• Cooperative Learning

    Using information from New Scientist magazine, Scott Higgins writes:

    “Did you know that a rope has greater strength than the combined individual strength of the strands that make it up? Why is this? The answer is quite simple. Individual strands have weak spots along them, points at which they easily break. But in a rope, the weak spots are randomly distributed along the length of the rope and the twist in the rope allows the surrounding strands to cancel out the weak spots of the individual fibers. It’s the same with people. We all have strengths and weaknesses. On our own our weaknesses can break us, but together we work to achieve strength for all.”


    Cooperative learning is more than simply “working in a group.” Most of us at one time or another participated in a group project in which one or two people did all the work, while the rest of the group “went along for the ride.” True cooperative learning, however, demands individual accountability in order for the group to be successful.

    True cooperative learning is the most extensively researched educational innovation of all time. Cooperative learning is, in fact, more extensively researched and proven than the Madeline Hunter method of direct instruction, which the majority of teachers use every day! Hundreds of studies have proven that cooperative learning results in several positive outcomes:

    • cooperative methods utilizing group goals and individual accountability do accelerate learning considerably;
    • cooperative methods have positive effects upon group relations (especially racial relations), acceptance of mainstreamed students, and self-esteem;
    • cooperative learning increases attraction to subject being studied, time on task, and attendance.

    (Slavin, R. (1989). Research on cooperative learning: Consensus and controversy. Educational Leadership, Dec. 1989/Jan.1990, 52-54).

    In addition, studies indicate that when students are allowed to work together, they experience an increase in a variety of social skills:

    • students become more able to solve problems which demand cooperation for a solution,
    • students become better able to take the role (perspective) of another, and
    • students are generally more cooperative on a variety of measures, such as willingness to help and encourage others.

    Cooperative learning also has an impact upon student behavior, particularly self-management. Students in cooperative learning classrooms become more internal in their sense of control in contrast to children in traditional classrooms who feel more externally controlled. Students from cooperative learning classrooms also have a greater sense of intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation.

    What Is Cooperative Learning?

    For learning to be truly cooperative, it must include the following five attributes:

    1) Positive Interdependence

    2) Face to Face Interchange

    3) Individual Accountability

    4) Interpersonal and Small Group Skills Instruction

    5) Group Processing (Debriefing)

    1) Positive Interdependence

    Positive Interdependence exists when students believe that they cannot be successful unless all members of their group are successful. Students therefore count on each other to share resources, ideas, and often, a grade.

    In our classroom we discuss and refer to the acronym TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More. I often restate this by saying, “All of us are smarter than one of us.”

    2) Face to Face Interchange

    Interchanges allow students to put their natural desire to talk to a productive purpose. By letting all students at one time discuss important concepts, we create what educators call simultaneous interaction; that is, all students are involved at one time.

    Spencer Kagan describes the traditional classroom where cooperative learning is not in place:

    “In the traditional classroom one person at a time speaks, usually the teacher, but occasionally a student, as the student is called on by the teacher. This is a sequential structure, in that each person participates in turn, one after the other in sequence... The mathematics of sequential structure are disastrous because they leave unacceptably little time per pupil for active participation.”

    Let’s think back to our own school experience. The teacher would ask a question, and if we knew the answer we would wave our hands frantically in the air, hoping to be “picked.” If the teacher selected another student instead, we would drop our hands to the desk with a groan, disappointed that we weren’t chosen. We would, in fact, hope that the student who was picked would miss the answer so that we could have a chance! And if that student did answer incorrectly, the hands would all shoot up again! Students would become excited, like sharks sensing blood in the water. Is this really the attitude we want our children to have? Should they believe that someone else must fail in order for them to be successful?

    Cooperative learning creates a win-win solution for everyone.

    3) Individual Accountability

    Individual accountability provides feedback to the individual student, telling how well he/she contributed to the success of the group; it also discourages individuals from “hitch-hiking” on the efforts of others.

    When a teacher says, “Be sure everyone in your group can name the five steps of the scientific method,” the likelihood that learning will take place increases dramatically if the teacher adds, “And you will each be quizzed independently in three minutes.”

    This is most often the element missing in efforts to “work together.” Slavin (1983) points out that methods which provide a group grade or a group product, without making each member accountable for his or her own contribution, do not consistently produce achievement gains.

    4) Interpersonal and Small Group Skills Instruction

    A major difference in the Johnson and Johnson method of cooperative learning (which we use in our class) is that is stresses the teaching of social skills in conjunction with the academic tasks. Once we have fumbled about trying to work together informally, we will introduce the “Skill of the Week” in order to teach these skills.

    5) Group Processing (Debriefing)

    Processing at the end of a cooperative activity exists to let students discuss how well they have achieved goals and how well they have maintained social skills within their groups. Group processing is structured by the teacher, but done by the students. It consists of 1) the teacher making specific observations about individual and group achievement of goals, and 2) the student responding as to how well or poorly he/she did in achieving goals, and what can be done to improve in the future.

    Why Are Social Skills Important?

    Simply placing students in groups does not ensure that they will work cooperatively; instead, social skills must be taught as systematically as any other skills in the classroom. However, social skills only make sense when students have had some experience trying to work together. They will begin to realize that success does rest upon how well they can work together, and they will actually want to learn how to do this better. I heard the comment from students last year, “We could have gotten more done, but we kept arguing. We’re trying to figure out a way to not argue so much.”

    The Cooperative Skill of the Week mentioned earlier will include such topics as listening, taking turns, using quiet voices, encouraging participation, expressing support, asking for help and clarification, and summarizing. Skills will also be repeated and reinforced as necessary throughout the year.

    Why Does It Work?

    Cooperative learning makes gains for a number of reasons:

    • the quantity and quality of tutoring and practice increase,
    • tasks are made more clear,
    • learning units are subdivided,
    • making “smaller chunks” of information which are easier to digest,
    • time-on-task increases, since activities are very interactive,
    • frequency and quality of rewards (encouragement) increases,
    • natural desire to talk with peers is channeled toward academic achievement,
    • positive peer pressure and promise of peer praise acts as motivator,
    • peer support increases and anxiety decreases, and
    • a sense of “team” develops, rather than a mentality of “sink or swim.”

Last Modified on September 9, 2006