Cooperative Learning

Cooperative Learning

Excerpted from Snowman/Biehler, PSYCHOLOGY APPLIED TO TEACHING, © Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Elements of Cooperative Learning

Over the past twenty years different approaches to cooperative learning have been proposed by different individuals. The three most popular are those of David Johnson and Roger Johnson (Johnson et al., 1994), Robert Slavin (1994, 1995), and Shlomo Sharan and Yael Sharan (Sharan, 1995; Sharan & Sharan, 1994). To give you a general sense of what cooperative learning is like and to avoid limiting you to any one individual’s approach, the following discussion is a synthesis of the main features of each approach.

Group Heterogeneity

The size of cooperative-learning groups is relatively small and as heterogeneous as circumstances allow. The recommended size is usually four to five students. At the very least, groups should contain both males and females and students of different ability levels. If possible, different ethnic backgrounds and social classes should be represented as well.

Group Goals/Positive Interdependence

A specific goal, such as a grade or a certificate of recognition, is identified for the group to attain. Students are told that they will have to support one another because the group goal can be achieved only if each member learns the material being taught (in the case of a task that culminates in an exam) or makes a specific contribution to the group’s effort (in the case of a task that culminates in a presentation or a project).

Promotive Interaction

This element is made necessary by the existence of positive interdependence. Students are shown how to help each other overcome problems and complete whatever task has been assigned. This may involve episodes of peer tutoring, temporary assistance, exchanges of information and material, challenging of each other’s reasoning, feedback, and encouragement to keep one another highly motivated.

Individual Accountability

This feature stipulates that each member of a group has to make a significant contribution to achieving the group’s goal. This may be satisfied by achieving a minimal score on a test, having the group’s test score be the sum or average of each student’s quiz scores, or having each member be responsible for a particular part of a project (such as doing the research and writing for a particular part of a history report).

Interpersonal Skills

Positive interdependence and promotive interaction are not likely to occur if students do not know how to make the most of their face-to-face interactions. And you can safely assume that the interpersonal skills most students possess are probably not highly developed. As a result, they have to be taught such basic skills as leadership, decision making, trust building, clear communication, and conflict management. The conflict that arises over differences of opinion, for example, can be constructive if it is used as a stimulus to search for more information or to rethink one’s conclusions. But it can destroy group cohesion and productivity if it results in students stubbornly clinging to a position or referring to each other as “stubborn,” “dumb,” or “nerdy.”

Equal Opportunities for Success

Because cooperative groups are heterogeneous with respect to ability and their success depends on positive interdependence, promotive interaction, and individual accountability, it is important that steps be taken to ensure that all students have an opportunity to contribute to their team. You can do this by awarding points for degree of improvement over previous test scores, having students compete against comparable members of other teams in a game- or tournament-like atmosphere, or giving students learning assignments (such as math problems) that are geared to their current level of skill.

Team Competition

This may seem to be an odd entry in a list of cooperative-learning components, especially in light of the comments we made earlier about the ineffectiveness of competition as a spur to motivation. But we’re not being contradictory. The main problem with competition is that it is rarely used appropriately. When competition occurs between well-matched competitors, is done in the absence of a norm-referenced grading system, and is not used too frequently, it can be an effective way to motivate students to cooperate with each other.
Does Cooperative Learning Really Work?

The short answer to this question is yes. In the vast majority of studies, forms of cooperative learning have been shown to be more effective than noncooperative reward structures in raising the levels of variables that contribute to motivation, in raising achievement, and in producing positive social outcomes.

