Cooperative Learning: Strategies for Problematic Group Members

Introduction

Although cooperative learning strategies are an incredibly efficient way to maximize learning, just like everything else that you do with your kids, there are potential pitfalls. 

As you know from your own experiences, a talkative student will monopolize the group’s time and may also attempt to take control of the group.

And just as frequently, some students who are poor readers or slow thinkers have trouble creating a good report for their group. 

On the other hand, gifted students may become bored when paired with students who need additional time to complete similar tasks. Furthermore, older more competitive students who are driven to win or achieve may not feel comfortable with cooperative learning strategies. 

Although these kinds of challenges are frequently encountered when working in cooperative groups, there are several strategies that may be useful to consider. 

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The Dominant Student

You know this kid immediately--this student is often very popular and exhibits a very outgoing personality. Although there are exceptions to every rule, this kid also tends to be talkative, influential, and nearly impossible to ignore--all qualities that may be beneficial to him or her later in life. 

But, in cooperative learning activities, these very same qualities have the potential to disrupt and inhibit the efforts of group members. 

Although this is rather simplistic, I would recommend assigning a student to be the leader of group discussions prior to the beginning of the first session. Then, for all subsequent sessions, pass the leadership role to the next group member. 

Each student in each group assumes the leader's role, and as a consequence, calls on students in a fair manner and spreads participation evenly. 

After a few sessions, students will begin to see that the task assigned to their group is not as formidable when each member is permitted to offer his or her material before questions and commentary are entertained.

So too, when all members of the group realize that the importance of fair group participation is paramount, the dominant student’s influence will fade.

The Slower Student

As I'm sure you can imagine, slower students or kids with poor  academic skills are in danger of presenting inadequate reports that will not meet the needs specified by their group. Should this happen, cooperative learning, particularly the jigsaw activities, may be less productive.

From your own experiences or from reading the Jigsaw Strategies pageyou know that jigsaw activities depend on “expert” groups. With academically challenged students, you may want to informally insure that they leave their expert groups with adequate reports to share with their home groups.

The more practice the slower student gets with expert groups, the less time you will spend insuring that reports are sufficient for sharing.

The Bored Bright Student 

No matter what academic approach you employ, bright or advanced kids will often become easily bored.

As I was researching material for this page, I was pleasantly surprised to find research that suggests that kids who are actively engaged in grouped learning activities are not as prone to boredom as their peers who are seated in traditional rows.

Kids involved in jigsaw activities, for example, reported more positive comments about their schools. And, this pattern was observed across the entire range of abilities from the most gifted students to the most academically challenged.

After all, kids who have long been accustomed to adults teaching them the material to be learned, are now themselves in an instructional role.

As you know, one of the best ways to learn new material is to teach it to others. If students are bright to begin with, the instructional role that they assume in cooperative learning encourages them to thoroughly learn and grow in an exciting and beneficial way. 

I would also add that the more students of all ability levels are exposed to cooperative learning activities, the less likely they are to become bored with the material to be learned or the process to achieve it.

The Competitive Student 

Competitive students, much like dominant students, have to be encouraged to do something that is diametrically opposed to their mindset.  They have to cooperate with everybody in their group instead of defeat everyone in the classroom. 

A productive way to approach the competitive student is to remind them that academic groups are much like teams on a playing field. 

Winning means cooperating with their teammates in order to achieve the highest level of new knowledge that learning opportunities offer. When they do this and all members of their team do this, the entire team takes home the most valuable trophy of all. 

When all members of the group realize that the importance of fair group participation is critical to success, the competitive student’s drive to defeat the opponent will be redirected in a beneficial way.

Conclusion: Cooperative Learning Problems

At this point, I feel compelled to tell a little story on myself. 

The first time I tried a cooperative learning activity in my classroom many years ago, I really messed up royally. 

I placed my students in small groups, instructed them to cooperate with one another, and gave them a task to complete. The results were particularly distressing to say the least. 

As I'm sure you will agree, cooperative learning is much more than placing kids in facing seats and telling them to get along so they can share and politely work and learn together.

Like any other initiative you institute in a classroom, cooperative learning opportunities have to be well-planned out with structure and purpose. The more you leave to chance, the more surprises you will encounter.

If you would care to see additional information regarding cooperative learning, please see the following pages:

Like anything else, structuring cooperative learning activities and ensuring that they run smoothly with the desired results takes time, trial and error, and practice. 

But you, as a professional teacher, know that really getting good at your craft requires EXACTLY that--time, trial and error, and practice. Lots of collaboration helps as well.

Best wishes to you and your kids!

Return to Daily Teaching Tools from Cooperative Learning Problems

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