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Strategies For Successful Student Collaboration

Five tips to help students build employability and 21st-century skill set.

At TELANTO we believe in the power of student collaborations. For most of the day we engage our corporate clients with students in collaborative activities, in which challenge sponsors look for solution proposals that solve their day-to-day real-world challenges. Although this is a fascinating area to be in quite a few times we have witnessed student groups wait for answers rather than collaborate and look for solutions. 

Promoting real-world company challenges for student collaboration is a fascinating area to be involved in but it doesn’t just happen on its own. Since we want real student collaboration, we need to intentionally design it as part of the learning activity of the course in which students are enrolled. Let me share with you a couple of strategies that should help to encourage effective collaboration amongst students and corporate sponsors.


Students need a reason to collaborate. They need the “massage” between their ears. They need to understand the problem underlying the challenge and the present and/or future impact this problem is having on the company sponsor. In other words students need to ‘own the problem’. If for example the challenge selected by the professor is too simple or lacks complexity perhaps because the challenge does not present potential alternative solutions or does not involve some degree of resistance to potential solutions or repeats itself from previous course editions students will most properly not engage. At most, they may check in with each other or interact in superficial ways. The real reason to collaborate is because the task is real and complex— provides a networking opportunity and is too difficult with too many facettes to complete alone.

Real challenges simulate a real working environment and provide an exciting way to get to know an industry, a specific business or work with people from a certain geography. 

Complex challenges as long as they feel real, are engaging, stimulating, and multilayered. The more complex a challenge is the more it requires “positive interdependence” , a situation in which attaining the goal or objective, completing the task, being successful, and getting a good grade requires the student team to work together and share knowledge with each other and the challenge sponsor.

As with many other things, the more students practice to solve real and complex challenges the better their overall result of the collaborations and solutions. We have many experienced Academics in our network that create their own “playbook” of how these student collaborations should look like and work. Typically those promote and stimulate research, discussion, debate, and time to develop own ideas—on a solution which they must then propose together.


Coaching students how to collaborate is a key success factor. Students often need to learn how to work effectively with others and as part of a team. This prepares students to transition to the workplace as employees where they do not have the choice of who they work with and need to collaborate day to day to perform their work. Experienced academics help students to understand the what, why, and how of collaboration. Typically they do this in several ways with individual students or student teams:

- Explain to students why challenge collaboration is so important for their learning and future career development. 

- Make students aware of the benefits through challenge collaborations and what successful outputs can look like.

- Support students through the various phases during student collaboration - from building the team, escalating issues and keeping it for real facing the customer

- Monitor students on how they spend their time and opportunities within the activity to develop leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, negotiation and conflict-management skills.

- Establish expectations and norms for working together. These expectations can range for example from meeting reporting and task deadlines to developing communication protocols between student teams and sponsors, between student teams and teaching staff and between themselves. Establishing clear expectations and norms are necessary for accountability.

- Design, or have students design, protocols for handling conflict disagreement so they can resolve issues within their teams.

- Guide students to develop empathy and active listening skills.


When challenge sponsors and students complain about collaborative groups, it often has to do with lack of communication about free riding of one member who lets others do all the work and then benefits from the group grade. It is for this reason that it is important to establish clear expectations and norms from the outset. Experienced academics eliminate free riding in a number of ways:

- Create small groups between 3 to 6 students. Smaller student collaboration allows for less room to hide and not participating is becoming less of an option.

- Push for individual responsibility and ask challenge sponsors assess students both individually and as a group. For example, at TELANTO we ask both academics and responsible executives to give feedback about the innovation potential of the proposed solutions as well as collaboration amongst all 3 stakeholders. 

- Provide room for students teams to create roles that relate to the content and specific tasks. Roles are important to give students ownership in the process and allow academics to assess students based on successful completion of these roles. Assignment of roles needs to be documented to ensure clarity of role responsibilities. Roles can also be shared amongst team members. For example, meeting organiser role is rotated every two weeks during say a 10 week challenge project.

- Peer assessment where student teams decide whether they should all receive equal marks for an assessment task or unequal marks based on contribution.


Most student collaborations were TELANTO is engaged are based on transporting a course syllabus to create a solution proposal in the most effective way possible. This focus means that some student teams often ignore the process of collaboration with the challenge sponsor early on in the process. This is usually due to a mixture of shyness, low self-confidence and trepidation of having to engage with someone who is from the ‘real world’ and forgetting that they are also part of the ‘real world’. It is very important for student teams to ‘own the problem(s)’ presented by the challenge so that they can have informed conversations about the impact of the challenge on the company .Rich weekly discussions that connect students with the experiences from the company representatives, who are willing to engage them deeply in a shared experience, and that support discussions and brainstorming sessions are essential to student collaborations.

Ultimately, students come to an agreement and provide a solution which they must defend during a final presentation to both their academics and company. This focus on discussion and agreement builds social skills and strengthens the capacity to collaborate. Students learn to defend their ideas through evidence and analytical reasoning, to negotiate meaning, and to argue constructively.


Good student collaborations show that all students, even those who struggle, play a major role in finding an appropriate solution through consensus. Student collaborations should not just strengthen existing competencies but ensure that their interactions stretch existing skills and expand one another’s expertise. For example, we have seen quite a few student collaborations in which one student is much more engaged and stronger in one skill than the other team members. In these cases we have witnessed that experienced academics encourage the more skilful or proficient students to take on a leadership role to teach less skilful or proficient team members. This allows final grades to be contingent to some extent upon how much the team learns from each other. It is therefore important to structure student teams that contain a balanced mix of skills or proficiency in particular subject areas.

In collaborative activities with students, we want to make sure that individual students share an intellectual space, allowing them to evolve as a team - learn more, do more, and experience more together than they would alone. In this day and age, academics can promote real challenge collaborations by shifting their role from professor to challenge coach—promoting teamwork, guiding students to discover solutions, monitoring student challenge related activities, providing instant feedback and helping students learn to work together-productively to solve the challenge, thus attain a common goal.

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Do you want to collaborate with companies?

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About the Author

Timo Kerzel is Co-Founder of TELANTO - the digital platform to engage and scale university-industry collaboration, counting on a +15 year track record in global marketing, business development and business management in various companies including SAP. He holds an Executive MBA from IESE Business School, Barcelona and his B.A. from the School of Management & Innovation (Steinbeis) in Berlin. Furthermore certified as a Design Thinking Coach from HPI in Potsdam, Timo is passionate about customer and user centric solutions, creating true value for TELANTO's “Academic Business Network” Community.

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