Effect on Motivation

Because a student’s sense of self-esteem can have a strong effect on motivation (a point we made in the last section of this chapter), this variable has been examined in several cooperative-learning studies. The results are encouraging, yet confusing. Slavin (1995) found that in eleven of fifteen studies, cooperative learning produced bigger increases in some aspect of self-esteem (general self-esteem, academic self-esteem, social self-esteem) than the noncooperative method with which it was compared. But these effects were not consistent across studies. Some researchers would report increases in academic self-esteem or social self-esteem, but others would find no effect. Adding to the confusion is the conclusion drawn by Johnson and Johnson (1995) that cooperative learning consistently produced higher self-efficacy scores than did competitive or individualistic conditions. Such inconsistencies may reflect weaknesses in the self-esteem instruments that were used (self-ratings are not always accurate), weaknesses in the designs of the studies (many cooperative-learning studies last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, yet changes in self-esteem happen slowly), or differences in specific cooperative-learning programs. Perhaps future research will clarify this issue.

Another way in which cooperative learning contributes to high levels of motivation is in the proacademic attitudes that it fosters among group members. Slavin (1995) cites several studies in which students in cooperative-learning groups felt more strongly than did other students that their groupmates wanted them to come to school every day and work hard in class.

Probably because of such features as promotive interaction and equal opportunities for success, cooperative learning has been shown to have a positive effect on motivation inducing attributions. Students in cooperative-learning groups were more likely to attribute success to hard work and ability than to luck (Slavin, 1995).

A strong indicator of motivation is the actual amount of time students spend working on a task. Most studies have found that cooperative-learning students spend significantly more time on-task than do control students (Johnson et al., 1995; Slavin, 1995).

Effect on Achievement

Slavin (1995) examined several dozen studies that lasted four or more weeks and that used a variety of cooperative-learning methods. Overall, students in cooperative-learning groups scored about one-fourth of a standard deviation higher on achievement tests than did students taught conventionally. This translates to an advantage of 10 percentile ranks (60th percentile for the average cooperative-learning student versus 50th percentile for the average conventionally taught student). But the beneficial effect of cooperative learning varied widely as a function of the particular method used. The best performances occurred with two techniques called Student Teams-Achievement Divisions and Teams-Games-Tournaments. The cooperative-learning features that seem to be most responsible for learning gains are group goals and individual accountability.

David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith (1995) also reviewed much of the cooperative-learning literature but drew a somewhat different conclusion. They found that the test scores of students in the cooperative-learning groups were about two-thirds of a standard deviation higher than the test scores of students in competitive or individualistic situations. This translates to an advantage of 25 percentile ranks (75th versus 50th). It’s not clear why Slavin’s analysis produced a somewhat lower estimate of the size of the advantage produced by cooperative learning. It may be due in part to differences in the studies cited by each; Slavin focused on studies lasting at least four weeks. It may also be due to differences in the cooperative techniques used by various researchers.

In addition to achievement outcomes, researchers have also assessed the impact of cooperative learning on problem solving. Given the complex nature of problem solving and the multiple resources that a cooperative group has at its disposal, one would logically expect cooperative learning to have a positive effect on this outcome as well. This hypothesis was confirmed by Zhining Qin, David Johnson, and Roger Johnson (1995). After reviewing forty-six studies, they concluded that students of all age levels (elementary, secondary, college, adult) who worked cooperatively outscored students who worked competitively. The average student in a cooperative group solved more problems correctly than 71 percent of the students who worked competitively.

Effect on Social Relationships

In most studies students exposed to cooperative learning were more likely than students who learned under competitive or individualistic conditions to name a classmate from a different race, ethnic group, or social class as a friend or to label such individuals as “nice” or “smart.” In some studies the friendships that were formed were deemed to be quite strong. A similar positive effect was found for students with mental disabilities who were mainstreamed. Finally, the cooperation skills that students learn apparently transfer. Cooperative-learning students were more likely than other students to use the cooperative behaviors they were taught when they worked with new classmates (Johnson & Johnson, 1995; Slavin, 1995).

Students who learn cooperatively tend to be more highly motivated to learn because of increased self-esteem, the proacademic attitudes of groupmates, appropriate attributions for success and failure, and greater on-task behavior. They also score higher on tests of achievement and problem solving and tend to get along better with classmates of different racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds. This last outcome should be of particular interest to those of you who expect to teach in areas marked by cultural diversity.
Why Does Cooperative Learning Work?

