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Cooperative Learning

Background Knowledge

Cooperative Learning: An instructional approach in which students work together in groups towards learning goals. Varied strategies help students with individual learning and group achievement.

Cooperative learning takes many forms within classrooms. Its essential characteristic is that it fosters positive interdependence by teaching students to work and learn together in a small-group setting. Traditional cooperative learning groups consist of three to four students who work on an assignment or project together in such a way that each group member contributes to the learning process and then learns all the basic concepts being taught. Both individual students and the group as a whole are help accountable for the outcome. Cooperative learning provides unique learning experiences for students and offers an alternative to competitive models of education. It is benefits students of varying learning modalities -- for example, those who learn best through social or group learning processes, or conversely those who need support in learning how to cooperate in group settings. It offers opportunities for students to learn through speaking and listen processes (oral language) as well as through reading and writing procesees (written language).

Cooperative learning offers many benefits: for students, it improves both academic learning and social skills; for teaches, it is an aid to classroom management and instruction. Cooperative learning enhances students' enthusiasm for learning and their determination to achieve academic success (Lan and Repman, 1995). It has been shown to increase the academic achievement of students of all ability levels (Stevens and Slavin, 1995a, 1995b) in reading, writing, mathematics computation and application, comprehension, and critical thinking (Megnin, 1995, Webb, Trooper, and Fall, 1995); Bramlett 1994; Nattiv, 1994; Hart, 1993; Stevens and Slavin 1995a). Time of task and engagement increase in cooperative learning settings, because each student is a necessary part of the whole groupís success (Mulryan, 1995).

Cooperative learning teaches social as well as academic skills (Stevens and Slavin 1995a). For learning groups to be effective, students must learn to honor and respect one anotherís differences, to support one another through learning processes, to communicate effectively with one another, and to come to a consensus or understanding when needed., Thus cooperative learning provides valuable training in skills needed to become effective citizens, to engage in group problem solving, and to attain and keep employment. Cooperative learning has been shown to improve interpersonal relations and strengthen conflict resolution skills (Megnin, 1995; Zhang, 1994; Zuckerman, 1994; Nastasi and Clements, 1993). It improves students' emotional well-being, self-esteem, coping skills, and attitudes toward schoolwork (Patterson, 1994; Patrick, 1994). Students engaged in cooperative learning experiences have been able to identify an increase in their own knowledge and self-esteem, trust of peers, and problem-solving and communication skills (Dyson, 1995).

African American, Hispanic, and Native American children often learn by socializing with their extended family and community members. Many cultures also have strong oral traditions that foster creativity, storytelling, and kinesthetic expression of language in student, skills that go unrecognized in those school settings where student are expected to work primarily as individuals through written work. While most cultures value cooperation, group loyalty, and caring for extended family and community member, these values may class with the values of individual accomplishment, competition, productivity, and efficiency dominant in U.S. schools and workplaces. Cooperative learning has been specifically shown to increase school success for Hispanic students (Losey, 1995). Cooperative and social learning is also the preferred learning style for many students of European descent. Obviously, students still learn by studying on their own. But some learn better in settings where they can share ideas, ask questions, and receive feedback.

Cooperative learning experiences have also been shown to improve the relationships among diverse students, when teachers are careful to construct groups of students from various cultures (Kagen, 1990) and levels of physical need and ability (Stevens and Slavin, 1995B). Cooperative learning benefits you as a teacher in terms of classroom management and instruction. When you teach to the whole class and students are not allowed to interact or assist one another, it is up to you to provide individualized assistance to students who have not understood a given concept, have difficulty following directions, lack skills needed to being a task, or have trouble following classroom routines. Much valuable student learning time is lost when students must wait for the teacher to circulate through the classroom.

Cooperative learning provides exciting learning opportunities across content areas. Students can work in cooperative groups to research topics, write reports, and plan and implement class discussions, debates, and panels. Students can also use cooperative groups to read materials, write summaries, find specific information, and answer questions. They can work together to study for tests, memorize information, and articulate concepts. Students can receive feedback and editing assistance from peers. They can engage in hands-on projects, experiments, and practical application. They can design and implement school and community service projects. (For more examples, see Johnson and Johnson, 1996; Vermette, 1994; Webb, Trooper, and Fall, 1995).

You can increase student learning time and reduce your own stress level and workload by teaching students to help one another with learning and organizational tasks and to monitor one another's progress. This allows you to become a facilitator of learning and allows students to become responsible for their own learning and that of their peers. Some other benefits of cooperative learning are listed in the box below.

Benefits of Cooperative Learning
  • Improves comprehension of basic academic content
  • Reinforces social skills
  • Allows student decision making
  • Creates active learning environment
  • Boosts students' self-esteem
  • Celebrates diverse learning styles
  • Promotes student responsibility
  • Focuses on success for everyone

Some Keys to Cooperative Learning
  • Teacher planning is critical
  • Student engagement is mandatory
  • Assessment is vital
  • Quality work is essential
  • Constant student monitoring is required
  • Time requirements must by established
  • Trust, cohesiveness, and responsibility must be promoted

Based on Orlich et al. Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Better Instruction, 5/e (1998)

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