MET:Cooperative Learning

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Emily-Jean Taylor (2012).


"Without the cooperation of its members society cannot survive, and the society of man has survived because the cooperativeness of its members made survival possible…. It was not an advantageous individual here and there who did so, but the group. In human societies the individuals who are most likely to survive are those who are best enabled to do so by their group." - Ashley Montagu (1965)[1]

File:Learning Pyramid.gif
The learning pyramid - % of average retention rate increases with co-operative learning [2]

Cooperative Learning is a student-centered instructional approach that employs various educational tactics and strategies that relate to the different ways students think and learn. Tactics are considered simple and lack a research base, such as a think-pair-share activity, while strategies, such as a jigsaw activity, are more complex, as they are designed around research that relates to a learning theory. [3] This approach can be used across grade levels and content areas. The components of cooperative learning are designed to promote active learning to a diverse range of students, and are founded within the social learning theories of researchers such as Vygotsky.

There has been extensive research in the area of cooperative learning. There are also many different perspectives to this approach. Some of the current researchers and educators foundational to this concept are Johnson and Johnson, Slavin, Kagan, Cohen and Gibbs.

Stop Motion Animation:

My name is Martina Seo and I posted this Stop Motion Video at 6:03 pm on February 3, 2015 to capture my take on Cooperative Learning for my ETEC 510 class. My Foods 8 students are making whole-wheat blueberry muffins and are cooperative learning during the process. They are using social interactions and critical thinking on how to work as team to get the task at hand completed. It took me a very long time to figure out how to do this with the help of my school film teacher, students and tutorials. I hope you enjoy the video.

What does cooperative learning look like?

The idea behind cooperative learning is to create effective group-learning within a social but safe learning environment. [3] This strategy can be used for short or long term goals within the classroom. This strategy aims to improve students' crtitical problem-solving and social skills. In order for this process to be successful, both the teacher and the student must fufill certain important roles.

The role of the teacher

As most of us teachers know, group activities can end up being more work than they are worth. Some students play the alpha role and like to take control of the group. Others don't want to do any work and will not do their share, knowing they will most likely get the same mark as the rest of their group. Some students don't get along; others get along too well and spend all their time chatting and off-task. Effective group work is difficult to achieve! So, following are a few guidelines and responsibiities that the teacher must adopt in order to establish an effective cooperative learning environment.

  1. Formation of base groups: the teacher must carefully create small base groups of heterogeneouslearners regarding aspects such as academic strength,gender,ethnicity,learning style and ability.[2] The use of heterogeneous groups is meant to create a fair but supportive social setting, where members are able to foster feelings of respect for one another, as well as provide each other other with support, encouragement and guidance, despite any indivdiual differences. Students should be put into groups of 2 - 4, as small group size encourages interaction.[3] Larger groups sizes means students will have more competition when voicing thier opinions and ideas. It also means that most likely some students will sit back and relax and let the others do the work; individual accountability is diminished by large group sizes.
  2. Setting goals: the teacher is also responsible for setting appropriate and specific goals or tasks for the groups to achieve. In order for effective learning to occur, the students must find the goal worthwhile[4] and the overall objective must be clear to all the groups. If students are not able to recognize the value in a task, they will have little motivation to contribute to their group's goal.
  3. Teaching social skills: Many students will need to be taught the social and teamwork skills required of cooperative learning. This dynamic depends on the abilities of the learners to listen, clearly communicate, encourage their peers and stay on-task. These skills will need to be clearly outlined (and probably even demonstrated) for the learners, and teachers may have to intervene from time to time, to guide students when needed.
  4. Ensuring the five basic elements: Johnson and Johnson have identified five basic elements that must be present in order for effective cooperative learning to occur. [3] These elements are: individual accountability, positive interdependence, collaborative skills, face-to-face interaction and processing. Once the cooperative learning is underway, the teacher will need to continually monitor and assess each group in order to ensure that effective learing is taking place. These elements are discussed in further detail below in the the section The role of the student.

The role of the student

Many students enjoy group work. Cooperative learning has a social apsect that many students find appealing. Students can have positive experiences such as making new friendships, teaching classmates, and even feeling less anxiety as they have peers to help them understand the work. [4] Unfortunately, not all students enjoy group work. Recently, I asked some students for their thoughts on group work. Here is some of the feedback:

  • "Group work would be awesome if I could just clone myself. A group of 5 of me would rock."
  • "Group work sucks. People are the worst."
  • "I complain about are not always going to enjoy working with others..."

So, in order for cooperative learning to be an effective tool in the classroom, students must enjoy the process rather than lament it. And in order for students to enjoy it, specific steps must be taken to establish the proper foundation for this particular learning environment. Within these steps lie the repsonsiblities of the student. The responsibilities of the student are found in Johnson and Johnson's following five basic elements of effective group work. [3]

