Cooperative Learning


Definition and description of the approach

Cooperative learning involves students working together towards a common goal in a teaching-learning situation. It is a relationship in a group of students that requires positive interdependence (a sense of sink or swim together), individual accountability (each of us has to contribute and learn), interpersonal skills (communication, trust, leadership, decision making, and conflict resolution), face-to-face promotive interaction, and processing (reflecting on how well the team is functioning and how to function even better). There are three basic forms of cooperative learning: tutoring (peer or cross-age), in which one student teaches another; pairs, who work and learn with each other and small groups of students teaching and learning together.

In other words cooperative learning is a successful teaching strategy in which small teams, each with students of different levels of ability, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of a team is responsible not only for learning what is taught but also for helping teammates learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement.


How it works as a teaching strategy

How does it work? Here are some typical strategies that can be used with any subject, in almost any grade, and without a special curriculum:

Group Investigations: are structured to emphasize higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation. Students work to produce a group project, which they may have a hand in selecting.

STAD (Student Teams-Achievement Divisions): is used in grades 2-12. Students with varying academic abilities are assigned to 4 or 5 member teams in order to study what has been initially taught by the teacher and to help each reach his or her highest level of achievement. Students are then tested individually. Teams earn certificates or other recognition based on the degree to which all team members have progressed over their past records.

Jigsaw II: is used with narrative material in grades 3-12. Each team member is responsible for learning a specific part of a topic. After meeting with members of other groups, who are “expert” in the same part, the “experts” return to their own groups and present their findings. Team members then are quizzed on all topics.

There are three basic ways students can interact with each other as they learn. They can compete to see who is "best," they can work individualistically toward a goal without paying attention to other students, or they can work cooperatively with a vested interest in each other's learning as well as their own. Of the three interaction patterns, competition is presently the most dominant. Research indicates that a vast majority of students in the United States view school as a competitive enterprise where one tries to do better than other students. Cooperation among students who celebrate each other’s successes, encourage each other to do homework, and learn to work together regardless of ethnic backgrounds or whether they are male or female, bright or struggling, disabled or not.

Even though these three interaction patterns are not equally effective in helping students learn concepts and skills, it is important that students learn to interact effectively in each of these ways. Students will face situations in which all three interaction patterns are operating and they will need to be able to be effective in each. They also should be able to select the appropriate interaction pattern suited to the situation. An interpersonal, competitive situation is characterized by negative goal interdependence where, when one person wins, the others. In individualistic learning situations, students are independent of one another and are working toward a set criteria where their success depends on their own performance in relation to an established criteria. The success or failure of other students does not affect their score. In a cooperative learning situation, interaction is characterized by positive goal interdependence with individual accountability. Positive goal interdependence requires acceptance by a group that they “sink or swim together”. A cooperative spelling class is one where students are working together in small groups to help each other learn the words in order to take the spelling test individually on another day. Each student’s score on the test is increased by bonus points if the group is successful (i.e., the group totals meet specified criteria). In a cooperative learning situation, a student needs to be concerned with how he or she spells and how well the other students in his or her group spell. This cooperative umbrella can also be extended over the entire class if bonus points are awarded to each student when the class can spell more words than a reasonable, but demanding, criteria set by the teacher.

There is a difference between simply having students work in a group and structuring groups of students to work cooperatively. A group of students sitting at the same table doing their own work, but free to talk with each other as they work, is not structured to be a cooperative group, as there is no positive interdependence. Perhaps it could be called individualistic learning with talking. For this to be a cooperative learning situation, there needs to be an accepted common goal on which the group is rewarded for its efforts. If a group of students has been assigned to do a report, but only one student does all the work and the others go along for a free ride, it is not a cooperative group. A cooperative group has a sense of individual accountability that means that all students need to know the material or spell well for the whole group to be successful. Putting students into groups does not necessarily gain a cooperative relationship; it has to be structured and managed by the teacher or professor.

It is only under certain conditions that cooperative efforts may be expected to be more productive. These conditions are:

1.      Clearly perceived positive interdependence

2.      Considerable promotive (face-to-face) interaction

3.      Clearly perceived individual accountability and personal responsibility to achieve the group’s goals

4.      Frequent use of the relevant interpersonal and small-group skills

5.      Frequent and regular group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness


Two specific examples

The following is a simple cooperative learning  segment of a lesson from a senior honors mathematics class. The class was studying related-rate word problems.  The problem was: A boat is pulled into a dock by means of a rope with one end attached to the bow of the boat, the other end passing through a ring attached to the dock at a point 4 ft higher than the bow of the boat.  If the rope is pulled in at the rate of 2 ft/s, how fast is the boat approaching the dock when 10 ft of rope are out?

