the relationship between slavery and religion.  He says that “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors” (paragraph 56).  Unsurprisingly, Douglass opposes this view.  In paragraph 57, he declares, “For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines!  They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done!”


What do you think of Douglass’ characterization here of the relationship between religion and slavery?  What does he mean when he says that pro-slavery clergymen “confirm more infidels” than the anti-religious writings of Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke do?  What do you think of Douglass’ ethical judgement that infidelity and atheism (and, indeed, “anything”) is preferable to a religion that promotes slavery?  (To borrow a more modern expression, we could characterize Douglass as saying, “If abolitionism is wrong, then I don’t want to be right!”)


3. For me, one of the most striking parts of the Trethewey poem comes approximately in the middle, spanning pages 3 and 4 of our pdf.  This part of the poem describes a mishap that the 1st regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard experiences: they stack up some supplies on a beach, and a storm comes in and washes the supplies away.  Notice how Trethewey describes the supplies initially as “Unfettered” – a significant word for these soldiers, most of whom are themselves recently freed slaves.  This incident teaches the soldiers that when they keep supplies on the beach, they must tie them down with ropes.  One of the soldiers observes that “the ropes / cracked like whips on the sand” and the narrator reflects that “Like any shrewd master, / we know now to tie down what we will keep.”  What commentary is being made here?  Why is it that these people, who have so recently been freed from slavery themselves, are thinking this way about fetters, ropes, and tying things down?


4. In the same passage, the narrator observes one man who removes his shirt and reveals “the scars, crosshatched / like the lines in my journal, on his back.”  What do you think of this comparison between the whip-scars of a former slave and the written lines in the journal of a different former slave?  Are these whip scars “writing” of some kind?  How does this comparison work?

The benefits of group work are widely recognized. Among them: reinforcing material learned individually (e.g., refining understanding, challenging assumptions) and developing skills relevant for the professional world (e.g., time management, intentional planning, communication, teamwork). Cooperative work demands that students take ownership of their learning. When properly structured and given appropriate latitude, students can pursue their own intellectual interests while mastering the key concepts of the course. Evidence suggests peer collaboration promotes student engagement, retention, and success.


Below are two examples of peer collaboration assignments – one short-term and one long-term. They can be implemented virtually, in-person, or in a hybrid format. They are appropriate for introductory and upper-level courses. Following the description, a discussion assesses their implementation at SMU. Faculty may adapt features of the assignments to suit their own pedagogical needs.


Assignment One (Short Term)



Discussion/Study Groups where 3 or 4 students form a pod for weekly or short reading assignments.


Asynchronous/Outside-Class Activity:

1) Students read assigned texts before class.
2) Using Canvas Discussions (the instructor creates one board for each group), students share questions and reflections. The instructor may also pose questions for students to answer.

3) The instructor requires a certain number of contributions from each student. Student may take turns leading the discussion each week.


Synchronous/In-Class Activity:

In class, each group shares the most important takeaway(s) from each reading assignment.



1) Students need more guidance than anticipated. They respond more actively and in a more focused way when the instructor poses questions on the Discussion board.
2) Student participation in class increases noticeably. They respond more quickly and are willing to move beyond first-order questions to discuss more complex and nuanced questions. Students seem more confident about their spoken responses.




1) All students have to participate. No one can "hide." Some seemingly reticent students become active participants.





2) Students have to engage with material before they attend class. Their deeper familiarity with the material shows in the level of discussion.




1) It requires more work of the instructor to monitor the multiple Discussion boards on an almost daily basis.

- One solution/compromise may be to require this activity only four or five times in a semester rather than on a weekly basis.


2) Exchanges on the Discussion board sometimes stray and are not always focused on the necessary takeaways to advance the conversation.

- The solution is for the instructor to monitor the Discussion board more closely and provide guided questions.



Assignment Two (Long Term)



Team research project over several weeks (and up to the length of the semester) where 2 or 3 students cooperate to locate information and to discuss the application of theoretical frameworks to empirical data.


Asynchronous/Outside-Class Activity:

(The asynchronous and synchronous activities overlap during the length of the project.)


1)Given a prompt, students work together to conduct research. They submit a project plan.

