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The secret to creating high-performing, collaborative PBL teams

Whenever PBL is spoken about, the term collaboration generally follows closely. Whilst nobody doubts its importance to students being able to navigate a project successfully or to their ability to thrive after leaving school, there is much less clarity on exactly what good collaboration is and how it should be developed and benchmarked within schools. We often see the downfall of a school’s PBL program being largely attributable to students not being able to work productively in groups and manage the inevitable conflicts that arise.

Teamwork is often something which we expect of students without adequately providing them with the tools or techniques to thrive. We often place students in teams without sufficient explicit teaching of what a good team looks like and what behaviours can both enhance and corrode team dynamics, then wonder why that group falls apart. A golden rule of PBL follows; whether or not students succeed in the project and create a high-quality end product critically depends on their ability to work cohesively and effectively as a team.

This article, therefore, will outline how you should think about and model what good collaboration looks like across a PBL project. We’ll be breaking this down further in future editions of the eduSTEM Review to take you on a deep-dive of the tools we use to instil these skills in students.

The High Performing Teams (HPT) model

Any successful team across all walks of life share six common characteristics. These characteristics form our High Performing Teams model and should be used to help explain and benchmark what ‘good’ collaboration entails across a PBL project.

The six characteristics of the HPT model are listed and expanded on below:

  1. Goals

  2. Culture

  3. Communication

  4. Leadership

  5. Discipline

  6. Psychological Safety


A shared vision, or shared and compelling goals, are a cornerstone of every successful team. Teams that know what they want to achieve and what they are working towards will almost always outperform teams that are unclear on their objectives.

Goals exist at two levels within teams. They exist at a shared, team level, which unifies each team member’s actions and ensures everyone is working towards the same outcome. They also exist at an individual level. Just as each member of a sporting team has their own role to play which, when aggregated, ensures the team succeeds, students in a project-based unit will have their own individual goals across each task which will further the goals of the team as a whole.

How do you teach this?

For goals to unify teams, they must be clear, visible, and understood by each student. To make this actionable, we recommend that each team creates success criteria for each project-related task. This permits the team to define what success looks like for them in that task, which both serves as a formative check on their understanding and helps them create a shared team goal. Then, each student should be tasked with individualising that success criteria based on the part of the task they are expected to complete – decided by the group or based on the student’s role within the team – so that they have a clearly-defined personal set of goals for them to focus on hitting. If done correctly, the aggregation of each team member’s individual goals will ensure the team satisfies their success criteria for each task.


We often speak of culture as something an organisation or a society possesses, but individual teams can create their own culture. In this context, a team’s culture simply represents the shared understanding and expectations of how the team acts and the standards that are acceptable within the team. Successful teams have a culture that promotes high performance and team harmony, whilst unsuccessful teams often have a culture which (intentionally or otherwise) tolerates or creates the conditions for low performance and dysfunction.

How do you teach this?

The sum total of all other aspects of the HPT model help build a strong team culture. However, perhaps the most important tool is a team contract, used at the start of the project. This formalises a set of rules and expectations that team members will adhere to and creates a common language across the team for how they think about collaboration. This should be completed immediately after students are grouped into teams and can be returned to and reinforced across the project. We will expand on this tool in more detail in a future edition of the eduSTEM Review.


Good communication sounds simple in theory but can be difficult to consistently achieve in practice. The team dynamic contains different personalities who have different preferred modes of communication and, when you throw emotions and ego into the mix, this often creates conditions where communication breaks down. When this occurs, it is very difficult for teams to operate effectively.

A team is communicating effectively when they:

  • Can discuss and agree on roles and responsibilities

  • Update each other on progress

  • Hold each other accountable for the timeliness and quality of their work

  • Challenge each other’s ideas productively to create the best outcome for the team

  • Raise issues or grievances and discuss them dispassionately to find a resolution

  • Invite and listen to contributions from each team member

How do you teach this?

Different strategies can be used to teach different aspects of communication. Time should be spent working with students to help them feel comfortable in sharing, discussing, and debating ideas, creating roles and responsibilities, and raising and discussing concerns or feedback with each other.

Perhaps the most important strategy to foster strong communication within teams is the user manual exercise. By helping teammates understand each other, it allows them to set strategies to ensure they can communicate with each other in a way that each team member will respond positively to. We will expand on this tool in more detail in a future edition of the eduSTEM Review.


In the context of a PBL project, leadership is synonymous with ensuring the team hits it stated goals. A good leader will help their teammates understand what they need to achieve, will set the standard for expected performance, and then will help their teammates to hit those standards. In this way, a good leader in these projects is part project manager (keeping everyone on track and coordinating everyone’s actions) and part coach (helping people where needed).

Key, though, is that the leader does not do the work for other students. Their role is to empower them to complete their work to the required standard, not take work off them to get it done faster.

How do you teach this?

Students will be given the opportunity to act as the team ‘leader’ at different points across the project. Rather than having one project manager or leader across the whole project, students should share the leadership role across different tasks. This gives every student the chance to develop their leadership skills.

Different strategies can be used to help students develop their leadership skills for both aspects of their role. These include the DACI decision making model (where leaders retain the deciding vote), their role in helping their team prioritise and manage their deadlines, and the use of stand-ups to monitor group progress. We will have more to say about each of these strategies in a future edition of the eduSTEM Review.


Though a separate element of our HPT model, discipline is really a by-product of the team’s culture and the role of a leader in ensuring the team hits their stated goals. Where expectations are clear, where there is a culture that values and expects high performance, and where the team leader is holding their teammates accountable to the work they must complete, discipline follows as a matter of course.

How do you teach this?

The team contract sets the standard for a team’s expectations of each other. Their goals and objectives outline what they need to achieve. A combination of leadership and clear communication ensures students stay on track and display the discipline to complete their tasks to ensure their goals are hit.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety means that each team member feels like they can take interpersonal risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. This means that team members can make mistakes without it being held against them or feel confident in raising an issue or concern without it getting shouted down. It also means that students are not afraid to ask others for help, show that they do not know or understand something, or share that they are struggling.

How do you teach this?

The user manual and the learner profile exercises are both powerful tools in helping students understand themselves and what they are likely to succeed and struggle with. In sharing this with their teammates, students build trust and a deeper understanding of how each other are wired. This understanding is fundamental to building psychological safety. Across the project, effective communication (using strategies to promote inclusive team meetings and the giving and receiving of feedback) ensure each team member feels comfortable to speak their mind without fear of judgement.

Do you know an educator who would be interested in learning more about how to build collaborative skills in students? If so, please share this article with them!

If you’d like to learn more about how we help build students who can collaborate effectively across a PBL unit, get in touch with us at

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