What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative learning is a classroom instruction presentation model that involves students working together to meet their learning goals in learning teams or groups. In the 1940s, education reformers like John Dewey began to analyze the benefits of students working together in the classroom. At that time, cooperative learning was considered cutting edge compared to the preferred format of individual student learning. In the one room schoolhouse of the 1800s and early 1900s, students of all ages worked on their own learning goals.

True cooperative learning involves more than just having students sit together in groups. When done well, cooperative learning involves planning with clear directions, student work roles, and outcomes and measures for learning goals. Teachers who use this method see the value in cooperation, teamwork, and collaboration as a major part of their classrooms. Students who learn how to collaborate through cooperative learning can become adults who work together more effectively in the work place.

In the classroom, a cooperative learning lesson involves students working in small groups to accomplish a learning task. The task is assigned by the teacher with clear directions. Students then work on the task together with defined roles (i.e. reporter, spokesperson, researcher, recorder). Teachers who are effective at evaluating the group together as one understand that each person in the group has a “shared” responsibility.

When the cooperative learning group completes the learning task, the teacher evaluates the results. That evaluation needs to include some type of format to determine if the student(s) accomplished their learning goals (i.e. rubric). If each student sitting in the group isn’t held responsible for helping complete their portion of the learning task, then it isn’t truly “cooperative learning”.

What are the Benefits of Cooperative Learning?

There are many benefits for classroom instruction when cooperative learning strategies are done correctly. There are several briefly discussed here including: promotion of social interaction, buildup of student self-confidence, improvement in collaborative skills of students, as well as the improvement in student decision-making skills. Cooperative learning-run classrooms can also assist teachers in working with students who have wider skill gaps.

Teachers with students who work in cooperative learning groups typically allow for more social interaction and can enhance students’ collaborative skills. Cooperative learning groups force students to interact socially and practice collaboration. Teacher lessons that include positive, active student collaboration are planned out with clear directions and expectations for students.

Many students are timid or shy and in a whole-group setting can often be leery of sharing their thoughts, questions, or answers. Students who participate in cooperative learning lessons have opportunities to build their self-confidence (again if planned efficiently and effectively by the teacher). Because of this, teachers have to work really hard to make sure that all students working in cooperative groups have a part in the task. They have to reassure them and hold them accountable. Does every student in the group have a role or responsibility? Is the teacher roaming the classroom during the lesson, asking key questions to check for student understanding and to make sure that they are hearing and seeing all students participate?

Cooperative learning lessons that are planned out efficiently can allow for growth in student decision-making. Students who work in groups and collaborate (talk, plan etc.) are more likely to build on their decision-making skills. Many modern workplaces call for employees who are capable of making decisions while working with “teams” vs. working in isolation. Group lessons that allow for students to collaborate and talk about the task can prompt students to share thoughts and thus build on decision-making skills. A quad, or student group of four, can allow for four different students, with four different thoughts, to build on decision-making skills while improving their socialization. Young people need the socialization, and cooperative learning lessons greatly enhance this.

Teachers who use cooperative learning groups also have some flexibility to pull small groups and work with individual students or small ability groups during the lesson time. This can arguably be a great advantage for a teacher with a classroom of 30 students. There may be a need to work more closely with the 4 or 5 students who have the highest learning gaps. Allowing students to independently work in small groups gives teachers the opportunity to work with those individuals on targeted gaps. Use of cooperative groups can allow for differentiation of instruction, depending on how the teacher decides to establish them.

Cooperative Learning Strategies to Use in the Classroom

There are so many best practice strategies to consider when using the cooperative learning approach in the classroom. Several strategies for teachers to use that involve cooperative or group learning include pair-share, small groups (quads), and mixed skill groupings.

One common strategy that teachers use is called pair-share. This can be easily adapted into most classrooms by asking students to collaborate with an “elbow” partner or person close by. Students can discuss a question or topic, and then share with the whole class. Teachers often refer to this strategy as “think-pair-share”.

Teachers who plan cooperative lessons often use small groups or quads (groups of 4). Students are assigned roles within the group so that they can divide and conquer the learning task at hand. For example, the reporter is responsible for sharing out the new learnings of the task. Often quads are divided into mixed skill groups. This can help students who struggle to have higher-level students mixed with lower-level students so that peer learning and coaching is incorporated. All of the mentioned techniques require planning and coordination on the part of the teacher.

When used in combination with individual learning assignments, cooperative learning can enhance classroom instruction and make learning more social and fun for students.