“Cooperative learning is an unusually strong psychological success story.”
In their article from Educational Researcher, University of Minnesota professors David Johnson & Roger Johnson cite more than 1,200 studies comparing cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning structures, with cooperation emerging the clear winner. The average person in a cooperative learning situation performs two-thirds of a standard deviation better than someone in a competitive setting (effect size = 0.67) and the effect size over a person working solo is 0.64.
With results like these, no classroom can afford to ignore cooperative learning — it’s a no-brainer!
We’ve pared down Johnson & Johnson’s advice about the three major types of cooperative learning below:
Formal cooperative learning
Students working together for one class period or several weeks to solve a problem, conduct an experiment, have a discussion about a particular text, or complete a curriculum unit. For this mode to be successful, the teacher needs to:
- Decide on the objectives (academic and social skills), the size of the groups, how students will be assigned to groups, students’ roles within the groups, the materials needed, and the way the room will be arranged.
- Explain the task to students and teach the required concepts and strategies, explain how cooperation will work, and clarify the criteria for success.
- Monitor students’ learning and intervene when necessary, teaching interpersonal and other skills on the fly.
- Evaluate students’ learning and help them self-assess how well they are working together.
Informal cooperative learning
Students work together in temporary, ad hoc groups that last from a few minutes to one class period, engaging in quick dialogues or activities in response to a limited number of questions posed by the teacher. For example, a teacher might have students engage in a 3- to 5-minute focused discussion before and after a lecture and 2- to 3-minute turn-to-your-partner discussions every 10 or 15 minutes during a lecture. This kind of quickie cooperative learning can help set expectations for what is about to be covered, help students cognitively process new material, and provide closure for a lesson or unit.
Cooperative base groups
Long-term relationships that provide support, encouragement, and assistance for academic and social support. Base groups are usually heterogeneous, meet daily or weekly, and last for a semester, for a school year, or all the way till graduation. Students check each others’ work, help each other with areas of difficulty, and encourage each other to excel.
Keys to successful implementation of cooperative learning
It’s clear that putting students in groups is not enough; teachers need to structure the learning experiences very deliberately. Here are the highlights of what Johnson and Johnson recommend:
- Shared goal is an essential starting point.
- Structure tasks so team members need each other to succeed.
- If teams aren’t knitted together in a positive way, outcomes will be similar to those of students working solo. “Knowing that one’s performance affects the success of group mates seems to create responsibility forces that increase one’s efforts to achieve,” say the Johnsons.
- There are three ways that teachers can foster positive interdependence in groups:
- By outcomes – that is, the whole group gets some kind of reward when its work is completed successfully
- By means – that is, each team member is assigned a role (facilitator, timekeeper, summarizer, etc.) or the task is divvied up jigsaw-style and each group member depends on the knowledge of others to complete the task successfully;
- By boundaries – that is, group members are roped together by commonalities, such as color of shirt, past history together, where they sit, etc.
- Individual accountability
- The danger in cooperative groups is “social loafing” – some members coasting on the work of others. To counteract this, cooperative learning tasks need to be structured so that each member is personally accountable for contributing to the group’s tasks and outcomes. Ideally all members contribute, pull their weight, and help their teammates out. “Failing oneself is bad, but failing others as well as oneself is worse,” say the Johnsons. Positive relationships help. “The more a person is liked and respected by group mates… the more responsibility he or she will feel toward group mates.” One thing that works against personal responsibility is when cooperative groups are too large.
- An ethos of supporting each other
- This is when group members encourage and facilitate each other’s efforts to accomplish the group’s goals. They act in trusting and trustworthy ways, exchange needed information and materials, encourage their team mates, give each other feedback, challenge processes that aren’t producing the best results, are able to take the perspective of others to explore different points of view, and maintain a climate of low anxiety and stress.
- Appropriate use of social skills
- “Effective cooperation is based on skilled teamwork as well as on task work,” say the Johnsons and cite research that this is one of the most important factors in successful learning outcomes. “Unskilled group members cannot cooperate effectively,” they say.
- So teachers need to explicitly teach the interpersonal skills and motivate students to use them, including: getting to know and trust one another, communicating unambiguously, accepting and supporting one another, resolving conflicts constructively, and reflecting on their work after the fact to see how the group’s processes could be improved.