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Approaches for Cooperative Learning in the Classroom

Lori L. Rook

Submitted July 5, 2007



University of South Dakota

LT 712 Principles of Learning for Instructional Technologies

Summer 2007



According to the American Oxford Dictionary, cooperation is the process of working together towards the same end. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning. (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). Class members are organized into small groups after receiving instruction from the teachers. These groups work through the assignment until all members successfully understand and complete it. Johnson and Johnson (n.d.) state, “Cooperative efforts result in participants striving for mutual benefit so that all group members gain from each other’s efforts.”  This also means that no one group member possesses all the information, skills, or resources necessary for the completion of the assignment.  Johnson and Johnson (1994) continue, “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 individually 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.” Competition is presently the most dominant with the majority of students in the United States viewing 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 background or whether they are male or female bright or struggling, disabled or not, is still rare. (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). According to Panitz (n.d.), “The underlying premise for cooperative learning is founded in constructivist epistemology. Knowledge is discovered by students and transformed into concepts students can relate to. Learning consists of active participation by the students versus passive acceptance of information presented by an expert lecturer.” Johnson and Johnson’s (1994) research has shown that cooperative learning techniques promote student learning and academic achievement, increase student retention, enhance student satisfaction with their learning experience, help students develop skills in oral communication and social skills, promote self-esteem, and promote positive race relations. Cooperative learning is an effective approach in the classroom when used correctly by educators.


Educators fool themselves when thinking that well-meaning directives to work together, cooperate and be a team will be enough to create cooperative efforts among group members. Placing students in groups and telling them to work together does not in and of itself result in cooperation. Sitting in groups can actually result in competition at close quarters or individual work with talking.  (Johnson & Johnson, n.d.) The essential elements of cooperative learning are necessary for long-term success. Sapon-Shevin, Ayres, & Duncan (1994), assert, “If teachers or students are uncomfortable with cooperative learning, it is often because they have adopted the technique without a firm understanding of the underlying principles and without sufficient support to implement creative, multilevel cooperative learning activities.” The essential elements are: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing.


Positive interdependence is successfully structured when group members perceive that they are linked with each other in a way that one cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds. Each group member’s efforts are required and indispensable for group success and each member has a unique contribution to make. Each member has a unique contribution to make because of his or her resources and/or role and task responsibilities. (Johnson & Johnson, 1994)


In face-to-face interaction, students do real work together, in which they share resources, help, support, and encourage each other’s efforts to achieve. This includes orally explaining how to solve problems, teaching one’s knowledge to others, checking for understanding, and discussing concepts being learned. This ensures and academic and personal support system.  “The drawbacks of groups composed entirely of weak students are obvious and groups of all strong students are likely to parcel out the work rather than engaging in the group discussions and informal tutoring that lead to many of the proven instructional benefits of cooperative learning,” declare Felder and Brent, 2001). 


The third element is individual and group accountability. The group must be accountable for achieving its goals and each member must be held accountable for contributing his or her share of the work.  Some ways to maintain student responsibility are keeping the size the groups small, giving individual tests to each student, randomly examine students orally by calling on one student to present his/her group’s work to the teacher or class, observing each group and recording frequency of member contributions, assigning one student in each group the role of checker, and having students teach what they learn to someone else (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). Felder and Brent (2001), suggest that collecting peer ratings and using those to adjust grades for each member can also be worthwhile. In a peer rating, the students confidentially rate their teammates and themselves on various aspects of cooperative work. The individual ratings for each member are divided by the overall team average rating to determine grade adjustment factors. The product of a student’s adjustment factor and the team assignment grade is that student’s grade for the assignment.


Johnson and Johnson (n.d.), report that cooperative learning is more complex than competitive or individualistic learning because students have to engage simultaneously in task work and teamwork. Social skills for effective cooperative work do not magically appear when cooperative lessons are employed. Instead, “social skills must be taught to students just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills. Leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills empower students to manage both team work and task work successfully,” according to Johnson and Johnson, (1994).


