Cooperative learning

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Cooperative learning is an educational approach which aims to organize classroom activities into academic and social learning experiences. There is much more to Cooperative Learning than merely arranging students into groups, and it has been described as "structuring positive interdependence."[1][2] Students must work in groups to complete tasks collectively toward academic goals. Unlike individual learning, which can be competitive in nature, students learning cooperatively can capitalize on one another’s resources and skills (asking one another for information, evaluating one another’s ideas, monitoring one another’s work, etc.).[3][4] Furthermore, the teacher's role changes from giving information to facilitating students' learning.[5][6] Everyone succeeds when the group succeeds. Ross and Smyth (1995) describe successful cooperative learning tasks as intellectually demanding, creative, open-ended, and involve higher order thinking tasks.[7] Five essential elements are identified for the successful incorporation of cooperative learning in the classroom.The first and most important element is Positive Interdependence. The second element is individual and group accountability. The third element is (face to face) promotive interaction. The fourth element is teaching the students the required interpersonal and small group skills. The fifth element is group processing.[8]


Prior to World War II, social theorists such as Allport, Watson, Shaw, and Mead began establishing cooperative learning theory after finding that group work was more effective and efficient in quantity, quality, and overall productivity when compared to working alone.[9] However, it wasn’t until 1937 when researchers May and Doob[10] found that people who cooperate and work together to achieve shared goals, were more successful in attaining outcomes, than those who strived independently to complete the same goals. Furthermore, they found that independent achievers had a greater likelihood of displaying competitive behaviours.

Philosophers and psychologists in the 1930s and 40’s such as John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Morton Deutsh also influenced the cooperative learning theory practiced today.[11] Dewey believed it was important that students develop knowledge and social skills that could be used outside of the classroom, and in the democratic society. This theory portrayed students as active recipients of knowledge by discussing information and answers in groups, engaging in the learning process together rather than being passive receivers of information (e.g., teacher talking, students listening).

Lewin’s contributions to cooperative learning were based on the ideas of establishing relationships between group members in order to successfully carry out and achieve the learning goal. Deutsh’s contribution to cooperative learning was positive social interdependence, the idea that the student is responsible for contributing to group knowledge.[11]

Since then, David and Roger Johnson have been actively contributing to the cooperative learning theory. In 1975, they identified that cooperative learning promoted mutual liking, better communication, high acceptance and support, as well as demonstrated an increase in a variety of thinking strategies among individuals in the group.[12] Students who showed to be more competitive lacked in their interaction and trust with others, as well as in their emotional involvement with other students.

In 1994 Johnson and Johnson published the 5 elements (positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face interaction, social skills, and processing) essential for effective group learning, achievement, and higher-order social, personal and cognitive skills (e.g., problem solving, reasoning, decision-making, planning, organizing, and reflecting).[13]


Formal cooperative learning is structured, facilitated, and monitored by the educator over time and is used to achieve group goals in task work (e.g. completing a unit). Any course material or assignment can be adapted to this type of learning, and groups can vary from 2-6 people with discussions lasting from a few minutes up to an entire period. Types of formal cooperative learning strategies include:

  1. The jigsaw technique
  2. Assignments that involve group problem solving and decision making
  3. Laboratory or experiment assignments
  4. Peer review work (e.g. editing writing assignments).

Having experience and developing skill with this type of learning often facilitates informal and base learning.[14] Jigsaw activities are wonderful because the student assumes the role of the teacher on a given topic and is in charge of teaching the topic to a classmate. The idea is that if students can teach something, they have already learned the material.

Informal cooperative learning incorporates group learning with passive teaching by drawing attention to material through small groups throughout the lesson or by discussion at the end of a lesson, and typically involves groups of two (e.g. turn-to-your-partner discussions). These groups are often temporary and can change from lesson to lesson (very much unlike formal learning where 2 students may be lab partners throughout the entire semester contributing to one another’s knowledge of science).

Discussions typically have four components that include formulating a response to questions asked by the educator, sharing responses to the questions asked with a partner, listening to a partner’s responses to the same question, and creating a new well-developed answer. This type of learning enables the student to process, consolidate, and retain more information.[14]

In group-based cooperative learning, these peer groups gather together over the long term (e.g. over the course of a year, or several years such as in high school or post-secondary studies) to develop and contribute to one another’s knowledge mastery on a topic by regularly discussing material, encouraging one another, and supporting the academic and personal success of group members.

