Cooperative Learning Research Paper Starter

Cooperative Learning

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of cooperative learning, an instructional technique developed to enhance academic achievement through social and interpersonal skill development. The central tenet of cooperative learning is that through interaction and dialogue with others around a topic of study, student achievement increases, attitudes toward learning improve, and students learn and retain more information than through other, more intrapersonal, instructional methodologies (i.e. teacher directed/lecture style formats). Research points to all of these positive effects as well as improved intergroup, interethnic and gender cooperation as well as increased self-esteem and confidence for all student populations including special needs, gifted and mainstream students. Although there are many cooperative learning strategies in K-12 education, the most common include STAD (Student Teams-Achievement Divisions), TGT (Teams-Games-Tournament), Jigsaw, Group Investigation, Know-Want to Know-Do-Learn K-W-D-L, CIRC (Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition), Learning Together, and Literature Circles.

Keywords Cooperative Integrated Reading & Composition (CIRC); Differentiated Instruction; Group Investigation; Heterogeneous Grouping; Homogeneous Grouping; Jigsaw; Know-Want to Know-Do-Learn (K-W-D-L); Learning Together; Literature Circles; Positive Interdependence; Random Grouping; Rubrics; Student Teams-Achievement Divisions (STAD); Teams-Games-Tournament (TGT)


Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy that emphasizes the importance of positive social interactions among students working in small groups on a given task or assignment related to a unit of study. The effects of cooperation and group interaction have been studied since the 1920's. However, it was not until fifty years later and the contributions of independent researchers, most notably David Johnson, Roger Johnson and Robert Slavin, that cooperative learning started to become a common instructional methodology in K-12 classrooms. The methodology can be employed in a wide range of classrooms, both K-12 and higher education, as well as in a wide range of subject specific disciplines. Research indicates that cooperative learning has a direct impact on academic achievement, self-esteem, confidence, interethnic relationships, and overall attitudes toward the learning process. Cooperative learning theory draws extensively on research by Piaget, Vygotsky and Carroll.

The five essential elements of cooperative learning include positive interdependence, face-to-face interactions, individual and group accountability, interpersonal skills and opportunities for group processing (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1990). Positive interdependence requires students to depend on one another in order to complete a given task or assignment. A teacher can create positive interdependence by ensuring that all students are assigned roles, materials are shared among members, the task requires students to agree on strategies used and a final product, and group rewards are used to praise students.

The second element required for cooperative learning to be successful is face-to-face interactions. Teachers must create space in a classroom environment for teams to meet with each other and have opportunities to share ideas, dialogue about possible solutions, resolve conflicts, and come to a consensus. Teachers must also provide, through modeling, proper ways to solve disagreements and interact positively when in a group setting. The overall outcome of face-to-face interactions is that students are provided with a structured environment in which they help, encourage and support each other in pursuit of a common goal or objective.

Individual and group accountability refers to the actual assessment of group interactions and the final product as well as the ways in which targeted feedback is provided to both the individual and the group as a whole. The trick to ensuring success is to connect and bridge the gap between individual and group feedback. The group must understand that each individual plays a vital role in the success of the entire group and therefore must know ways in which each individual can improve as well as how the group can improve overall. Through motivating rewards and feedback, students hold each other accountable and thereby expect individuals to interact well with each other, come prepared to the group meeting, remain on task and successfully complete the given assignment.

Cooperative learning capitalizes on social interaction and peer relationships. Therefore, positive interpersonal skills are necessary for success. Students must understand, and sometimes be explicitly taught, the social skills necessary to navigate through the group learning process. Through assigned roles, students learn the social skills required to lead a group, keep a group on task, encourage a group to continue when stumbled, etc. Archer-Kath et al. (1994) state "for cooperative learning groups to be productive, members must ask each other for information, give each other information, ask for and give each other help when they need it, and support and praise each other's efforts to learn" (p. 6). Additionally, as noted above, students often need direct modeling with regard to how to handle conflict or disagreements in a group setting.

The final component, group processing, plays a crucial role in cooperative learning situations. It is essential for individual students and groups to be self-reflective, to think about what went well and ways to improve. It is important that students reflect on what each individual student did well and what each student can do to make the process better in the future. Equally as important is for the group to reflect on overall group dynamics and how positive or negative interactions affected the overall performance of the group.

