Collaborative Learning in the times of Social Distancing

Your students are struggling, and Social and Emotional Learning has never been more crucial, but how might SEL play out online? The answer is Collaborative Learning and this is your most powerful tool during and after this crisis.

What a blow it was to realise we are not even halfway through quarantine! To think that even the three week mark, that seems so far on the horizon, is likely to be extended. Now, imagine what that same realisation was like for your students. We are all prone to feelings of boredom and being trapped, but young learners are more susceptible. Being disconnected from friends and familiar ways of social interaction, can cause students to feel listless, demotivated and can shorten attention spans.  Not only does this make conducting online classes even more challenging, but it could also have a lasting negative impact on your students through their adulthood. 

Therefore we, as teachers, owe it to our students to not only ensure that their learning remains up to the mark in online classes, but that we do our part in ensuring their well-being by supporting their social and emotional needs. To do this, teachers should consider the following:

  1. How and why is student wellness at risk?
  2.  What proven strategies can act as possible solutions?
  3.  How can we apply these strategies to remote learning?

Dangers to Development

Psychosociology states that this period in your students’ lives is the most important stage of their social and emotional development. In other words, their ability to be socially and emotionally functional adults is dependent on the interpersonal experiences they have now. So, for example, when students cannot engage in familiar peer to peer interactions, it is detrimental to both their short term behaviour and long term growth, but Covid-19 is not the only culprit.

The paradox of “social media making us anti-social” means that social distancing was already taking place before quarantine and the lockdown. From our #Teachertastic entries, we realise that meaningful improvements to learning often come directly from you, the teachers.  So, when faced with the task of ensuring students’ preparedness in coping with these isolating times, you might want to put the following strategies to use. 

Setting-up for Collaborative Learning

Social and Emotional Learning has the objectives of improving students’ social and emotional management skills, and by using collaborative learning, you can layer it into your already existing teacher pedagogy.

Collaborative learning is not a new strategy. Encouraging students to work together towards a specific learning outcome, through team-based projects for example, imparts cooperative skills, facilitates the exchange of intellectual resources and, most relevant to the situation, encourages useful peer to peer interaction. This is perfect for the current need of social and emotional learning, since it reduces social isolation by providing opportunities to reconnect with friends and create a sense of familiarity.

The group powerpoint presentation was the go to method for teachers when they wanted the production of collaborative work from their students. However, our #TeacherTalk feedback suggests that these presentations are more difficult to conduct in online classes, and those of you that follow our informative #TeacherTool campaign will know that “Powerpoint fatigue” is becoming a real obstacle preventing student engagement. Therefore, what new, online-friendly methods of collaborative learning can you use that place particular emphasis on social and emotional learning?


With this strategy you can encourage constructive peer-to-peer interactions while teaching students empathy and open-mindedness, perfect for SEL! Do this through activities like the Fishbowl Debate, where in a group of three, one student takes a stance on a topic, the second student argues an opposing stance, while the third provides an analysis on which stance was the most convincing after considering both perspectives. They can then switch roles with additional stances or topics and this can be done in separate calls or using educational apps like Padlet,  with the summary of their discussions presented together during the online class or posted on Padlet’s board option. Activities like these also build positive interdependence – where students understand that the success of the group depends on their own success. This should also teach them how to respectfully disagree, which is another common component of SEL strategies.   

 Group Art Activities:

Art is a useful tool in achieving SEL objectives. For example, it is proven that drawing and painting are effective coping mechanisms that aid in stress management. So not only will your students be able to better protect their mental health during lockdown, but studies show that effective collaboration increases during art projects compared to academic ones. This is due to the emphasis on creativity instead of academic performance. One brilliant idea we saw on a #TeacherTalk post was to have teams of students work together to create digital posters or other art forms about the do’s and dont’s of quarantine. This will aid in spreading awareness and reducing the fear that has built up in response to recent developments.

 Class Meetings:

The first ten to fifteen minutes of every online class might be better served in an informal, perhaps student-lead class meeting where certain SEL strategies can be employed through collaborative discussion. For example, practice emotional management and empathy by asking students to discuss everyone’s evolving thoughts and feelings on the quarantine. This encourages a daily check-in, another SEL strategy that calls for kids to acknowledge the emotional needs of them and their peers and how to meet them. It is also a form of coming together that helps build a conscientious community. These meetings are especially appropriate for online classes as they allow everyone to transition from their home environment into a class atmosphere and sort out their technical problems without missing any subject matter.


If you want to read further into the various aspects and benefits of Social and Emotional Learning, visit the website of The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

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