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Cooperative Learning Strategies: Structuring Real Discussions

Janelle Cox

Many teachers use cooperative learning strategies in their classrooms as part of their everyday or weekly routine. It’s a great way for students to develop their social skills as well as learn conflict resolution skills. While some teachers love using cooperative learning strategies in their classrooms, others may be reluctant because they tend to think of cooperative learning as just group work.

What they fail to realize is that cooperative learning is much more than just group work, it is very structured where all students can learn to participate equally. In a traditional classroom, group work is when a teacher assigns a task and expects the group to complete the assignment together, and they all receive the same grade no matter if they contributed a little or a lot. Cooperative learning groups are much different, they are very structured and students can receive individual grades for their participation.

Dr. Spencer Kagan developed a structural approach to cooperative learning, where students can learn to participate equally in group discussions, so assertive students won’t dominate the discussion and the shy students get a chance to shine. Here are a few of his strategies for equalizing participation among cooperative learning groups.

Cooperative Learning Strategies: Structuring Real Discussions

To help equalize participation and structure real discussions where everyone in the group gets an opportunity to talk try one of these strategies.

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Talking Chips Strategy. Use plastic chips or craft sticks to equal participation among the group. For each group, assign a discussion leader (for each discussion question the leader can change). The discussion leader gives each student in the group three plastic chips or craft sticks. Craft sticks tend to work the best because they are easier to handle. When a question is presented, and students would like to respond or contribute to the conversation, they must place one of their chips or sticks into a plastic cup placed in the middle of the table. Each student is not allowed to speak unless they have placed their chip in the cup. When students run out of chips, they must just sit and listen quietly until all of the chips are in the cup. Once all of the chips are in the cup, the discussion leader can pass them out again and the discussion can continue. Students can use a talking chip to give an idea, ask a question, express a feeling, respond to an idea, or ask for clarification.

Think-Pair-Share. Put students into groups about four to a group. Then separate groups into pairs and present them with a discussion question. Their job is to think about the question and discuss it amongst themselves. Next, the pairs will go back into their groups and share what they have discussed with their partner. The idea is that when you put students into pairs, they are more likely to get their voices heard and have a better chance of expressing their thoughts on a topic. Then when they come back together as a group, they have a chance to take turns and all present their ideas or thoughts.

Numbered Heads. Place students into small groups and have them count off starting at number one. Each group member would be given a number (1, 2, 3, etc.). You can use this strategy in several ways. First, you can pose a discussion question and have groups take turns responding to the question within their team by numerical order. Another way you can use this strategy is to pose a discussion question, then randomly call a number and have that student in each group only answer. For even more structure within the teams, give students only 60 seconds to answer.

Round Robin. Place students into groups with about 4 to 6 students in each group. Select one person to be the discussion leader and one person to be the recorder of the group. The roles can change as the discussion questions change. The discussion leader begins by posing a question, then the students to their right begins by contributing their thoughts or ideas. Working clockwise around the circle, each student gets a chance to speak for about 60 seconds one at a time. While one person is contributing the others remain silent. When the full circle has gotten a chance to talk then roles are switched and another discussion question is posed.

In order to structure real discussions among your cooperative learning groups, the methods mentioned above will teach students how to participate equally. By using these few basic strategies students will learn how to equally participate amongst discussions. However, it’s important for students to learn how to build upon each other’s ideas within a discussion, so these strategies are just a building block that will lead students into the right direction.

Do you have any cooperative learning strategies that work really well in discussion groups? What are your favorite ones? Please share your ideas in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a master's of science in education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the elementary education expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators, or visit her website at Empoweringk6educators.