Cooperative Learning

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What Is It?

Cooperative Learning, sometimes called small-group learning, is an instructional strategy in which small groups of students work together on a common task. The task can be as simple as solving a multi-step math problem together, or as complex as developing a design for a new kind of school. In some cases, each group member is individually accountable for part of the task; in other cases, group members work together without formal role assignments.

According to David Johnson and Roger Johnson (1999), there are five basic elements that allow successful small-group learning:

  • Positive interdependence: Students feel responsible for their own and the group's effort.

  • Face-to-face interaction: Students encourage and support one another; the environment encourages discussion and eye contact.

  • Individual and group accountability: Each student is responsible for doing their part; the group is accountable for meeting its goal.

  • Group behaviors: Group members gain direct instruction in the interpersonal, social, and collaborative skills needed to work with others occurs.

  • Group processing: Group members analyze their own and the group's ability to work together.

Cooperative learning changes students' and teachers' roles in classrooms. The ownership of teaching and learning is shared by groups of students, and is no longer the sole responsibility of the teacher. The authority of setting goals, assessing learning, and facilitating learning is shared by all. Students have more opportunities to actively participate in their learning, question and challenge each other, share and discuss their ideas, and internalize their learning. Along with improving academic learning, cooperative learning helps students engage in thoughtful discourse and examine different perspectives, and it has been proven to increase students' self-esteem, motivation, and empathy.

Some challenges of using cooperative learning include releasing the control of learning, managing noise levels, resolving conflicts, and assessing student learning. Carefully structured activities can help students learn the skills to work together successfully, and structured discussion and reflection on group process can help avoid some problems.

Why Is It Important?

The authors of Classroom Instruction that Works cite research showing that organizing students in cooperative learning groups can lead to a gain as high as 28 percentiles in measured student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock 2001).

Other researchers report that cooperation typically results in higher group and individual achievement, healthier relationships with peers, more metacognition, and greater psychological health and self-esteem (Johnson and Johnson 1989).

When implemented well, cooperative learning encourages achievement, student discussion, active learning, student confidence, and motivation. The skills students develop while collaborating with others are different from the skills students develop while working independently. As more businesses organize employees into teams and task forces, the skills necessary to be a "team player" (e.g., verbalizing and justifying ideas, handling conflicts, collaborating, building consensus, and disagreeing politely) are becoming more valuable and useful. Using cooperative groups to accomplish academic tasks not only provides opportunities for students to develop interpersonal skills but also gives them authentic experiences that will help them be successful in their future careers.

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