Base group learning (e.g., a long term study group) is effective for learning complex subject matter over the course or semester and establishes caring, supportive peer relationships, which in turn motivates and strengthens the student’s commitment to the group’s education while increasing self-esteem and self-worth. Base group approaches also make the students accountable to educating their peer group in the event that a member was absent for a lesson. This is effective both for individual learning, as well as social support.


Brown & Ciuffetelli Parker (2009) and Siltala (2010) discuss the 5 basic and essential elements to cooperative learning:[15][16][17]

  1. Positive interdependence
    1. Students must fully participate and put forth effort within their group
    2. Each group member has a task/role/responsibility therefore must believe that they are responsible for their learning and that of their group
  2. Face-to-face promotive interaction
    1. Members promote each other's success
    2. Students explain to one another what they have or are learning and assist one another with understanding and completion of assignments
  3. Individual and group accountability
    1. Each student must demonstrate mastery of the content being studied
    2. Each student is accountable for their learning and work, therefore eliminating “social loafing
  4. Social skills
    1. Social skills that must be taught in order for successful cooperative learning to occur
    2. Skills include effective communication, interpersonal and group skills
      1. Leadership
      2. Decision-making
      3. Trust-building
      4. Friendship- development
      5. Communication
      6. Conflict-management skills
  5. Group processing
    1. Every so often groups must assess their effectiveness and decide how it can be improved

In order for student achievement to improve considerably, two characteristics must be present:[18]

  1. When designing cooperative learning tasks and reward structures, individual responsibility and accountability must be identified. Individuals must know exactly what their responsibilities are and that they are accountable to the group in order to reach their goal.
  2. All group members must be involved in order for the group to complete the task. In order for this to occur each member must have a task that they are responsible for which cannot be completed by any other group member.


There are a great number of cooperative learning techniques available. Some cooperative learning techniques utilize student pairing, while others utilize small groups of four or five students. Hundreds of techniques have been created into structures to use in any content area.[19] Among the easy to implement structures are Think-Pair-Share, Think-Pair-Write, variations of Round Robin, and the Reciprocal Teaching Technique.[20] A well known cooperative learning technique is the Jigsaw, Jigsaw II and Reverse Jigsaw.

Think Pair Share[edit]

Originally developed by Frank T. Lyman (1981),[21] Think-Pair-Share allows for students to contemplate a posed question or problem silently. The student may write down thoughts or simply just brainstorm in his or her head. When prompted, the student pairs up with a peer and discusses his or her idea(s) and then listens to the ideas of his or her partner. Following pair dialogue, the teacher solicits responses from the whole group.[20] When teachers use this technique they don't have to worry about students not volunteering because each student will already have an idea in their heads, therefore, the teacher can call on anyone and increase discussion productivity.


Students are members of two groups: home group and expert group. In the heterogeneous home group, students are each assigned a different topic. Once a topic has been identified, students leave the home group and group with the other students with their assigned topic. In the new group, students learn the material together before returning to their home group. Once back in their home group, each student is accountable for teaching his or her assigned topic.[20]

Jigsaw II[edit]

Jigsaw II is Robert Slavin's (1980) variation of Jigsaw in which members of the home group are assigned the same material, but focus on separate portions of the material. Each member must become an "expert" on his or her assigned portion and teach the other members of the home group.[22]

Reverse Jigsaw[edit]

This variation was created by Timothy Hedeen (2003)[23] It differs from the original Jigsaw during the teaching portion of the activity. In the Reverse Jigsaw technique, students in the expert groups teach the whole class rather than return to their home groups to teach the content.

Reciprocal Teaching[edit]

Brown & Paliscar (1982) developed reciprocal teaching. It is a cooperative technique that allows for student pairs to participate in a dialogue about text. Partners take turns reading and asking questions of each other, receiving immediate feedback. Such a model allows for students to use important metacognitive techniques such as clarifying, questioning, predicting, and summarizing. It embraces the idea that students can effectively learn from each other.[24]

The Williams[edit]

Students collaborate to answer a big question that is the learning objective. Each group has differentiated questions that increases in cognitive ability to allow students to progress and meet the learning objective.

