Definition of Theory

Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy by which a group of students interact with postive interdependence to achieve a learning goal, while individual accountability is maintained through the strategy's structure as well as teacher monitoring.

This strategy is not "group work"!  Group work does not have postive interdependence of students to accomplish a task, nor does it have a well defined structure within which to operate.  Roger T. and David W. Johnson, regarded as leaders in the field of cooperative learning, characterize group work as "individual learning with talking."

Marzano, Pollack and Pickering's meta-analysis identified three generalizations to guide the use of Cooperative Learning:

  • Ability level grouping should be done sparingly;
  • Cooperative groups should be kept rather small in size (three to four members);
  • Cooperative learning should be applied consistently and systematically, but not overused.

Cooperative Learning should have the following components when implemented in the classroom ( Johnson & Johnson (1999)):

  • Heterogeneous grouping
  • Positive interdependence (accountable for learning as a group and as an individual)
  • Face-to-face interaction (helping and encouraging each other)
  • Interpersonal and group skills (making decisions, communicating, conflict resolution.)
  • Group reflection (what went well and how to improve).

In the classroom Cooperative Learning groups can be either:

  • Informal ( pair-share, turn-to-your-neighbor, etc.).  These groups usually last a few minutes or up to a class period.
  • Formal (established to complete a specific task, such as perform a lab experiment, write a report, carry out a project, or prepare a position paper - typically, students work together until the task is finished, there are assigned roles for group members and their project is graded).  These groups may complete their work in a single class session or over several weeks.

Cooperative Learning Management Tips

  • Noise:    Develop and practice a Quiet or Zero-Noise signal.  The closer students are seated, the quieter their voices can be.  Remember that if only one student in a group is speaking at at time, larger groups should result in fewer voices, therefore less noise.   
  • Deadlining and Task Structure:   Give students specific tasks to finish within a predetermined time limit, e.g., "You have one minute to agree as a group on 3 reasons.  Or, you have only two days to complete your summary."  Use a timer or other visual means to provide students guidance.   
  • Instructions:   Show, don't tell, instructions ( have a group model the steps).  Have student tell each other the instructions to make sure they understand prior to starting the task.   
  • Questions:   Answer team questions only.  Individual questions should be dealt within the team.  Teach students to use the "Three Before Me" technique.   The technique requires the following steps:  
    Step 1:  Ask questions or seek help from other members of your group.    
    Step 2:  Ask questions or seek help from other groups.
    Step 3:  Ask the instructor questions or seek help only when all group members have the same question. (Millis and Cottell, 1998)
  • Circulate:  Use proximity.  Monitor discussions to check for understanding and to be aware of collaborative skills that may need to be addressed.  
  • Roles:  Be sure to have students be responsible for specific roles during the lesson.  Be sure to teach and model for students the duties of the roles that you assign to group members.  (See role assisgnments).