Cooperative Learning FAQ


 [Photo credit: JD Hancock CC By 2.0]

What is Cooperative Learning?

Two or more people working together to learn something of common interest. It’s a really simple and powerful concept that’s incredibly easy to do poorly. Almost everyone has had a bad experience doing “group work.” If you’re Type A, then you’ve probably fretted incessantly over whether your other groups members will come through. When they don’t, you’ve done the majority of the work. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve reaped the benefits of watching other groups members do your work for you — and you haven’t learned a thing. Social psychologists call you a social loafer. Neither experience (Type A of social loafer) produces good educational outcomes and leaves all parties involved with a bad taste in their mouths. Skip down to the next section if you’d like to learn how to avoid this situation and leverage the powerful learning advantages of collaborative learning.

How Does Cooperative Learning Work?

Over 40 years of research (see Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2007) has identified the 5 key elements necessary that make cooperative learning successful (reproduced from “What is Cooperative Learning“:

  1. Positive Interdependence: You’ll know when you’ve succeeded in structuring positive interdependence when students perceive that they “sink or swim together.”
  2. Individual Accountability: The essence of individual accountability in cooperative learning is “students learn together, but perform alone.”
  3. Face-to-Face (Promotive) Interaction: Important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics only occur when students promote each other’s learning.
  4. Interpersonal and Small Group Social Skills: In cooperative learning groups, students learn academic subject matter (taskwork) and also interpersonal and small group skills (teamwork).
  5. Group Processing: After completing their task, students must be given time and procedures for analyzing how well their learning groups are functioning and how well social skills are being employed.

These elements can be applied to 3 basic types of cooperative learning:

  1. Informal Cooperative Learning: Students working together to achieve a joint learning goal in ad hoc, temporary groups. These groups generally last from for a few minutes or a full class period at the most. Some common activities are 3- to 5-minute focused discussions or think-pair-shares. These can be especially effective in breaking up lectures every 10-15 minutes and allow students to cognitively process what’s being taught.
  2. Formal Cooperative Learning: Students working together to achieve joint learning goal(s) from one class period to many weeks (e.g., jigsaw). These groups can be directed to a number of learning tasks including solving a problem, conducting an experiment, having a structured conversation about an assigned text or writing a report. Regardless of the task, instructors should using the following steps as a guide (adapted from Johnson & Johnson, 2009):
    1. Make a number of preinstructional decisions such as size of groups, method of assigning students to groups, roles students will be assigned, and the way the room will be arranged.
    2. Explain the task and positive interdependence by clearly defining the task, specifying the positive interdependence and individual accountability, giving criteria for success, and explaining the expected social skills students are expected to use.
    3. Monitor students’ learning and intervene in the groups to provide task assistance or to increase students’ interpersonal and group skills.
    4. Evaluate students’ learning and help students process how well their groups functioned. An instructor both observes group functioning and helps students to process for themselves how effectively their group was at working together.
  3. Cooperative Base Groups: Students working together to achieve joint learning goals in long-term, heterogenous, and stable groups that generally last for an entire course. These groups provide stable relationships and support, encouragement, and assistance to members.

Cooperative learning can take many, many forms and is called many names. Some leverage the concepts noted above while others do not. All can use the core features of cooperative learning and will be most effective when this is done. A few related conceptualizations of cooperative learning are listed below:

What are the Benefits of Cooperative Learning?

Metanalyses find the follow average effect sizes (in standard deviations) for the following student outcomes (for review, see Johnson & Johnson, 2009)

  • Overall Achievement
    • Cooperative versus competitive groups: effect size = .67
    • Cooperative versus individualistic work: effect size = .64
  • Higher Level Cognitive and Moral Reasoning
    • Cooperative versus competitive groups: effect size = .93
    • Cooperative versus individualistic work: effect size = .97
  • Peer Relationships and Interpersonal Attraction
    • Cooperative versus competitive groups: effect size = .67
    • Cooperative versus individualistic work: effect size = .60
  • Self Esteem
    • Cooperative versus competitive groups: effect size = .67
    • Cooperative versus individualistic work: effect size = .45

What are the Downsides of Cooperative Learning?

As mentioned in other sections, cooperative learning activities must be structured, first and foremost, to create positive interdependence (students ‘sink or swim together’). This can be quite easy to do with informal cooperative learning groups, but can require quite a bit of planning for formal and base groups. What’s more, many students have had bad experiences with “group work” in the past and so there is often a lot of inertia to get over when launching cooperative learning groups, even well designed ones.

For this reason, we suggest starting with simple, information cooperative learning groups before diving into more complex activities. As always, TLCs are available to meet with you to talk more about how to implement cooperative learning activities in your face-to-face, hybrid, or online courses.

What Technology Tools can I Use to Facilitate Cooperative Learning?

Carnegie Mellon has developed a very extensive list (PDF) of technologies that can be use for cooperative learning. As with all web-based tools, the options are continually changing. There are currently a number of tools being used extensively at CU including D2L Discussion Forums, VoiceThread, Google Apps, Clickers, and Piazza.

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