STAD (or Student-Teams-Achievement Divisions)[edit]

Students are placed in small groups (or teams). The class in its entirety is presented with a lesson and the students are subsequently tested. Individuals are graded on the team's performance. Although the tests are taken individually, students are encouraged to work together to improve the overall performance of the group.[25]

TGT (or Team Game Tournament)[edit]

Students are placed into small groups to study and prepare for a trivia game. This gives students incentive to learn and have some fun learning the material. This is a group exercise so not one student is to blame if a team loses. [26]

Research evidence[edit]

Research on cooperative learning demonstrated “overwhelmingly positive” results and confirmed that cooperative modes are cross-curricular.[27] Cooperative learning requires students to engage in group activities that increase learning and adds other important dimensions.[15] The positive outcomes include academic gains, improved race relations and increased personal and social development.[15] Students who fully participate in group activities, exhibit collaborative behaviors, provide constructive feedback, and cooperate with their groups have a higher likelihood of receiving higher test scores and course grades at the end of the semester.[28] Cooperative learning is an active pedagogy that fosters higher academic achievement.[28] Cooperative learning has also been found to increase attendance, time on task, enjoyment of school and classes, motivation, and independence.[29][30][31][32]

Benefits and applicability of cooperative learning:[18]

  • Students demonstrate academic achievement
  • Cooperative learning methods are usually equally effective for all ability levels
  • Cooperative learning is effective for all ethnic groups
  • Student perceptions of one another are enhanced when given the opportunity to work with one another
  • Cooperative learning increases self-esteem and self-concept
  • Ethnic and physically/mentally handicapped barriers are broken down allowing for positive interactions and friendships to occur

Cooperative learning results in:[33]

  • Increased higher level reasoning
  • Increased generation of new ideas and solutions
  • Greater transfer of learning between situations

Cooperative learning is significant in business:[16]

  • Cooperative learning can be seen as a characteristic of innovative businesses
  • The five stage division on cooperative learning creates a useful method of analyzing learning in innovative businesses
  • Innovativity connected to cooperative learning seems to make the creation of innovations possible


Cooperative Learning has many limitations that could cause the process to be more complicated than first perceived. Sharan (2010) describes the constant evolution of cooperative learning as a threat. Because cooperative learning is constantly changing, there is a possibility that teachers may become confused and lack complete understanding of the method. The fact that cooperative learning is such a dynamic practice means that it can not be used effectively in many situations. Also teachers can get into the habit of relying on cooperative learning as a way to keep students busy. While cooperative learning will consume time, the most effective application of cooperative learning hinges on an active instructor. Teachers implementing cooperative learning may also be challenged with resistance and hostility from students who believe that they are being held back by their slower teammates or by students who are less confident and feel that they are being ignored or demeaned by their team.[11]

