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What is Cooperative Learning?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cooperative learning (CL) is a type of education strategy that is gaining in popularity and can be successfully used in a variety of learning environments. Instead of each student learning without aid from other students, much of the classwork in a cooperative learning situation is done in small group settings. This doesn’t usually mean that students very occasionally work on a group project together. Instead it means that students regularly work on assignments together and may have a specific group to which they belong for a given semester or school year.

Proponents of cooperative learning say they are many benefits to this type of learning environment. Students don’t only learn the material, but they may learn better because they have more time to contribute and discuss the material. Shy students may feel more at ease in sharing thoughts and ideas in small groups than they would with a whole class. Successful groupings of students can foster more social and cooperative behavior, which is a very useful skill in many real life situations.

There are a few ways that teachers may help build cooperative learning environments that are successful. Since individual accountability is still important, teachers may choose to give both team and individual tests. Grading that can be partly based on group work and partly based on individual performance can help allay the fears of students who would typically perform better outside of a group. This includes some gifted students, who may not always benefit in cooperative learning situations, and may feel that lower levels of academic performance on the part of the group will negatively impact grade.

Teachers also need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of students who may not be able to perform at the level of most other students due to learning disabilities or to behavioral problems. In a cooperative learning situation, it should not be the group’s responsibility to police other members of the group on a regular basis. A person who cannot make a significant contribution to the group may need a different learning environment. One person’s failure to stay on pace with the group can sink a whole team if most grades are based on team performance. This doesn’t mean that a child with learning disabilities can’t work well in cooperative learning classes, but teachers need to consider how to best place these students so that they will contribute rather than detract from other learners.

There can be great benefit to CL instruction. There is much to be said for the idea that students may make excellent teachers to each other. Clearly defining the tasks of a group help to reinforce this. If students can’t leave an activity until all group members comprehend it, this may be an incredibly effective method for reinforcing class material. Students do have to care how they and their group members perform, and this may be achieved by receiving group grades on certain projects.

Some teachers utilize cooperative learning at all times and others use it on an occasional basis. In high schools and middle schools, there are even some courses where students have the option to take a CL class or one that is more traditional in model. Giving this option may prove helpful because students will be less likely to be involved in the CL setting unless they really enjoy it. Meanwhile students that benefit from more traditional methods of teaching will be able to pursue their education in a way that best fits them.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Jun 02, 2014

@pastanaga - Students are fairly perceptive and will often surprise you if you let them. They want to be engaged, they just often don't think that's possible for them. Letting them learn with each other can really get them involved in the work and it can help all levels of students. The more advanced kids can get practice from helping the less advanced kids (although they shouldn't have to do this all the time) and the average kids can help to extend each other.

Cooperative learning groups are amazing in some circumstances, but I would definitely examine the theory thoroughly before implementing it.

By pastanaga — On Jun 01, 2014

@browncoat - You would really have to take this in small steps though, if you've got students who have never worked this way before. I can imagine students being unnecessarily cruel, or even just callous and really upsetting each other.

A cooperative learning classroom isn't something you can just decide to start overnight from a traditional classroom. You would need to work up to it.

By browncoat — On May 31, 2014

One way to make cooperative learning successful is to encourage the students to evaluate the ways in which their group works well together and in which they could improve. Don't let them be too negative but do let them have a real say about the group dynamics and use that information to try and match them to the best people you can.

I have been in classes where students have been told to get into particular groups and have politely asked to change, because they knew they would talk too much with their partners and not get enough work done. If you can get a class to the point where the students are monitoring their own learning like that, you're doing something right.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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