When researchers attempt to explain the widespread positive effects that are typically found among studies of cooperative learning, they usually cite one or more of the following explanations (Slavin, 1995).

Motivational Effect

The various features of cooperative learning, particularly positive interdependence, are highly motivating because they encourage such achievement-oriented behaviors as trying hard, attending class regularly, praising the efforts of others, and receiving help from one’s groupmates. Learning is seen as an obligation and a valued activity because the group’s success is based on it and one’s groupmates will reward it.

Cognitive Development Effect

According to Lev Vygotsky, collaboration promotes cognitive growth because students model for each other more advanced ways of thinking than any would demonstrate individually. According to Jean Piaget, collaboration among peers hastens the decline of egocentrism and allows the development of more advanced ways of understanding and dealing with the world.

Cognitive Elaboration Effect

As we saw in Chapter 9, new information that is elaborated (restructured and related to existing knowledge) is more easily retrieved from memory than is information that is not elaborated. A particularly effective means of elaboration is explaining something to someone else.

Now that you are familiar with interpretations of motivation, it is time to consider in the Suggestions for Teaching that follow how the information and speculations you’ve learned can be converted into classroom practice.

Cooperative Learning in Multicultural Education Programs

The general idea behind cooperative learning is that by working in small heterogeneous groups (of four or five students total) and by helping one another master the various aspects of a particular task, students will be more motivated to learn, will learn more than if they had to work independently, and will forge stronger interpersonal relationships than they would by working alone.

There are several forms of cooperative learning, one of which is Student Team Learning. Student Team Learning techniques are built on the concepts of team reward, individual accountability, and equal opportunities for success. Team reward means that teams are not in competition with one another for limited rewards. All of the teams, some of them, or none of them may earn whatever rewards are made available depending on how well the team’s performance matches a predetermined standard. Individual accountability means that each member of the team must perform at a certain level (on a quiz, for example) for the team’s effort to be judged successful. It is not permissible for one team member’s above-average performance to compensate for another team member’s below-average performance. Finally, equal opportunities for success allow students of all ability levels to contribute to their team’s success by improving on their own past performances (Slavin, 1995).

Robert Slavin (1995), a leading exponent of cooperative learning, reports that cooperative learning produced significantly higher levels of achievement than did noncooperative arrangements in sixty-three of ninety-nine studies (64 percent). The results for the Student Team Learning programs have been the most consistently positive. Of particular relevance to this chapter are the findings that students who cooperate in learning are more apt to list as friends peers from different ethnic groups and are better able to take the perspective of a classmate than are students who do not work in cooperative groups.

Although cooperative learning is a generally effective instructional tactic, it is likely to be particularly useful with Hispanic-American and Native American students. Children from both cultures often come from extended families that emphasize cooperation and sharing. Thus, these students may be more prepared than other individuals to work productively as part of a group by carrying out their own responsibilities as well as helping others do the same (Sadker & Sadker, 1991; Soldier, 1989).
Resources for Further Investigation

The New Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom and School (1994), by David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Edythe Johnson Holubec is a brief (105 pages) and readable description of the basic elements of the authors’ version of cooperative learning.

In Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice (2d ed., 1995), Robert Slavin describes the cooperative-learning techniques that he favors, analyzes the research evidence that supports their use, and provides detailed directions on how to use them.

Cooperative learning is sufficiently flexible that it can be used at all level of education. Four books that describe how to use cooperative methods for specific grade levels are Cooperative Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom (1991), by Harvey Foyle, Lawrence Lyman, and Sandra Thies; Cooperative Learning in the Elementary Classroom (1993), by Lawrence Lyman, Harvey Foyle, and Tara Azwell; Cooperative Learning in Middle-Level Schools (1991), by Jerry Rottier and Beverly Ogan; and Secondary Schools and Cooperative Learning (1995), edited by Jon Pederson and Annette Digby.

*Finally, a collection of forty-eight articles that originally appeared in the Journal of Educational Leadership between 1985 and 1991 can be found in Cooperative Learning and the Collaborative School (1991)

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