What Is Cooperative Learning?

Teaching Students to Collaborate Effectively

Girls reading books in living room

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Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy that enables small groups of students to work together on a common assignment. The parameters often vary, as students can work collaboratively on a variety of problems, ranging from simple math problems to large assignments such as proposing environmental solutions on a national level. Students are sometimes individually responsible for their part or role in the assignment, and sometimes they are held accountable as an entire group.

Cooperative learning has received a lot of attention and praise—especially since the 1990s when Johnson and Johnson outlined the five basic elements that allowed successful small-group learning:

  • Positive interdependence: Students feel responsible for their own and the group's effort.
  • Face-to-face interaction: Students encourage and support one another; the environment encourages discussion and eye contact.
  • Individual and group accountability: Each student is responsible for doing their part; the group is accountable for meeting its goal.
  • Social Skills: Group members gain direct instruction in the interpersonal, social, and collaborative skills needed to work with others.
  • Group processing: Group members analyze their own and the group's ability to work together.

At the same time, the following characteristics need to be present:

  • When designing cooperative learning activities, teachers need to clearly identify to students their individual responsibility and accountability to the group.
  • Each member must have a task they are responsible for and that cannot be completed by other members.

Side-note: This article uses the terms "cooperative" and "collaborative" interchangeably. However, certain researchers distinguish between these two types of learning, outlining the key difference being that collaborative learning focuses mainly on deeper learning.

Benefits

Teachers make frequent use of group work, and thus cooperative learning, for a number of reasons:

  1. Change Things Up. It is beneficial to have a variety in your instruction; it keeps students engaged and enables you to reach a larger number of learners. Cooperative learning also changes students' and teachers' roles as teachers become facilitators of learning, guides on the side if you will, and students take on more responsibility for their own learning.
  2. Life Skills. Cooperation and collaboration are crucial skills that students will continue using far beyond their schooling years. One of the key elements in a workplace is collaboration, and we need to get our students ready to cooperate, to be responsible and accountable, and to possess other interpersonal skills for effective professional lives. Cooperative learning is also proven to foster students’ self-esteem, motivation, and empathy.
  3. Deeper Learning. Collaborating with others has a potent and positive effect on students’ thinking and learning—through well-executed cooperative learning tasks, students often deepen their understanding of the assigned content. Students engage in thoughtful discourse, examine different perspectives, and learn how to disagree productively.

Challenges and Solutions

Despite cooperative or collaborative learning being ingrained in teaching practices for decades now, it has also been demonstrated that small group activities aren’t always very efficient. Some of the main challenges turn out to be students' free-riding (the lack of participation on behalf of some students), their focus on individual academic goals while neglecting collaborative goals, and teachers’ difficulties in accurately assessing students’ participation.

Some specific recommendations resulting from the above-mentioned challenges are that teachers should focus on:

  1. Defining specific collaborative goals (in addition to the academic content goals)
  2. Training students in social interactions for productive collaboration
  3. Monitoring and supporting student interactions
  4. Assessing the collaborative process—productivity and the learning process of individuals and the whole group (thanks to increased professional development)
  5. Applying the findings into future cooperative learning tasks

Effective Cooperative Learning

Ideally, cooperative or collaborative learning activities would invite students to be more active participants in their own learning, to share and discuss their ideas, to engage in argumentation and debate, to play varying roles within the group, and to internalize their learning.

A 2017 research paper by Rudnitsky et al. introduced features of good discourse and collaboration, also influenced by the Association for Middle-Level Education:

"What we as teachers want from our students when they engage in any academic talk is what some call Exploratory talk—a talk "when learners can try out ideas, be hesitant, be tentative, relate new ideas to experiences, and develop a new, shared understanding." Out of this need for new ways of teaching students how to be good intellectual partners, Rudnitsky et al. came up with the acronym Be BRAVE."

BRAVE Workshop

If you are planning on including small group activities as a part of your instruction, and want to avoid common complications outlined above, it is a good idea to devote a few lessons at the beginning of your course to coaching your students. In order to set yourself and your students up for success, try the BRAVE Workshop.

Length-wise, the workshop is designed to fit into a span of one week or five classes. Some of the useful materials include: multiple post-its per student, large poster papers, a slideshow depicting successful group collaboration (pictures of current prominent teams such as Facebook, NASA, etc.), a short documentary video that shows important features of good collaboration, three or more challenging problems that students won’t be able to solve alone, and a few short videos depicting students like yours collaborating together.

Day 1: Good Talk Workshop

Silent discussion about the workshop’s two central questions:

  • Why collaborate?
  • What makes for a good collaboration?
  1. Each student collects their thoughts and writes them on a large post-it note
  2. Everyone places their notes on a large poster paper in the front of the classroom
  3. Students are encouraged to look at others’ thoughts and build on them with subsequent posts
  4. Throughout the length of the workshop, students can refer back to their post-its and add additional notes to the conversation.
  5. Provide students with a difficult problem that they should solve individually (and that they won’t be able to solve alone right away and will revisit at the end of the workshop)

Day 2: Introducing Ideas About Collaboration

  1. Watch a slideshow depicting successful group collaboration
  2. All kinds of images: from sports teams to NASA 
  3. As a class, discuss why and how collaboration might contribute to the success of such endeavors
  4. If possible, watch a short documentary video that shows important features of good collaboration
  5. Students take notes on the group process and discuss the important features 
  6. Teacher leads the discussion who points out important features related to BRAVE (encourage wild ideas, build on others’ ideas)

Day 3: Introducing the BRAVE Framework

  1. Introduce the BRAVE poster that will stay up in the classroom
  2. Tell students BRAVE summarizes much of what researchers and professionals (like people at Google) do to collaborate successfully
  3. If possible, show a number of short videos depicting students like yours collaborating together. It doesn’t have to be perfect but can serve as an opener for a discussion about important aspects of BRAVE.
  4. Watch first time
  5. Watch second time to take notes—one column for a video, one column for BRAVE qualities
  6. Discuss the BRAVE qualities and other things students noticed

Day 4: Using BRAVE Analytically

  1. Present students with a problem (like the Worm Journey for middle schoolers or others more appropriate for your students’ level)
  2. Students are not allowed to speak, only communicate through post-its or drawing or writing.
  3. Tell students that the point is to slow talk down so that they can concentrate on the qualities of good collaboration
  4. After working on the problem, the class comes together to discuss what they learned about good collaboration

Day 5: Using BRAVE to Engage in Group Work

  1. Each student writes down which BRAVE quality they want to work on
  2. Split students into groups of four and have them read each other’s choice of BRAVE quality
  3. Let students work on the problem from Day 1 together
  4. Let them know that everyone should be able to explain the group’s thinking.
  5. When they think they have the correct answer, they have to explain their reasoning to the teacher who will choose the reporting student.
  6. If correct, the group will receive another problem. If incorrect, the group continues to work on the same problem.

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