The final element is group processing. This exists when group members discuss how well they are achieving their goals and working relationships. Group members describe what member actions are helpful and not helpful while making decisions about what behaviors to continue or change. Such processing enables learning groups to focus on maintaining good working relationships among members, facilitates the learning of cooperative skills, ensures that members receive feedback, ensures that students think on the metacognitive as well as the cognitive level and provides the means to celebrate group successes and reinforce positive behaviors (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). A simple way to do this is a focused writing of “List three things your group is doing well today and one thing you could improve.”


Dr. Theodore Panitz in chapter four of Ted’s Cooperative Learning E-Book focuses on the reasons why teachers do not use collaborative learning techniques in their classrooms. He believes the cause lies in the “current educational system, which emphasizes content memorization and individual student performance through competition.” The biggest impediment to cooperative learning lies in the fact that many teachers fell they give up control of the class if they give more responsibility to the students for their learning. When a teacher lectures, he/she gets the feeling that the content is being covered, because it has been presented to the students in an orderly fashion. (Panitz, 2005). Another issue is that many teachers lack the self-confidence to try methods that may expose them to potentially difficult situations when students ask unanticipated questions. Cooperative learning redefines the role of teacher from expert to facilitator. Some people cannot face the risk because of a fear of looking stupid. Panitz (2005) says, “Allowing and encouraging students to answer each other’s questions is contrary to the typical teacher centered class. Cooperative learning contradicts the concept that teachers are repositories of subject knowledge whose role is simply to pour in the open, empty willing minds of students, their vast reservoir of knowledge.” Another of the many fears Panitz describes is the fear of the loss of content coverage. This occurs because group interactions often take longer than simple lectures. Students need time to accumulate enough information in order to use it within their groups and they need time to work together for presentation to the whole class.


Panitz, Johnson, R. and Johnson D. suggested similar class activities that use cooperative learning. One was the “Jigsaw”. This activity uses groups of 4-5 students in which each group member is assigned some unique material to learn and then to teach his group members. To help in the learning, students across the class working on the same subsection get together to decide what is important and how to teach it. After practice in these expert groups, the original groups re-form and students teach each other. Then an assessment follows. “Pair Reading” is another suggested activity. Pairs of students work together to read the same section from the text. One student explains the section to his/her partner. The partner listens and then asks questions. The listener rephrases the explanation and then students alternate the roles of explainer and listener until all the material is completed. Groups of students are asked at random to explain the material to the whole class as a check of understanding. In “Round Robin Brainstorming,” the class is divided into small groups with one person appointed as the recorder. A question is posed with many answers and students are given time to think. After the think time, members of the team share responses with one another round robin style. The recorder writes down the answers of the group members. Each person in the group in order gives an answer until time is called.


In conclusion, Johnson and Johnson (1994), state that their research and the research of many others dating back to the late 1800’s has established that having students work together is a powerful way for them to learn and has positive effects on the classroom and school climate. The ability of all students to cooperatively work together is the keystone to building and maintaining stable marriages, families, careers, and friendships.  Being able to perform technical and academic skills are valuable, but of little use if the person cannot apply those skills in cooperative interaction with other people in career, family, and community environments. We need to encourage that a healthy portion of instruction is cooperative.




Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2001). Effective strategies for cooperative learning. Journal of Cooperation & Collaboration in College Teaching, 10, 69-75. Retrieved July 1, 2007, from


Johnson, R. T. & Johnson, D. W. (1994). An overview of cooperative learning. Retrieved June 29, 2007, from


Johnson, R. T. & Johnson, D. W. (n.d.). Cooperative learning. Retrieved June 29, 2007, from


Panitz, T. Dr. (n.d.), Cooperative learning saves the day: One teacher’s story. Retrieved June 29, 2007 from Education World Professional Development Center web site:


Panitz, T. Dr. (2005), Why more teachers do not use collaborative learning techniques [Electronic version]. Ted’s Cooperative Learning E-Book (chapt.4). Retrieved June 29, 2007, from


Sapon-Shevin, M., Ayres, B. J., & Duncan, J. (1994), Cooperative learning and inclusion. Retrieved June 28, 2007, from



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