2) After completion of research, each team records a slide presentation.

3) Other students view and submit written reviews of the presentations.



4) Each team submits a report or short reflection essay after the presentation as a self-critique.


Synchronous/In-Class Activity:




1) An information literacy workshop led by a subject librarian directs students to resources for the project.

2) During class meetings, other students pose questions to each presentation team about its project.

3) Students individually complete a written assignment in response to the research prompt.



1) Invariably, at least one group has problems working together. This issue can sometimes be mitigated by allowing students to pick their own team partners. The required project plan can also be written like a contract to encourage greater commitment. Similarly, the knowledge that a report is required after the project seems to encourage more cooperative behavior.

2) Teams often need closer supervision than expected to know what to include in their presentations and how to design meaningful slides.

3) Scheduling challenges can derail a team. A clear outline of the time commitment expected can mitigate this issue.




1) Students seem to enjoy sharing their research and knowledge (being the "expert" answering questions).




2) Other students viewing the presentations ask more questions than they normally would pose to the instructor.




3) Students who are more visual seem to enjoy the opportunity to communicate with slides - some are extremely professional!




1) More work for instructor as it requires closer supervision to ensure the presentations meet learning objectives.

- Giving a more detailed or structured prompt can help.


2) Management of group dynamics can be a distraction.

- Giving a warning before the project starts about expected behavior/commitment can help.




a) Discussion boards b) Peer reviews c) In-class discussions b) Essays.

Canvas tools enable the activities. Zoom and Canvas facilitate communication between instructor and students. Students use Google docs and/or slides for their shared work.



1) Detailed rubrics structure the assignments and incentivize the instructor to communicate clearly with students about how their work will be assessed.

2) If the project is divided into multiple sections or stages, the instructor can observe and grade ongoing work on the Discussions boards and on the slides.

Asynchronous. Each week, there is an assignment due – completed online – these are short problems or essays very similar to reinforce the main topics covered each week. I allow students to drop two weekly assignments to cover illnesses, technology issues etc..


Synchronous. Short quizzes at the end of every class to highlight and reinforce the main concepts learnt that class. It also serves few other purposes, such as attendance and motivation for staying engaged. I allow for five dropped quizzes to account for different personal circumstances


1) Group Work Engagement


Description: Team Bylaws


Each group is asked to spend their first meeting time together to craft their team bylaws. They should determine basic rhythms and expectations of working together, but also consider more nuanced unexpected scenarios. What happens when it's someone's birthday? What if someone is not showing up? What if someone gets married? All of these potential future scenarios that might set the group up for hardship or success should be talked through and written out in one final Bylaw Document. Have fun with this and use this as a tool to help stay productive and govern your time together.


How did it go? This works really well to help get groups started! And works best when the bylaws (rather than group dynamics) are brought up midway through a project or class.

  • Pros: It gets things surfaced and addressed from the beginning. It requires everyone to chip in to co-create and determine. It works as a standing document to help support future efforts.
  • Cons: It can sometimes be forgotten if it's not actively brought up. People can think they figured things out at the beginning of the semester but don't revisit it when troubles come up.


2) Student Engagement (Short Term)


Description: Short Individual Quizzes on topics covered in class


After every class, students will review the main concepts and problems covered in class and then take a short quiz to assess their understanding. At the end of the regular class meeting, we will have a short discussion wherein students will identify the main topics covered in each class meeting. This helped me moderate Zoom fatigue. In addition, students will know that what they are working will be tested again very soon - they seemed to pay more attention.

  • Pros: Increased student participation at the end of class when their attention is most scarce.
  • Cons: Increased instructor workload (but worth it!).


I will certainly use it in introductory finance courses.


Course Organization


I restructured the course content and assignments to encourage students to learn course material throughout the week. Each week, background information and underlying concepts were presented to students in async videos. Asynchronous videos were followed up in synchronous class meetings. In these meetings, we would analyze cases or work on more complex situations. Students who did the asynchronous work did well but those that did not have time for it fell behind.

  • Pros: Breaks the content into more manageable amounts for students. 
  • Cons: Quite a bit of work ahead of class for the instructor to prepare videos, assignments etc..


