Explore effective cooperative learning strategies for teachers. Enhance student collaboration, boost academic outcomes, and foster essential social skills.
The Fundamental Principles of Cooperative Learning
If you have been in education for even a short while, you will, I am sure, have gone through the process of planning your lessons to meet the learning objectives, selecting the right tasks for your class and giving this a go in the classroom. Maybe your lessons start with some knowledge recall to combat Ebinghau’s forgetting curve.
Maybe you move on to delivering new knowledge in small chunks, checking for understanding as the lesson moves on. Maybe you select some tasks to test Student’s understanding, possibly something for them to do, to apply their knowledge and check they remember what you have taught them. Maybe a written task, card sort, cut and stick, creative task or group task.
The first question I want to begin with is: how do you know that the group tasks you are using in your lessons are effective? Maybe this is an 80% success rate, as Rosenshine implies, based on Ebbinghau’s forgetting curve, and if this success rate is reached for your class, then that is impressive. However, how do you know, with group tasks, that one Student is not doing all the work and the others are following along?
The second question I want to ask is: how well are you setting up your group tasks? I have observed many trainees and recently qualified teachers, and many of them, rightly or wrongly, think that group work is a nice task to include in a lesson, where Students can explore learning and feedback after this task. However, are you setting up this group work in a way that ensures that all Students are involved with learning within their group work?
I would like to address these two questions.
What is cooperative learning?
Cooperative learning theory encompasses a whole lot more than group work. It improves social skills through cooperative learning structures, provides social opportunities for Students in a structured environment and allows for Students to be successful and make progress.
By approaching group work through the lens of collaborative learning will allow you to combat the two questions I raise at the beginning. How do you know that all Students are learning and how are you setting up the Students to be successful?
Wendy Jolliffe (2007), in her book Cooperative Learning In The Classroom, suggests that cooperative learning theory can be separated into two aspects, which we will use here to provide a conceptual framework.
- Positive interdependence
- Individual accountability
Jolliffe (2007) uses two phrases to contextualise each, which work successfully to help us understand more about this concept. When referring to positive interdependence, she uses the phrase of ‘we sink or swim together. When referring to individual accountability, she uses the phrase of ‘no hitchhiking!’
Each phrase, usefully, allows us to understand how each aspect refers to the key principles that make cooperative learning useful in the classroom. The difference between group work and cooperative learning is that cooperative learning needs to be structured and that cooperative learning needs all students to be involved, to accomplish goals and understand the knowledge.
So, if you take nothing more from this article, notice that cooperative learning allows practitioners to have much more of a clear set of expectations and guidelines than group work. Which, in turn, allow for much more of a clear focus on teaching and learning.
How Cooperative Learning Enhances Student Engagement
Cooperative learning, through cooperative learning strategies, is an approach to your teaching that allows group work tasks to be set up in an organised and purposeful way to ensure Student engagement with learning and structuring opportunities for success.
Let’s demonstrate this with an example. You are in a Geography lesson, the topic is climate change. One of your tasks is getting students into groups and giving them each one person’s perspective on climate change and asking them to write notes on these.
You set them off on the task and the outcome is varied, both in work quality and knowledge. What could be a nice task in a lesson may not be the most effective task, if not set up effectively. Knowing about collaborative learning can help.
You are in a Geography lesson, the topic is climate change. One of your tasks is getting students into groups and asking them to research different perspectives on climate change. You give each student a card with the knowledge on. You structure the task as follows.
- You provide a structured research sheet for each Student to fill in.
- Each person takes it in turns and reads their card to the group.
- Whilst person 1 is reading, the other Students complete their sheet, answering the questions.
- When all sheets are completed, Students swap sheets and provide constructive feedback for each person they were researching.
- They then feed back to them.
- Students have a small amount of time to then use the research sheets to work on their feedback and make their knowledge on their sheets better.
This process must be modelled, Students understanding checked and the given an opportunity to ask questions, before that task.
Teachers need to move away from doing a 'group work lesson' and, instead, towards structuring tasks that promote cooperative learning techniques, cooperative learning activities and cooperative learning experiences, which are embedded into their lessons.
How is the second task different?
This focuses on the principles of collaborative learning. It provides Students with:
- Structured learning, based around peer support
- Structured talk (with learning goals/ academic goals)
- Knowledge that they all have a role to play in the task, to ensure all Students complete the task and learn the knowledge successfully
- Social interaction/ peer instruction and support
- Positive attitudes/ positive interaction
- Leadership opportunities
- Individual Students working as a wider whole (though using individual responsibility/ personal responsibility)
- Communication skill development
- Environment centred around success
- Goal achievement (academic achievement)
Let’s consider each of Jolliffe’s (2007) aspects, in turn, in more detail, and how they are related to the above examples and especially how they affect the learning process.
In cooperative learning, each student is reliant on other members of the group to be successful. Students work individually as part of a wider whole. Being successful means that all members of the group need to work together, towards a common goal.
It promotes substitutability (the actions of one person substitute for the actions of others) and collaboration.
Strategies for facilitating cooperative learning
This aspect promotes students being self-managers and independent enquirers. Or prevents social loafing, when someone does less or puts in less effort when the group is being judged. This approach to learning removes free riders and encourages every student needing to be a part of a successful whole.
The example, above, is only one example. However, here are some other examples that could ensure the same principles are kept in any cooperative learning task. Though, we need to be clear not to call them 'cooperative activities'.
