An Overview and Analysis of Cooperative Learning

Introduction

I have to admit that cooperative learning strategies were not on my radar screen when I first entered the teaching profession. 

I was resistant to setting up a scenario in which students would be allowed to communicate freely with one another in my classroom. 

I could just imagine the chaos. 

However, when it became clear to me that administrators were demanding that my fellow teachers and I employ collaborative learning strategies in our classrooms, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to get on board. 

And, I must say that after a few trial and error sessions, that I was pleasantly surprised. Not only were the administrators pleased, but more importantly, the kids were more engaged with their learning objectives. 

I'm guessing that you probably already employ collaborative learning strategies in your classroom. However, my thinking is that you might appreciate additional information regarding this topic. 

What follows on this page (and the next several pages) focuses ENTIRELY on cooperative learning strategies--why they're effective, what options are available, how to implement them, and how to evaluate them. 

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Cooperative Learning 101

This section is devoted to the basics of cooperative learning--if you are already familiar with it, there will be little here that you don't already know. 

Cooperative learning is a peer instructional strategy for small groups, comprised of students with a range of abilities. Kids explore various learning approaches to deepen their grasp of the targeted objectives. 

Group members assume responsibility for learning what they will eventually teach to the other members of their group. Eventually, each student helps their fellow teammates to learn by working with them until everyone successfully understands and masters the targeted objectives. 

Because of the cooperative nature of this strategy, students strive for mutual benefit so that all group members gain from each other' s efforts. The mindset here is that YOUR success benefits me and MY success benefits you. 

Each team member realizes that they share a common fate. Collectively it becomes a matter of everyone sinking or swimming. Because no one wants to sink, cooperative learning activities are highly motivating. 

Although success is not entirely guaranteed, the achievement of each individual participant is amplified by the team to which they belong. This, of course, make success a more likely outcome. 

Benefits of Cooperative Learning 

Group learning activities can produce loads of benefits. First, because kids are doing the instructional talking themselves, they become more focused on the task at hand.  

After all, what better way is there to learn new material than to learn it well enough to teach it to others?

And, that can lead to problems occasionally. See the section below regarding the disadvantages of cooperative learning. 

However, research has revealed that cooperative learning... 

  • promotes student mastery of learning objectives.
  • increases students' ability to remember the concepts they have learned.
  • enhances student attitudes toward their learning experiences.
  • helps students become more skillful in communicating orally.
  • promotes positive race relations and self-esteem.

Given these research findings, is it any wonder that administrators insist that we regularly provide cooperative learning activities in our classrooms? 

What follows at this point and the five other pages related to cooperative learning includes grouping strategies, strategies for assigning individual tasks, activities for seven free jigsaws, and instruments of evaluation for cooperative learning strategies. 

These details will include the nuts and bolts of how to construct and set up these activities. Additionally, I'll offer suggestions on how to maximize the effectiveness of this teaching strategy. 

If you haven't bookmarked this site yet, please consider doing so, as there is much more to come.

Initial Considerations

If at all possible, I would recommend that you place your classroom desks or related furniture in groups of four.  A smaller group of kids seems to work best because each student must assume more of the work required. 

Having just three students in a group is workable, but each of those students must bear more responsibilities.  By the same measure, a group of five may find students under-tasked. 

I would recommend that you group your classroom furniture for cooperative learning from the very beginning of the school year.  And then, unless you have instructional circumstances that dictate otherwise, keep your desks grouped throughout the school year. 

This strategy has two benefits: Because each student has an assigned place in a particular group, the student will be more willing to contribute positively to the objectives of the group. 

The second benefit is that this grouping allows for discussions related to the study topic to flow when they are first voiced, instead of postponing them for a few moments while groups can be reformed.

To really maximize the effect of cooperative learning, it would be useful to determine the preferred learning style of each student in your classroom. Once you know that, you can group students accordingly. 

For example, you would want to avoid having a group of all visual learners. Consider including a logical learner, a kinesthetic learner, and an audio learner along with the visual learner in the same group. 

Diversify for maximum impact. 

Does this take time to put into place? 

Absolutely. But, I think you will agree, it will be time well spent in the long run. 

The section below offers practical suggestions on how to assess the individual learning styles of your students. And, the best part of all, it's FREE! 

Assessing Preferred Learning Styles

I'm quite sure that there are a plethora of websites and printed materials that can be obtained that would be appropriate for assessing the preferred learning styles of your students. 

In researching this page, I have come across a resource that I highly recommend. It's called learning styles online

The people behind this website offer a 70 question online inventory for assessing an individual's preferred learning style. 

The learning styles included here are

  • visual-spatial
  • aural-auditory
  • verbal-linguistic
  • physical-bodily-kinesthetic
  • logical-mathematical
  • social-interpersonal
  • solitary-intrapersonal

I took this online inventory myself, and I have to tell you that I was impressed with the profile that was returned--had me nailed to a T. 

The scores returned with this instrument include a complete description of the traits of each learning style. Although it's possible to attain the score of 20 points in any particular category, I would think that would be rare, as each person has a combination of learning styles. 

In my case, I scored 16 points in the logical learning style category, 14 points in the solitary learning style, and 13 points in the verbal style. 

I would highly recommend that you assign your kids to complete this inventory and report their results to you. 

Perhaps, you could schedule class time in one of your school computer labs in order for all of your kids to complete this inventory. 

You, as the teacher, would NOT receive the results of all of your students in one convenient report. However, if you were to require them to do this and complete the following form, you would be in a position to make crucial decisions about group assignments. 

Here is that form: 

You may download this form completely free of charge here. 

This site also has quite a selection of a free "brain power" games. Your early finishers could entertain themselves while their classmates finish their inventories. 

There you go. 

A complete class period in the computer lab is all planned out and ready to execute! 

Disadvantages of Cooperative Learning

If you have tried group learning activities with your kids, I'm sure you will agree that just like any other activity undertaken in the classroom, there are pitfalls lurking. 

Students lacking the basic interpersonal skills required for group work, for example, may present additional challenges for you as the teacher. 

Also, when it comes time to determine grades for groups, there may be an another problem:  If one student did all of the work and the other three kids in the group did very little, does everybody get the same grade? 

Then, there’s the reluctant kid.  This student is afraid that he will fail, so he simply refuses to participate.  He may mask this fear with the claim that the task is “stupid” or that the other participants are acting “dumb.” 

Additionally, if groups sense that they can be competitive with each other, will the team that senses impending defeat stop making an effort to succeed? 

Another consideration is that when you are managing multiple groups, you may find yourself losing valuable time redirecting groups who have gone off task. 

Although this rarely happens, you may also find yourself confronted with the claim that a high-achieving son or daughter is carrying the load for everybody else.  What do you say to this parent?

Although there are no easy answers here, I have attempted to address some of these issues on the following cooperative learning pages:

Conclusion 

From my own experiences, I have found that the benefits of cooperative learning activities far outweigh the disadvantages listed above.

Students seem to engage more intently on the material to be learned when they share that task with their peers in a supportive group.

And let's not forget our dear administrators! They just love to see kids engaged in cooperative activities and that bears directly on our evaluations. 

At this point, my plan is to continue to provide you with more material regarding cooperative learning--the nuts and bolts of how to plan, structure, implement, and evaluate the specific activities mentioned previously. 

So many things to get to, and so little time—I’m sure you know the feeling. Have a great year! 

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