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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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Challenging Group Dynamics

Like all groups of people trying to work together, student groups sometimes run into difficulties. Be proactive and have ways prepared to prevent or solve problems. Some suggestions include:

  • Brainstorm how groups could handle a specific difficult situation, such as one person not letting others talk. Have each group come up with a solution to the problem.

  • Use a checklist to help students resolve conflicts. The checklist could have students assess how they are listening to each other, working together, and respecting each participant.

  • Give clear written guidelines for each student role. Make sure that roles are clear before the activity begins.

  • Establish a specific signal if the noise level is too high. Award points to each group for working quietly.

  • Have students use their journals to record how they would like their group to implement a specific collaborative skill. For example, if students know that the collaborative skill they will work on in their small group is "disagreeing nicely" they could write down what they could say. They could also reflect on why that skill is important to them and to the group.

Find other suggestions on improving group dynamics.

How Can You Stretch This Strategy?

As students become more familiar with cooperative group structures, have them take more ownership of the process. Have students determine how to break into groups, determine their group needs, and create and assign student roles. Students can create a list of collaborative and other social skills that they think could be improved, and develop a plan to work on those skills in their groups.

As groups begin to develop, have students reflect on how the group is functioning. Have students discuss their group's progress in interpersonal skills, and have them problem-solve the challenging dynamics of the group. This type of reflection will help students develop their metacognition and articulation skills. Students can reflect on their contributions to the group and monitor their own progress either as part of a discussion or in a written reflection.

In groups that stay together over a long period of time, and as students become familiar with each other's strengths and challenges, they should be given more autonomy in choosing roles and developing a process for completing the task. Encourage students to think about how they are progressing as a group and the challenges that they face, as well as how they are progressing academically and how to improve the quality of their work as a team.

When Can You Use It?

Cooperative learning can be used in any class at any level with any subject area. Cooperative learning works well when it is a part of the culture of a classroom, and when students are familiar with working together and know what is expected of them. The following are some ideas for using cooperative groups in your classroom.

Reading/English

Use cooperative groups during partner reading. Have students read silently and then take turns reading aloud. The listener can guide the reader when necessary. Use cooperative groups after Sustained Silent Reading. Have students gather in groups to summarize what books or chapters they read. This also could be a time for students to "sell" the book they are reading and encourage others to read it as well.

Writing

Use cooperative groups during the writing process to brainstorm topics, to pre-write, and during peer review conferences. Use cooperative groups to write a "how-to" piece. Students, in groups, can write about how to make a model or drawing, exchange what they've written with another group, and collaborate to make the model or drawing.

Have students read texts and use a double-entry journal to list critical points and their responses. They can exchange their double-entry journals and create a summary of the assigned readings with a partner.

Math

Use cooperative groups to practice problem-solving strategies. Have student pairs use manipulatives to act out a problem. After solving a math problem, students can explain their thinking to a partner.

In cooperative groups, students can decide on a set of criteria to categorize geometric figures, and then explain their criteria to other groups.

Social Studies

Use Jigsaw to review concepts and prepare for a test. In jigsaw groups, have students list important skills or concepts that are important enough to be on the test. In expert groups, have them write review questions. Then have students return to jigsaw groups to ask their two or three best questions, giving others in their group a chance to answer.

Science

Use cooperative groups to create and discuss hypotheses before completing experiments. Students can combine their prior knowledge about a topic and collaborate to make an educated guess.

Lesson Plans

Teamwork and Tangrams
This is a primary lesson plan that uses tangrams to introduce teamwork.

Explaining How to Make a Bar Graph
This is a primary lesson in which students work in teams to describe how to make a bar graph.

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