They are activities which are set up in such a way that they encompass cooperative learning skills to achieve a common goal. By doing so, gaining deeper learning about something they have been asked to think hard about cooperatively.
Think, Pair, Share
Using this approach, provide each Student with a question. For this example: What causes climate change? Then, select well-organised pairs, lower-ability with higher-ability, for example. Be specific about the period of time involved or time on task. Provide time for students to discuss with their pair and feedback to each other.
You may have a structured sheet for this. Link two pairs together, as before, providing time for discussion. Then, each Student and group needs to feed back to the class, in response to the question. Students, in turn, go from gaining basic elements about a topic, to gaining the essential elements and a deeper understanding of a topic.
Prepare groups, for example 1-6, being different perspectives on climate change. Then, place Students in groups. Then, Students have a set amount of time to complete a research sheet. Then, after this, create another set of groupings, including one Student from each of the previous groups.
So, there will be six Students in the new groups, in the example. Students then take it in turns to present their knowledge to the whole group, while the rest of the group completes the remaining sections on their research sheet.
Here, we have decision-making skills, peer interaction, a range of cognitive skills and maybe even competitive learning!
Structuring Classrooms for Effective Cooperative Learning
The example above hopefully contextualised how this might be applied in the classroom. However, if you are still struggling to think about this, would work logistically work in the classroom, how about using role cards.
In addition to the tasks that students need to complete, they could be assigned specific roles to ensure their group work effectively together. This could encourage the individual accountability of students and promote positive interdependence.
Role cards could include:
You could assign these to students in the group, and it adds not only individual accountability and positive interdependence but also a layer of quality assurance.
Role of Technology in Enhancing Cooperative Learning
In brief, yes. Definitely! Here are some quick and easy, yet effective, suggestions.
Propose a question and add it to Padlet in different columns. Name each column with a number and set your expectations and guidelines for the task. The numbered columns are then group numbers and students can use their iPads to add their contributions to their group column on Padlet. They do not need to leave their seats, either, if they did not want to.
Create a Keynote slide deck with clearly defined sections. Create groups of Students, which are displayed on the screen. Each slide represents one group. Use AppleClassroom to distribute this Keynote file to your class as a collaborative document.
Now, students work on their own iPads, as part of a wider, virtual group, to complete their own section of the Keynote slide deck. You could then ask students to work together, in-person, to prepare a brief presentation. This does not need to be in front of the class. It could be a range of voice notes added to their slide deck.
Create a Freeform template and distribute this on AppleClassroom. Each section of the Freeform template represents a group. Use AppleClassroom to distribute this file to your class as a collaborative document.
Similarly to the above example, students then work on their own iPads, as part of a wider, virtual group, to complete their own section of the Freeform template. You can see there, working, live, on your master Freeform document.
Use this tool to help students work together to work towards a common goal. They might be contributing Pages files, Keynote files, illustrations or Notes to the group and can do this easily using AirDrop. One easy tool which could be used as part of a cooperative learning task, with an impact on their positive interdependent and individual accountability.
Challenges and Solutions in Implementing Cooperative Learning
So, the basic premise is that there is not unstructured group work. There is structured gathering of knowledge. There is not a vague research task. There are no fluffy guidelines. There are clear expectations. There is not one Student doing all the work. There is a group of collaborators working towards a central goal.
So, in summary cooperative learning theory allows Students to be leaders of their own learning, it allows them to be supported by others in, what could be a difficult task to achieve positive academic gains. It is not unstructured group work.
By using cooperative learning theory, your classroom (and groups within it) the cooperative learning exercises you include in your lessons will provide positive experiences for your Students to know more, do more and remember more.
When you approach your next group task with cooperative learning principles, and know the impact in your classroom, you will (hopefully) question why you did not use these strategies sooner. You will have less social loafing or hitchhiking and more positive learning outcomes.
Frequently Asked Questions on Cooperative Learning
1. What is cooperative learning and how does it differ from individualistic learning?
Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy where students work together in small groups to achieve a common learning goal. Unlike individualistic learning, where students work independently, cooperative learning emphasizes collaboration and social interaction.
It's rooted in social interdependence theory, which posits that group members are interconnected and their actions affect each other. Research has shown that cooperative learning can enhance academic outcomes and social skills.
2. What are some effective cooperative learning strategies?
Several strategies can be employed in a cooperative learning lesson. These include Jigsaw, Think-Pair-Share, and Round Robin. Each strategy has its unique features, but all emphasize positive goal interdependence, where each group member's success is tied to the success of the group.
3. How does cooperative learning contribute to the development of social skills and interpersonal skills?
Cooperative learning provides a platform for students to interact, communicate, and work together. This interaction fosters the development of social skills such as empathy, respect, and active listening.
Interpersonal skills such as conflict resolution and negotiation are also honed as students work towards their academic goals.
4. How does direct instruction fit into cooperative learning?
Direct instruction is not antithetical to cooperative learning. In fact, it can be a crucial component. Teachers may provide direct instruction to equip students with the necessary knowledge or skills before they engage in cooperative learning activities.
5. How can I set effective learning goals in a cooperative learning environment?
Learning goals in a cooperative learning environment should be clear, achievable, and shared among group members. They should also align with the academic goals of the curriculum.
It's important to ensure that the goals promote positive interdependence, where students understand that they can achieve their learning goals if, and only if, their peers achieve theirs.
For more in-depth understanding, you may refer to this research article on cooperative learning strategies.