Cooperative Learning

Get information on cooperative learning, an instructional strategy in which small groups of students work together on a common task. This teaching method is an excellent way to allow students to think critically without relying on you for answers.
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Updated on: February 8, 2007
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How Can You Make It Happen?

Beginning to Work in Groups

In classrooms where students are not familiar with working together in small groups, start with short, highly-structured activities. It will take time to develop a respectful and safe classroom community. Successful cooperative groups depend on students who respect each other, listen to one another, and feel safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings. You can help students learn the skills needed to work in groups by starting with short, structured lessons aimed at fostering turn-taking, involving all students in the discussion, and clarifying the roles, rights, and responsibilities of group members.

One way to introduce cooperative groups is to work with one group to get started, and allow the rest of the students to watch the group as they engage in a discussion – a "fishbowl" experience. Intervene when necessary to keep the thoughtful discussion going. With the large group, discuss effective strategies that the small group is using or should be using to continue and expand the discussion.

When beginning to use cooperative learning with students, it is also important to establish team norms. Team norms are guidelines or rules governing how group members agree to work together. Norms for working in groups tend to be very different from traditional classroom norms. For example, in a traditional classroom, students complete their own work. In cooperative classrooms, students work with others to complete tasks. Have students discuss and develop the norms that they will follow during group work. Team norms, if designed well, can help to create a safe and supportive atmosphere.

Some examples of team norms include:

  • We always treat one another with respect.

  • We always encourage new ideas and value the consideration of all suggestions.

  • We always justify our opinions to the team.

  • We always make decisions as a team.

Preparation

Students should be grouped for instruction to maximize opportunities to learn, and the type of grouping can produce different results based on the circumstances. Establish groups using a variety of criteria, such as social skills, academic skills, student interests, and instructional objectives.

Select the academic and collaborative objectives. For example, "Students will present their opinion of a candidate, supported with facts. Students will work cooperatively in groups of four, taking turns when talking."

Teachers should model positive interpersonal skills, have students practice the skills, and encourage the students to reflect on how effectively they are performing the skills.

Instruction

Once groups have been determined, the most important phase begins. Instruction should be based on solid content, with grouping used to enhance and customize student learning. Students should understand the objectives, instructional tasks, and criteria for success. Review and assign student roles in order to smooth the transition to cooperative learning groups. During instruction, monitor groups and reinforce collaborative behaviors, conduct observations, assess social skills, or interview students.

Assessment

After instruction, assessments may include paper and pencil achievement tests and/or measures of actual student performance or group products. Develop a way to assess both group and individual accountability. After working in groups, students should engage in group processing activities where they discuss the interpersonal skills that influence their effectiveness in working together.

Be sure to schedule a time for students to explain to the class how they completed a task or solved a problem, as different groups may have developed different solutions. Explaining their group's process is an important skill for students to develop. In addition, the whole class benefits from the range of ideas from each group.

You will need to decide how students and groups will be made accountable for their learning. In collaborative classrooms, it is often difficult to assign individual grades. Some teachers give "group" grades that each student receives, but this can be problematic if a few students do the majority of the work within a group. Giving each member both an individual and a group grade is another option. Each student can receive a grade for the group task and can be responsible for a subtask, which is graded as well. Some teachers average the academic grade with a "group performance" grade. This makes group interactions and processes as significant as academics. If you are uncomfortable with this, a good solution is to have students complete an individual task after the cooperative learning activity, such as writing a reflection piece about what they learned and how their group worked to complete the task. This may be a preferable way to evaluate students because it can be used as an assessment of student learning, metacognition, and group processing. Another possibility is to have individual students each complete a final draft of a report that the group has started.

Student Roles

Some tasks are complex and may benefit from clear roles and responsibilities assigned to each student within a group. Create team roles that are simple, clear, and important. Roles that are frivolous, unclear, or too complex may frustrate one or more team members. Some sample roles are:

  • Organizer—provides the group with the overall process structure

  • Recorder—writes down important information (e.g., directions or group work)

  • Checker—Makes sure that all team members understand the concepts and the team's conclusions.

  • Questioner—generates questions and involves all students

  • Assessor—evaluates the progress of each work session

  • Encourager—models and reinforces appropriate social skills

  • Summarizer: Restates the team's conclusions or answers.

  • Spokesperson—represents the group and presents group work to rest of the class

  • Timekeeper—keeps group on task and on time

  • Team facilitator—Moderates discussions, keeps the team on schedule, ensures that work is completed by all, and makes sure that all have the opportunity to participate and learn.

  • Elaborator—Relates the discussion with prior concepts and knowledge.

  • Research runner—Gets needed materials and is the liaison between teams and between their team and the instructor.

At the start of a course, consider allowing team members to pick their own roles. As students become more comfortable with teamwork, however, it is a good idea to rotate roles within the teams so that students experience a variety of responsibilities.

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