Students often provide feedback in the form of evaluations or reviews on success of the teamwork experienced during cooperative learning experiences. Peer review and evaluations may not reflect true experiences due to perceived competition among peers. Students might feel pressured into submitting inaccurate evaluations due to bullying. To eliminate such concerns, confidential evaluation processes may help to increase evaluation strength.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Slavin, R. E.(1990). Cooperative Learning. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  2. ^ Kagan, S. (1990). The structural approach to cooperative learning. Educational Leadership, 47(4), 12-15.
  3. ^ Chiu, M. M. (2000). Group problem solving processes: Social interactions and individual actions. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 30, 1, 27-50.600-631.
  4. ^ Chiu, M. M. (2008).Flowing toward correct contributions during groups' mathematics problem solving: A statistical discourse analysis. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17 (3), 415 - 463.
  5. ^ Chiu, M. M. (2004). Adapting teacher interventions to student needs during cooperative learning. American Educational Research Journal, 41, 365-399.
  6. ^ Cohen, E. G. (1994). Designing group work. New York: Teacher's College.
  7. ^ Ross, J.,& Smythe, E. (1995). Differentiating cooperative learning to meet the needs of gifted learners: A case for transformational leadership. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 19, 63-82.
  8. ^ Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Holubec, E. J. (1994). The nuts and bolts of cooperative learning. ^ eMinnesota Minnesota: Interaction Book Company.
  9. ^ Gilles, R.M., & Adrian, F. (2003). Cooperative Learning: The social and intellectual Outcomes of Learning in Groups. London: Farmer Press.
  10. ^ May, M. and Doob, L. (1937). Cooperation and Competition. New York: Social Sciences Research Council
  11. ^ a b c Sharan, Y. (2010). Cooperative Learning for Academic and Social Gains: valued pedagogy, problematic practice. European Journal of Education, 45,(2), 300-313.
  12. ^ Johnson, D., Johnson, R. (1975). Learning together and alone, cooperation, competition, and individualization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  13. ^ Johnson, D., Johnson, R. (1994). Learning together and alone, cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning. Needham Heights, MA: Prentice-Hall.
  14. ^ a b Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Holubec, E. (1988). Advanced Cooperative Learning. Edin, MN: Interaction Book Company.
  15. ^ a b c Brown, H., & Ciuffetelli, D.C. (Eds.). (2009). Foundational methods: Understanding teaching and learning. Toronto: Pearson Education.
  16. ^ a b Siltala, R. (2010). Innovativity and cooperative learning in business life and teaching. University of Turku.
  17. ^ Siltala, R., Suomala, J., Taatila, V. & Keskinen, S. (2007). Cooperative Learning in Finland and in California during the innovation process. In Andriessen D. (Eds.) (2007). Intellectual Capital. Haarlem: Inholland University.
  18. ^ a b Brown, H., & Ciuffetelli, D.C. (Eds.). (2009). Foundational methods: Understanding teaching and learning, p. 507. Toronto: Pearson Education.
  19. ^ Kagan,S. 1994. Kagan cooperative learning. 2nd ed. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.
  20. ^ a b c Schul, J.E. (2011). Revisiting an old friend: The practice and promise of cooperative learning for the twenty-first century. The Social Studies, 102, 88-93.
  21. ^ Lyman, F.T. 1981. The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. In Mainstreaming Digest, ed. A. Anderson, 109-113. College Park: University of Maryland Press.
  22. ^ Schul, J.E. (2012). Revisiting and old friend: The practice and promise of cooperative learning for the twenty-first century. The Social Studies, 102, 88-93.
  23. ^ Heeden,T. 2003. The reverse jigsaw: A process of cooperative learning and discussion. Teaching Sociology 31 (3): 325-332.
  24. ^ Palinscar, A.S., & Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, I (2), 117-175.
  25. ^ Kevin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton. (2009) Educational Psychology 2nd Edition. “Chapter 9: Facilitating Complex Thinking.” pp. 204 [1]
  26. ^ Slavin, Robert. "Cooperative Learning". John Hopkins University. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  27. ^ Brown, H., & Ciuffetelli, D.C. (Eds.). (2009). Foundational methods: Understanding teaching and learning, p. 508. Toronto: Pearson Education.
  28. ^ a b Tsay, Mina; Miranda Brady (June 2010). "A case study of cooperative learning and communication pedagogy: Does working in teams make a difference?". Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 2 10: 78–89. 
  29. ^ Augustine, D.K., Gruber, K. D., & Hanson, L. R. (1989-1990). Cooperation works! Educational Leadership, 47, 4-7.
  30. ^ Good, T. L., Reys, B. J., Grouws, D. A., & Mulryan, C. M.(1989-1990). Using work groups in mathematics instruction. Educational leadership, 47, 56-60.
  31. ^ Slavin, R. E.(1990). Cooperative learning. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  32. ^ Wood, K. D.(1987). Fostering cooperative learning in the middle and secondary level classrooms. Journal of Reading, 31, 10-18.
  33. ^ Johnson, D. W.& Johnson, R. T.(1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
  34. ^ Tsay,M., & Brady, M. (2010). A case study of cooperative learning and communication pedagogy; Does working in teams make a difference? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 78-89.

Further reading[edit]

  • Aldrich, H., & Shimazoe,J. (2010). Group work can be gratifying: Understanding and overcoming resistance to cooperative learning. College Teaching, 58(2), 52-57.
  • Baker,T., & Clark, J. (2010). Cooperative learning- a double edged sword: A cooperative learning model for use with diverse student groups. Intercultural Education, 21(3), 257-268.
  • Kose, S., Sahin, A., Ergu, A., & Gezer, K. (2010). The effects of cooperative learning experience on eight grade students’ achievement and attitude toward science. Education, 131 (1), 169-180.
  • Lynch, D. (2010). Application of online discussion and cooperative learning strategies to online and blended college courses. College Student Journal, 44(3), 777-784.
  • Naested, I., Potvin, B., & Waldron, P. (2004). Understanding the landscape of teaching. Toronto: Pearson Education.
  • Scheurell, S. (2010). Virtual warrenshburg: Using cooperative learning and the internet in the social studies classroom. Social Studies, 101(5), 194-199.
  • Tsay, M., & Brady, M. (2010). A case study of cooperative learning and communication pedagogy: Does working in teams make a difference? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 78 – 89.

External links[edit]

  • [2] at The Cooperative Learning Institute