Slavin (1995) proposed slightly different criteria for cooperative learning situations including group goals, individual accountability, equal opportunities for success, team competition, task specialization, and adaptation to individual needs. Although mildly different, this format for the development of cooperative learning opportunities also emphasizes individual and group effort/accountability, social interactions among group members, and the critical importance of feedback and rewards for both individuals and groups.

One of the main objectives of our education system is to prepare our students to interact in an ever more diverse society, to learn to work with a variety of individual strengths and weaknesses, to respect differences, and to embrace multiculturalism. Across many parts of the world, the student population is becoming increasingly diverse, bringing to classrooms divergent racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic experiences (Mills & Keddie, 2012). Cooperative learning aims to create situations within the classroom in which students apply the social skills necessary to successfully interact and contribute to future society. Siciliano (2001) states that teams are becoming an ever more popular form of job design. This paradigm shift represents a significant change in organizational management and clearly identifies for K-12 education the critical importance of instructional design that includes ample opportunities for cooperative learning.


Cooperative Learning Applied in the K-12 Classroom

Heterogeneous, Homogeneous

Heterogeneous, homogeneous and random grouping strategies are used to develop cooperative learning teams. When creating heterogeneous groups, teachers may look to develop teams with students of different ability levels, interests, learning styles, races, language proficiencies, personalities or other characteristics. The main objective behind heterogeneous groups is to develop a team of students who bring different skill sets, backgrounds or perspectives in order to foster meaningful dialogue and interactions. Homogeneous groups, in contrast, are created with students of the same ability, interests, learning styles, races, language proficiencies, personalities or characteristics. Certain curriculum objectives lend themselves more easily to students of similar aptitudes or characteristics working together to achieve a common goal. The development of both heterogeneous and homogeneous groups requires pre-planning on behalf of the classroom teacher. Should such pre-planning not be required for a particular curriculum objective, teachers may opt to develop cooperative learning teams through random grouping strategies. For example, teachers may randomly pull student names out of a hat, have students count-off from one to five, or even allow students to choose their own groups.

Research tends to indicate that heterogeneous groups are the most beneficial for cooperative learning situations because they represent a range of varied abilities, ethnicities, backgrounds, interests, and other characteristics (Slavin, 1995). If we expect our students to be able to thrive in a demanding society where they need to fully appreciate and understand how to work with and get along with individuals who differ, educators need to provide students with ample opportunities to interact in heterogeneous groups. Although heterogeneous groups are ideal for cooperative learning situations, teachers may find that a particular learning objective can best be achieved by students in a homogeneous or randomly assigned group. Simply because a group is not heterogeneous does not imply that it does not qualify as a cooperative learning situation.

Common Cooperative Learning Models (K-12)

One of the most commonly used forms of cooperative learning in the classroom setting is STAD - Student Teams-Achievement Divisions (Slavin, 1999). Using this methodology, teachers present a concept to the entire class and then develop heterogeneous groups of four to five students who then work on concept-specific worksheets as a team. Groups are evaluated on individual score improvements on quizzes as compared to past performance. An alternative application, TGT - Teams-Games-Tournaments utilizes the same structure as STAD, but replaces individual quizzes with game-like tournaments to increase student engagement. Again, individual performance is benchmarked against past performance in order to assess achievement gains (Slavin, 1999).

Jigsaw (Aronson et al., 1978) is another popular methodology employed in classroom settings across grade levels and disciplines. In the Jigsaw method, heterogeneous base groups are developed and each student is expected to become an "expert" on a certain amount of content specific material. To facilitate meaningful discussion, the original base groups are broken into "expert" teams comprising one individual from each base group. Students in the newly made up "expert" teams all receive the same information and work together to brainstorm best possible ways to teach the information to their original base group. The experts then return to their original group and teach the information to their group mates. Each individual student is quizzed and either receives an individual grade or contributes to an overall group score.

Group Investigation (Sharan & Sharan, 1992) is yet another popular methodology employed in a variety of classroom settings. When using this application, teachers allow students to choose their own two to six member groups. Students are provided with the freedom to choose from among a variety of sub-topics within a unit of study and are then given the autonomy to break down the sub-topic into individual tasks to be carried out by individual group...

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