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Cooperative Learning Groups

"Form yourselves into groups of five or six and discuss the next example in the text. I'll give you 15 or 20 minutes, then we'll hear from all the groups. Any questions? Okay, go ahead."

Teachers use small groups frequently-to generate ideas for classroom discussion, for a change of pace from the lecture, or to encourage students to speak out in class. This occasional use of small groups, however, differs from cooperative learning in a number of significant ways. In a cooperative learning classroom, the teacher would pose a clear task for students to perform and give specific instructions about how to do it:

"Look at the next example in the book and think about the advantages and disadvantages of the solutions which Clarkson proposes. Think about their economic feasibility. Write down your ideas and then compare them with one of the other students in your usual group of four. Make sure you justify the reasons for your answers, especially if there is any disagreement with your partner. Once you are satisfied that you understand your partner's choices-you don't have to agree with them-I'll ask you to share your answers with the rest of the class so that we can come up with the main advantages and disadvantages of the proposed solutions."

This structure, Think-Pair-Share, is a commonly used cooperative learning strategy. It exemplifies clearly how cooperative learning differs from the occasional use of group work in classrooms.

WHAT IS COOPERATIVE LEARNING?

Cooperative learning is a strategy which involves students in established, sustained learning groups or teams. The group work is an integral part of, not an adjunct to, the achievement of the learning goals of the class. Cooperative learning fosters individual accountability in a context of group interdependence in which students discover information and teach that material to their group and, perhaps, to the class as a whole. The teacher's role changes as Alison King (1993) says "from sage on the stage to guide on the side." Although they learn in groups, the students are evaluated individually on the learning they have achieved.

Cooperative Learning is Structured and focused to make sure that learning is taking place. The teacher chooses the groups to reflect a diversity of viewpoints, abilities, gender, race, and other characteristics. Letting the students choose their own groups can result in a homogeneity which reduces the acquisition of social skills and increases the possibility of a lack of focus on the learning task (Cooper, 1990).

The groups contain fewer than six students-most likely four. Four is a good number; more than that, and individuals may not have equal opportunity to contribute. Four students can work in pairs (each student having 3 potential partners) or together. The group is large enough to contain a diversity of perspectives, yet small enough to facilitate useful interaction (Millis, 1993).

Cooperative Learning Creates a Classroom Community which involves students in a kind of interdependence whereby all are working towards a common goal, often with group members responsible for different aspects of the content and teaching it to other members of the group. The group's work is not complete until all its members have mastered the content. Furthermore, individual learning is reinforced as a result of explaining the content to others. Once established, the groups can stay together for the entire semester or can be reformed to concentrate or disseminate their acquired knowledge at various stages throughout the semester.

Cooperative Learning is a Sustained Approach which lasts longer than a 15 - 20 minute small-group discussion. An entire course or module may be taught using the cooperative learning method. Because they are in the same group for a longer period of time, students experience greater continuity than in occasional small-group situations. The cooperative method enables the groups to identify areas which they need to study further. Groups can recognize connections between what they have learned and what they are discovering, thereby integrating their knowledge. It is important to note that this method encourages students to seek information actively; they are no longer only passive recipients of information.

Cooperative Learning Requires and Enhances Students' Communication Skills. The success of the group depends upon the interaction of its members. Before cooperative learning can begin, students will learn some of the skills required for successful group interaction:

  • paraphrasing other's words to ensure and verify comprehension;
  • giving and receiving feedback;
  • allowing everyone to contribute ideas; and
  • refraining from taking over the group or allowing another to do so.

Regular questionnaires can be useful in gauging the success and maintaining the integrity of the group process.

Cooperative Learning Balances Interdependence with Individual Accountability. Instructions to the students are specific: each group and each student within that group has a task to perform. In other words, each student must demonstrate his or her mastery of the subject and receive an individual grade. Group grades, which may result in some students coasting to a higher mark on the effort of others, do not emphasize individual accountability and are not recommended.

Cooperative Learning Responds to Classroom Diversity and has a positive impact on students whose voices may otherwise go unheard in the classroom. These students include women, minorities, and those who for other reasons may be shy to speak in front of the entire class. Those whose learning style preference is cooperative and collaborative rather than competitive are also served well by this classroom technique. Let's face it, most teaching techniques emphasize students working as individuals-alone in the library, classroom, or study-or as competitors. Students in the cooperative classroom are responsible for eachother's learning. Competition may still exist; however, it is among groups rather than individuals.

BENEFITS ASSOCIATED WITH COOPERATIVE LEARNING

Improved Attendance: Because of their commitment to others in their group, students in cooperative classrooms tend to have better attendance.

Higher Grades: Because of their active participation in class, students' self-esteem and understanding of the material are increased. They earn higher grades.

Increased Participation: Because they are contributing to the group and participating in class, students become more active learners.

References on Collaborative Groups

Cooper, Jim (1990), Cooperative Learning and College Teaching: Tips from the Trenches, The Teaching Professor, 4 (5).

Crowley, Mary and Dunn, Ken (1993). Cooperative Learning at Dalhousie, a workshop presented at Dalhousie University.

Fennell, Hope-Arlene (1994) Cooperative Learning: Students' Perceptions and Preferences, The Lakehead University Teacher, 4 (1).

King, Alison (1993), From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side, College Teaching, 41 (1).

Millis, Barbara (1993), Cooperative Learning, a workshop presented at Dalhousie University.

Sego, Arlene (1991), Cooperative Learning: A Classroom Guide, Info-Tec, Cleveland, Ohio.

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