Students were assigned to heterogeneous groups of 3-4 students to work on the problem. Their task was to: a) individually generate questions for solving the problem, b) share their questions with the group, c) as a group decide on the best questions for this problem, d) individually solve the problem using the group's questions and e) share and compare individual solutions and explain how they were obtained from applying the questions selected. Students were  taught to use self questioning as a strategy for thinking through the problem solving process. Initially the students found it strange to be asked to write  questions for a mathematics class. They learned  how to use questioning to help them plan, monitor and evaluate problem solving.  Examples of questions were modeled by the teacher thinking aloud how to use them when solving a problem.  Then students generated and used their own questions. Questions generated for this problem were:

Group 1

Student 1: What should the diagram look like?   Where do the values belong? What do I want to find?

Student 2: Where do I start? How do I find the desired answer? Where do the numbers belong in the formula? Which number goes to which part?

Student 3: What does the diagram look like?   What variables should I use? Where does the 2ft/s go? What derivatives do I have to find?

Student 4: How do I draw a picture to represent what the problem says? What parts of the diagram get labeled? What is the unknown? What equation do I use to get the derivative?

This group discussed their questions and made the following list for their group to use when solving the problem: 1. What should the diagram look like? 2. How should it be labeled? 3. What do we have to find? 4. What equation do we use to find the derivative?  

While the groups worked on their questions and used them to solve the problem, the teacher walked around to watch and listen to each group to make sure they were on task and making reasonable progress. As she checked up on each group she saw that some students still could not solve the problem.  She checked the individual and group lists of questions and realized they were incomplete, so she decided to have the groups share their questions, evaluate them as a class, and come up with a composite list. She guided the discussion to make sure the class generated questions for all three phases of the problem solving process (planning, monitoring and evaluating). The following is the composite list that emerged:

Planning: 1. Does this problem resemble a problem already done? 2. How should I diagram this problem? 3. What do I have to find? 4 . What equation must I differentiate?

Monitoring: 1. Is my algebra correct? 2. Am I using the correct formula? 3. Is my diagram labeled correctly?

Evaluating: 1. Does the answer make sense? 2. Did I find what I was supposed to find?  3. How can I check my answer?

Students then returned to solving the problem with the new set of questions.  Individuals within the group shared their answers with each other, decided on the correct answer, and raised their hands to let the teacher know when they were finished so she could check their solutions. She randomly asked students  to explain their solutions to make sure everyone in the group understood the problem and solution process.  Then she had students who had solved the problem help  those who had difficulty. At the end of the lesson the class looked at how the questions related to each part of the problem solution.  Constructing, comparing, discussing and evaluating  problem solving questions,  individually, in small groups and with the entire class enriched students' understanding of what questions and strategies were best suited for the particular problem.  Some of the students said that in the past, they had been so concerned with getting the right answer that they had never given as much thought to the thinking process.

When each student has just his/her own knowledge, thoughts and questions, the perspective on problem solving  is much more narrow and shallow.  Mathematicians frequently discuss their solution strategies and outcomes with others .  They know that others can sometimes detect  limitations, suggest alternative approaches to and applications of problem solutions.  By discussing problem solving with others, students learn to think more like mathematicians.

