What Is Cooperative Learning, and What Does It Do?

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Cooperative learning is a successful teaching strategy in which small teams, each with students of different ability levels, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of a team is responsible, not only for learning what is taught, but also for helping his or her teammates learn—thus creating an atmosphere of achievement.


Cooperative learning is the instructional practice of placing students into small groups and having them work together toward a common goal. Each group member learns new material and helps other group members learn important information.

Although cooperative learning is specifically targeted for students in grades 2 through 12, it is equally successful for any subject, topic, or level. It can be effectively used for third-grade math, ninth-grade social studies, fifth-grade language arts, or twelfth-grade physics.

The success of cooperative learning is based on three interrelated factors:

  • Group goals. Cooperative learning teams work to earn recognition for the improvement of each member of a group.

  • Individual accountability. Each member of a team is assessed individually. Teammates work together, but the learning gains of individuals form the basis of a team score.

  • Equal opportunities for success. Individual improvement over prior performance is more important than reaching a pre-established score (90 percent on a test, for example). A student who moves from 60 percent on a test one week to 68 percent (8 percent improvement) the next week contributes just as much to a group as a student who moves from 82 percent to 90 percent (also 8 percent improvement).

However, the ultimate success of cooperative learning is based on a single and very important principle: students must be taught how to participate in a group situation. Teachers cannot assume that students know how to behave in a group setting.

What's in It for My Students?

Fire Alarm

Ability grouping is when all the “low-ability” students are placed in one group, all the “high-ability” students are placed in another group, and all the “medium-ability” students are placed in a third group (for years elementary teachers would put students into three reading groups—the “Bluebirds,” the “Redbirds,” and the “Blackbirds,” for example). Today, we know that such grouping practices promote inequality and are counterproductive to the learning process.

Based on the experiences of thousands of classroom teachers, these are the benefits of cooperative learning:

  • Student achievement. The effects on student achievement are positive and long-lasting, regardless of grade level or subject matter.

  • Student retention. Students are more apt to stay in school and not drop out because their contributions are solicited, respected, and celebrated.

  • Improved relations. One of the most positive benefits is that students who cooperate with each other also tend to understand and like each other more. This is particularly true for members of different ethnic groups. Relationships between students with learning disabilities and other students in the class improve dramatically as well.

  • Improved critical thinking skills. More opportunities for critical thinking skills are provided, and students show a significant improvement in those thinking skills.

  • Oral communication improvement. Students improve in their oral communication skills with members of their peer group.

  • Promoted social skills. Students' social skills are enhanced.

  • Heightened self-esteem. When students' work is valued by team members, their individual self-esteem and respect escalate dramatically.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Success as a Teacher © 2005 by Anthony D. Fredericks. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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