Maximizing Cooperative Learning in your Classroom

Multiple studies have shown cooperative learning positively impacts student learning[1]. Perhaps this is because part of being made in the image of God is living in community, which includes learning in community. Designing strong cooperative learning activities takes time. It is not enough to put students into groups and assign an activity. Too often, activities set up in such a fashion result in a group of individuals working on their own and either comparing or combining results without ever really having any meaningful interaction. Instead, cooperative learning relies on students working together and utilizing their different strengths, knowledge bases, and abilities to achieve a common purpose. Interdependence, not independence, is key.

Here are some key elements to keep in mind when developing cooperative learning activities for your classroom:

Communicate:  Ensure that your students know what the learning outcome of a given activity is and that they understand your expectations on how this outcome is to be achieved. Put this in writing so that students can refer back to it throughout the course of the activity; this is especially true if the activity is open-ended or loosely structured in nature. While this is a general principle of good teaching, it is good to remember it when designing cooperative learning activities.

Construct activities that cannot be completed individually: As you begin to design cooperative learning activities, it is important to focus as much on the process as the outcome. What must students do to reach the learning outcome? Is this a process that fosters interdependence? If students can reach the outcome on their own, it is likely that they will. To avoid this, construct activities that require multiple roles to be successful. Roles may be distributed based on content knowledge (e.g., jigsaw teaching), type of activity (e.g., responsibilities during a discussion), or simply number of persons need (e.g., skit, science experiment requiring multiple persons, etc.). Ensuring that students see how each role is necessary to reach the learning objective will encourage cooperation rather than competition within the groups.

Assign roles: Younger students, or students new to cooperative learning experiences, can benefit from having an assigned role, task, or responsibility (e.g., discussion leader, group recorder, researcher, and vocabulary expert). Defining how each student is expected to contribute to the group’s learning experience will help alleviate the frustration of the free-loader (who does nothing to contribute to the group’s learning) and the over-achiever (who takes over and does everything for the group). It also ensures that the group is aware of and is addressing all aspects of the learning activity.

Provide checkpoints for self-assessment:  One of the hallmarks of cooperative learning is that group members are responsible for the success of each member. In order to achieve this goal, students benefit from specific questions or directives along the way. For example, when I have a class of students create a series of tableaux[2] to illustrate a story, part of my instruction is that any given student in the group must be able to explain the significance of the scene and how it relates to the rest of the work. Students know that any one of them could be chosen to be the narrator, which ensures that all of them have a vested interest in being able to explain what is happening. As part of their preparation, therefore, they will periodically stop to self-check that everyone is on the same page.

For more information about cooperative learning, or for suggested activities, check out the following websites:

Becky Hunsberger, M.Ed.
Coordinator of Teacher Education Services
TeachBeyond Global

[1] Barkley, E. F., Cross, K.P., & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[2] Tableaux, or frozen statues, are recreations of a scene from art, history, or literature.  I often use this activity to check for student understanding of assigned reading.

Photo Credits:Teamwork, Luigi Mengato via Compfight cc. Project Planning, DoDEA Communications via Compfight cc.  Physics Lab, B Hunsberger.