Another example: Compare a moment from a class in Self Science with the classroom experiences you can recall. A fifth-grade group is about to play the Cooperation Squares game, in which the students team up to put together a series of square-shaped jigsaw puzzles. The catch: their teamwork is all in silence, with no gesturing allowed. The teacher, Jo-An-Varga, divides the class into three groups, each assigned to a different table. Three observers, each familiar with the game, get an evaluation sheet to assess, for example, who in the group takes the lead in organizing, who is a clown, who disrupts. The students dump the pieces of the puzzles on the table and go to work. Within a minute or so it’s clear thar one group is surprisingly efficient as a team; they finish in just a few minutes. A second group of four is engaged in solitary, parallel efforts,  each working separately on their own puzzle, but getting nowhere. Then they slowly start to work collectively to assemble their first square, and continue to work as a unit until all the puzzles are solved. But the third group still struggles, with only one puzzle nearing completion, and even that looking more like a trapezoid than a square. Sean, Fairlie and Rahman have yet to find the smooth coordination that the other two groups fell into. They are clearly frustrated, frantically scanning the pieces on the table, seizing on likely possibilities and putting them near the partly finished squares, only to be disappointed by the lack of fit. The tension breaks a bit when Rahman takes two of the pieces and puts them in front of his eyes like a mask; his partners giggle. This will prove to be a pivotal moment in the day’s lesson. Jo-An-Varga, the teacher, offers some encouragement: “Those of you who have finished can give one specific hint to those who are still working”. Dagan moseys over to the still-struggling group, points to two pieces that jut out from the square, and suggests, “You’ve got to move those two pieces around”. Suddenly Rahman, his wide face furrowed in concentration, grasps the new gestalt, and the pieces quickly fall into place on the first puzzle, then the others. There’s spontaneous applause as the last piece falls into place on the third group’s final puzzle.


Research and theory suggest it’s considered useful as a teaching strategy

Cooperative learning have been shown to be effective for developing student’s higher level thinking strategies and abilities to work independently. Provides situations for students to teach each other. When students explain and teach concepts to each other, retention of these concepts improves. Explaining also helps students connect their prior knowledge with the new information. This teaching strategy is a powerful instructional method for developing content knowledge and higher level thinking skills across the curriculum. Academic work is usually much more fun and exciting to students when they work together cooperatively.

The social context and active involvement make it more motivating to learn. Research has shown that cooperative learning increases confidence in student’s abilities. It improves self-esteem as well as feelings of competence in specific subjects. Research has also documented the positive effects of cooperative learning on improving social relations with students of different ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. It has been demonstrated to be an especially effective method of teaching in settings characterized by such diversity. It helps improve achievement from elementary grades through graduate school.

Cooperative learning promotes academic achievement, is relatively easy to implement, and is not expensive. Children's improved behavior and attendance, and increased liking of school, are some of the benefits of cooperative learning. Although much of the research on cooperative learning has been done with older students, cooperative learning strategies are effective with younger children in preschool centers and primary classrooms. In addition to the positive outcomes just noted, cooperative learning promotes student motivation, encourages group processes, fosters social and academic interaction among students, and rewards successful group participation.

A review of 99 studies of cooperative learning in elementary and secondary schools that involved durations of at least four weeks compared achievement gains in cooperative learning and control groups. Of sixty-four studies of cooperative learning methods that provided group rewards based on the sum of group members' individual learning, fifty (78%) found significantly positive effects on achievement, and none found negative effects (Slavin, 1995). One theoretical perspective somewhat related to the motivational viewpoint holds that the effects of cooperative learning on achievement are strongly mediated by the cohesiveness of the group, in essence that students will help one another learn because they care about one another and want one another to succeed.


Relevant theory, theorists and research

Reciprocal Education

Reciprocal teaching is already established as a powerful technique for improving reading comprehension. Students and a tutor or teacher alternate roles leading text dialogues structured around modeling the strategies of predicting, clarifying, questioning and summarizing. This teaching procedure is based on a set of instructional principles that have practically unlimited application potential. Fantuzzo, King and Heller (1992) have successfully used a related instructional method, “reciprocal peer tutoring” (RPT), for elementary students in math computation. RPT is based on cognitive theory and research showing the academic benefit of explaining material to other students. In this strategy two or more students work together cooperatively and follow a structured format in which students teach, prompt, monitor, evaluate and encourage each other. Students alternate between teacher and student roles and engage in peer teaching, peer choice of rewards, and peer management. Fantuzzo emphasizes that it is the combination of these components (peer teaching, peer choice of rewards, and peer management) that produces greater academic and motivational gain than using  them in isolation.

Reciprocal questioning  involves students taking turns asking and answering questions about the material after a lesson or presentation.  Students learn to ask questions through a scaffolding procedure in which the teacher provides question stem prompts such as “What do you think would happen if...?, What is a new example of...? and What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?” Eventually students can create their own questions without the teacher's stems (King, 1990).

Reciprocal tutoring is a model in which all tutors first get experiences as tutees as part of their apprenticeship for becoming a tutor. This model provides tutors with an experiential basis for tutor-centered learning  (Gartner & Riessman, 1993).

