Two words that often cause teachers to cringe are “cooperative learning” because it means students will likely sit in pairs or groups of three or more and then proceed to discuss everything except the topic or assignment in front of them. There may be a student or two who do nothing and a couple of students who might do all the required work. The assignment may get completed but “cooperation” never truly takes hold, and it leads to you never wanting to use “cooperative learning” strategies in your classroom.
Does this sound familiar to you? Unfortunately, it might, but it is still important for students to learn how to work cooperatively with each other since nearly every type of employment in society requires some type of cooperation between its workers. If students are not exposed to cooperative learning in the education system, it is likely they will not become effective and productive in the workforce.
You can explore many cooperative learning strategies simply by conducting a Google search, but before doing so there are several basic criteria that should be met before implementing one or more of those strategies.
Spend at least 15 minutes at the beginning of each school year with students reviewing the rules for cooperative learning in your classroom. You might also review these rules halfway through the year if any of the initial rules have changed or if students simply need a reminder. Students must know what is expected of them when they work in pairs or in groups.
Take the time to discuss the following points with your class:
- Allow students to occasionally go “off-topic” in their discussions. They will do it anyway, so let them, but with the expectation that whatever is required will be completed and the “side talk” will not interfere with the work. This is not unreasonable because in every workplace in the world, personal conversations occur while work is being effectively completed.
- Stress equal division of labor within the group. No single person will do all the work and no single person will do no work. The work must be split equally but may match the skill or interest level of the student. For example, if a drawing is needed, the student who likes to draw may be chosen for the task over a student who dislikes drawing.
- Identify roles students may have as members of the group. You may assign certain roles to the group, such as a leader, secretary, etc., but sometimes this limits students. However, the students in the group may assign those roles to each other after a brief discussion. Depending on the personalities of each group, the assignment, and the size of the group, either option may be used.
- Stress the importance of listening. All students in the group must listen to the opinions, suggestions, and input of their peers during a discussion. Everyone’s opinion counts. Some students may try to dominate the discussion within the group leading others to simply sit and quietly listen. Try walking around during their working time and encouraging everyone to share their thoughts and opinions.
- Tell students there will be individual accountability. It may sometimes be difficult but using a single grade for the group and everyone may not always be accurate. Determine two methods for grading students: individually and as a cooperative group. You may choose to average the two grades together for a student’s final grade. For example, the group grade may be an “A”, a single student a “C”, but averaged together the student would then receive a “B”.
- Open communication is always expected. Students cannot sit quietly and later complain about not having input into an assignment or project. In addition, when a group member is not cooperating or is disruptive, the rest of the group must be encouraged to report this fact to the instructor. The issue of a disruptive or uncooperative student must be addressed immediately.
- Effective cooperative learning groups will be rewarded. A good grade is not a reward for cooperation. Cooperation may not always lead to high grades, but the groups who do cooperate effectively should be rewarded in some other way such as with some prize or recognition. However, try not to turn it into a competition. Each group’s work and cooperation should be judged on their own merit rather than in comparison with the outcomes of other groups.
You may discover other points to discuss with the class prior to beginning a cooperative learning strategy for an assignment or project, but try using these guidelines as a start. In addition, at the end of any cooperative group learning experience, allow the students to give feedback related to the improvement of the group’s functioning and performance. What could have been done differently? What have they learned from the experience? Basically, each student or group should give a short recap of the experience they had working with their peers.
Research has shown that effective cooperative learning helps to produce higher achievement, increased retention, greater intrinsic motivation, positive relationships among students, higher self-esteem, greater social support, better attitudes toward teachers and much more.
Finally, Learn Bright offers numerous opportunities for your students to practice cooperative learning strategies through a wide range of lessons in all subject areas. Cooperative learning still works if it is implemented effectively in the classroom.