Assessments for the preceding activities


After watching the asynchronous content, students need complete the following: 1) A short quiz to assess low level learning; 2) Complete an analysis that assesses higher order learning. After the in-class discussions, students are required to complete assignments that would be directly tied to the discussions in class. For most part, it went well. Pre-class assignments were difficult for students but that forced them bring their questions to class and engage in class.

  • Pros: Distributed learning and student engagement in class
  • Cons: More prep work for instructor; students will also have to devote more time towards the class.


The first-year writing course lends itself well to collaborative work and to digital adaptation. The fully in-person course involves peer review work, individual draft conferences, and small group discussions of readings that do translate well into the digital pedagogic space. Ideally, these tools help students collaborate effectively, and give them an avenue of contact with the professor for assistance when necessary. The online draft conferences and collaborative writing experience could continue to play a role even in the conventional, in-person classroom, and add structure to these experiences and to the assessment possibilities for these activities.


Below are examples of typical WRTR assignments and the ways in which they might be adaptable between the in-person and virtual in-person experiences.


Assignment One: Adapted In-class Essay


In the past, I have given this prompt for a diagnostic essay at the beginning of the term, to be written in one 50-minute class period.  In consideration of the need for a digital option, I tried two approaches with this.  First, I used a text-box submission option on Canvas and had students respond during the class period, just typing rather than writing in a blue book. Second, I used the document upload submission option as I would for a longer essay, then allowed the students to begin the essay in class but submit the final essay any time before midnight on the same day, for what I call a 24-hour essay, rather than an in-class essay.  The extended time served two purposes: accommodating students who require extra time (comprising at minimum a third of my students most terms) and allowing for more depth of thought without offering so much time as to make it the same as any other paper, losing the spontaneity of response. The response counts as a double daily grade.


Short In-class Essay #1: Diagnostic Essay on de Tocqueville


We tend to think of the American dream as a rosy-colored “rags to riches” success story. Yet commenting on the Americans he encountered in the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville found a different shape to the dream. He saw a culture whose “love of well-being [had] become the national and dominant taste” (507) such that people sought the “shortest route” to happiness (511). Yet they became troubled and restless in the process (512). 


To de Tocqueville, the dream Americans share is really a “dream…of the goods [we] do not have” and our harried attempt to get them (511). We end up choosing “more tranquil and less lofty” goals (604), concerned more with equality, stability, and security than we are with freedom. In short, the dream is not as grand as it sounds.


Given de Tocqueville’s claims, think about one example from American popular culture—a film, TV show, cultural figure—that demonstrates his opinions. Alternatively, you may do the same using proof from Educated. Then, write a thesis-driven, evidence-based essay that explores one or more of the following questions by examining your chosen character(s)/event(s):


1.     What does it mean to seek the “shortest route” to acquire well-being?

2.     Why does the pursuit of well-being lead to restlessness and sadness?

3.     How might “the goods we do not have” motivate the American dream?

4.     What social or cultural conditions warp the ideal of the Dream?


  • You should plan to write about two pages (double-spaced), the bulk of which you will complete during class on Wednesday 1/27.  You will have the entire class period to write.
  • The portal for this assignment will open at midnight Tuesday, 1/26 and close at the end of the day Wednesday 1/27.
  • You may have the Tocqueville handout and notes with you in class.
  • Have an argumentative thesis and topic sentences that clearly define the arguments in your body paragraphs. Use textual evidence to support your assertions.  Do not merely ramble about de Tocqueville.  Make focused assertions about his text.
  • I am grading this essay for originality of thought and clarity more than for specifics of style and grammar.  Since you have only a short time to prepare, my comments will be much more content-based than stylistic.

Assignment Two: Online Peer Review


Guidelines for peer review can be tricky, but students will do a good job for each other with a little direction.  I have found the Canvas peer review option to work really well, both asynchronously and working together in class.  The students submit rough drafts the evening before and complete two reviews by the end of the period or the end of the day, depending. Here I have attached a screen shot of a typical submission.  Students can and do also use the audio comment feature in the Speedgrader.