There are other variations of this type of approach. The pair-problem solving method of Whimbey and Lochhead (1982) and I DREAM of A methods in this book involve reciprocal teaching types of activities. The varieties of reciprocal teaching types of procedures have a core of  two common principles: students work with other students and students take on roles of both teachers and learners. Instructional models that share these basic elements can be called “reciprocal education”. The term “reciprocal” is used to reflect students taking turns, especially with other students. The term “education” is chosen to represent participation in both teaching and learning activities. Reciprocal education may be adapted for use in virtually any subject area.

The major alternative to the motivationalist and social cohesiveness perspectives on cooperative learning, both of which focus primarily on group norms and interpersonal influence, is the cognitive perspective, which holds that interactions among students will in themselves increase student achievement for reasons which have to do with mental processing of information rather than with motivations. Cooperative methods developed by cognitive theorists involve neither the group goals that are the cornerstone of the motivationalist methods nor the emphasis on building group cohesiveness characteristic of the social cohesion methods. However, there are several quite different cognitive perspectives, as well as some which are similar in theoretical perspective but have developed on largely parallel tracks. These are described in the following sections.

Cognitive theorists would hold that the cognitive processes that are essential to any theory relating cooperative learning to achievement can be created directly, without the motivational or affective changes discussed by the motivationalist and social cohesion theorists. This may turn out to be accurate, but at present demonstrations of learning effects from direct manipulation of peer cognitive interactions have mostly been limited to very brief durations and to tasks which lend themselves directly to the cognitive processes involved. For example, the Piagetian conservation tasks studied by developmentalists have few practical analogs in the school curriculum.

Social cohesion theorists, in contrast, emphasize the idea that students help their groupmates learn because they care about the group. A hallmark of the social cohesion perspective is an emphasis on teambuilding activities in preparation for cooperative learning, and processing or group self-evaluation during and after group activities. Social cohesion theorists tend to downplay or reject the group incentives and individual accountability held by motivationalist researchers to be essential.

Outcomes a teacher can expect of using this teaching strategy

Cooperative learning and cooperative learning groups are means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Therefore, teachers should begin planning by describing precisely what students are expected to learn and be able to do on their own well beyond the end of the group task and curriculum unit. Regardless of whether these outcomes emphasize academic content, cognitive processing abilities, or skills, teachers should describe in very unambiguous language the specific knowledge and abilities students are to acquire and then demonstrate on their own. It is not sufficient for teachers to select outcome objectives: students must perceive these objectives as their own. They must come to comprehend and accept that everyone in the group needs to master the common set of information and/or skills. In selected strategies where groups select their own objectives, all members of each group must accept their academic outcomes as ones they all must achieve.


Advantages and disadvantages of using this approach

Academic benefits: promotes critical thinking skills, involves students actively in the learning process, classroom results are improved, models appropriate student problem solving techniques, large lectures can be personalized. Social benefits: develops a social support system for students, builds diversity understanding among students and staff, establishes a positive atmosphere for modeling and practicing cooperation, develops learning communities. Psychological benefits: student centered instruction increases students' self esteem, cooperation reduces anxiety, develops positive attitudes towards teachers.

Cooperative learning can be ineffective if it is not handled right. Not all groupwork is cooperative learning. Students can sit side by side in a group and do their work completely independently without cooperating. Potential problems implementing cooperative learning in high school mathematics classes may be student-oriented or teacher-oriented. Student-oriented problems include: a group of students may become bored with each other, there may be inadequate leadership within a group,  students may feel abandoned by the teacher, difficult problems may cause feelings of defeat while easy problems may be boring, and students may need a change of pace or more praise.  Teacher-oriented problems include: teachers may feel uncomfortable not being the center of the classroom, they may not have explained the task adequately, and they may get mixed feedback about what students have learned. 

Although many students prefer working cooperatively to working independently, some students would rather work alone.  Such students can inhibit effective group interaction.

Another problem is that one or two students can do all the work solving problems while the others do not.

Time can be a problem when implementing cooperative learning and sometimes lessons end without summarizing what was learned and assessing the group process.










Daniel Goleman

1995                                        Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books


Hope Hartman

1997                                        Human Learning & Instruction. City College of New York



Slavin, R.E.

1995                                        Cooperative learning:Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon


Robert E. Slavin

1995                                        Research on Cooperative Learning and Achievement: What We Know, What We Need to Know. John Hopkins University


Stahl, Robert J.

2000                                        The Essential Elements of Cooperative Learning in the classroom. Eric Digest.