Assignment 3: One-pager and Class Presentation


This assignment works well to engage students whether on Zoom, in class, or in a hybrid setting. Students write a one-page response to the assigned reading (dispersed through a few weeks of class—we sign up for dates using a Google doc in the Canvas Collaborations function), and in conjunction with that one-pager, they offer a supplementary article or video clip or other complementary source to add to discussion. The strict one-page length takes some pressure off the written portion, but at the same time teaches concision and precision in writing. Below the assignment sheet is a copy of the grading rubric I use to assess this work.


Short Response Paper and Presentation


The short response paper is designed to encourage student-led discussions of a text we are reading.


You will write a one-page (and only one page, double or 1.5-spaced) thesis-driven response to the assigned reading.  You will use this response paper as a guide to encourage class discussion, and you will take questions on your work. The response will include ONE (and only one) secondary source of your choice, which you will list in your works cited along with the primary text.  This source can be images/photos, a brief video clip, a scholarly article, a newspaper article from the time, or something else that would supplement the discussion and help us understand the work in a new way.


A good thesis gives the class a lens through which to view the text.  What does the section of the text you read signify?  About truth?  About family?  About poverty? About the American Dream? About any other topic this particular text covers?


A good response paper will provoke discussion, raise questions, and interest the class. A good response paper will also be reasonably free of grammar errors, written in thoughtful, concise prose, and will show insightful comprehension of the work in question.


You will submit the one-pager to Canvas for a grade, and I will grade the presentation portion as you present, providing notes afterward.


Some suggestions:

  • Lead with your thesis—one page leaves no time for a funnel introduction.
  • Don’t waste time on long quotations—just discuss the important moments in your own words.
  • Be incredibly concise—be Orwellian (see his “Politics and the English Language”—it’s great) in your style and wording choices. 
  • Practice and time yourself—total presentation time should not exceed 7 minutes.

WRTR 2304 Short Response Rubric


One-page Essay

Clarity and Focus (20 possible)                                 ____________

Writing Style (20 possible)                                        ____________

Thoughtful engagement with text (20 possible)        ____________


Class Discussion

Preparation (10 possible)                                           ____________

Engagement with class (10 possible)                        ____________

Secondary source (20)                                               ____________


Presentation Total (40 possible)                                 ____________

Précis Total (60 possible)                                           ____________

Total Grade (100 possible)                                         ____________


As a program highly focused on real-life client work, group work, and community engagement the necessity of navigating a team is constantly brought up. Working on teams with peers that you know and work well together is one thing, working on teams with people you have never met and who have completely different backgrounds is another. With this in mind, we created a system that for our Design Studio Capstone Classes (Design Studio) we require every team to create a Team Bylaw or Team Charter document. The goal of the document is more so about the process it takes to create the document than the final output. It requires groups to have intentional discussions about what makes them work well, what is off-putting, and helps them get to know each other in a safe and collaborative space.


Below is our Team Bylaw exercise in more detail:



Within a group project setting, each group is asked to spend their first meeting time together to craft their Team Bylaws. They should determine basic rhythms and expectations of working together, but also consider more nuanced unexpected scenarios, such as:

· What happens when it's someone's birthday?

· What if someone is not showing up?

· What if someone gets married?


The team should spend time brainstorming any potential future scenario that might set the group up for hardship or success. This exercise should then be documented and outlined in agreement into one final Team Bylaw Document.

Students should have fun with this, but also take it seriously. This should be used as a tool to help stay productive and govern your time, personality, and productivity together.



1) Students that get more personal and creative with this exercise seem to have more fun and are more engaged as a team.

2) Students that take time to make the document their own and to personalize it seem to use it more and reference it on their own.

3) The whole concept works the best when instructors intentionally reference the document throughout the semester, especially during mid-terms as a group dynamic check-in.





1) It creates space for students to have to talk about what makes them work well as a team rather than just jumping into major projects without really knowing each other.


2) It allows students to jump in to the process as much as they want and gives them ownership of how their group dynamics are determined.




1) It can turn into a check-off item. If it’s not done thoughtfully and with great intention and can fall flat and feel like just another thing to do.


2) If the instructor doesn’t reference it and can get forgotten, so top-down support and encouragement is necessary to make it successful.