File:Co-op Learning.jpg
Johnsons' five basic elements of effective group work

  1. Individual accountability: Every group member is responsible for his learning and contributing his share of the work. It is imperative that one group member does not do all the work, or conversely, shirk his responsibilities.'Hitch-hikers' are not allowed! A way to ensure individual accountability would be to have all group members sign a statement verifying both mastery of content and active participation. [5]
  2. Face-to-face interaction: Teachers can help facilitate face-to-face interaction and dialogue by physically arranging groups' desks into circle or square shapes. Once in this position, students must strive to keep eye contact and sit close enough to clearly hear their group members. Resting your head down on the desks, or slouching as far down into your chair as you can is not an option!
  3. Small group skills: As mentionend above, the teacher will need to teach and outline the social, communication, and critical thinking skills students will need to employ when working in their groups. These skills include: pacing group work, asking questions, ignoring distractions and resolving conflicts.[5] Most importantly, the students must actively choose to learn, use, and practice these skills during group activities.
  4. Processing: Group learning will continually improve if members take the time to regularly assess and reflect on their efforts and achievements.[1] The group should discuss their relationships, actions and behaviours in order to set goals for group improvement. This process of meta-cognition could take place in the form of a journal, where groups rate their acheivement in areas such as staying on task, taking turns, and commenting positively.[5]
  5. Positive interdependence: Each group member has to be willing to encourage and support the learning of the others. The efforts of a sole student affect all members of the group. Students must understand that their group task is 'sink or swim', and that the groups' success depends on the personal committments of each member. [1] The teacher could assign shared responsibilities across group members in order to help foster positive interdependence.

Examples of cooperative learning activities (tactics and strategies)


Tactics are cooperative learning activities that are simple in structure. They are still very useful but have few steps and lack a research base.[3]

Inside Out
Set-up of inside-outside circles
E.g. Inside-outside circles: This tactic can be used for brainstorming, as a mastery structure for practicing skills and facts, or simply to facilitate interaction and dialogue.[6].

  • Students are put in either an inside or outside circle, one within the other. Students can be standing or sitting in chairs.
  • It works best when there are 6 or more students in each circle, but the two circles must have equal numbers of students.
  • Students in the outside circle face in while students in the inside cirlce face out.
  • Students facing one another are partners.

  1. The teacher will pose a question and partners are given time to reflect and develop an answer.
  2. If a pair cannot reach an answer, they can ask a pair either to their left or right.
  3. The teacher can call on a random pair for a response (to ensure accountability).
  4. A pair can have a right to pass (to maintain a safe-feeling environment) if they really feel uncomfortable publicly declaring their answer.
  5. When students are ready for the next question, the students in the outside circle can move left one position. The new sets of partners will attempt the next question given by the teacher.
  • Additional examples: think-pair-share, four corners, three-step interview, round robin, numbered heads, graffiti and place mats.


Generally, strategies have mutli-steps, many components, and are more complex than tactics. When stategies are employed in the classroom, students have more control over what and how they learn. [4]Usually, stategies are linked to a learning theory and based in research.[3] Tactics are often used as a step or component within a cooperative learning strategy.

E.g. Concept attainment: this strategy can be used as a formative assessment at the end of a unit or a pre-assessment of knowledge before a unit. Watch below to see an example of a concept attainment lesson.


  • Students are put into base groups of fours at their desks.

  1. The teacher shows the class several yes and no examples of the concept he wants to teach. i.e. if you are trying to introduce the classification of living things, you would give yes examples such as: a cat, a rose, a barnacle, a bacteria etc. No examples would be things such as: a cloud, sand, a glacier, a house, a pen etc.
  2. After going through the examples, the teacher will ask for a thumbs up, thumbs down or thumb sideways from students to show if they have figured out the concept yet. This is a safe process for those students that are unsure of the concept. At this point, the teacher will also ask any students that may know the concept to keep it to themselves.
  3. The teacher will then continue to put up a few more yes and no examples one by one, giving students time to process and develop a hypothesis.
  4. The teacher will then ask students to think-pair-share with a partner from their group of four. Students will take turns explaining thier ideas with their partner.
  5. Next, the teacher will put up additional examples, but this time will let the students try to classify them as either yes or no examples of the concept within their groups of four.
  6. Lastly, the teacher will ask all groups to discuss their ideas and write down a single hypothesis as to what the concept is.
  7. The teacher can call on random groups or initiate a class discussion on the concept.
  8. As an extension, base groups could be asked to make up their own concept attainment activity for a review session at the end of the unit.
  • Additional examples: jigsaw, group investigation, academic controversy, team analysis, and teams-games-tournament.

Learning theory background

Many learning and developmental theories identify social interaction as a key component to the process of learning.

Howard Gardner
Gardner's eight multiple intelligences

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences - Howard Gardner (1943 - present) identifies eight cognitive intelligences that function independent of one another. He has categorized these intellgences as spatial, musical bodily kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal, linguistic, naturalistic and interpersonal.[3] Because learners have varied levels of different intelligences, they will learn in different ways. Interpersonal intelligence refers to the ability to learn effectively in a social setting, and these types of learners benefit from group-based interaction. Cooperative learning is an ideal approach for these types of students. In addition, this process uses various tools and strategies that attend to the different needs of various learners and their respective learning styles.[3] i.e. concept attainment activities for logical-mathmatical learners

Lev Vygotsky
Zone of proximal development

Vygotsky's socio-cultural theory - Lev Vygotsky's (1896 - 1934) developmental theory placed a lot of emphasis on social interactions. He believed that social problem-solving and interpersonal communication drives cognitive development. [7] He felt that small-group learning environments, where peers interact and communicate, were foundational to the construction of new ideas.[4] Key to Vygotsky's theory was his idea of the Zone of Proximal Development [ZPD]. The ZPD is described as the distance between a child's development as a result of independent learning and the potential higher level of development that the child could achieve through cooperative problem-solving with more capable peers.[7]. During this social teaching process, peer interactions promote higher level thinking, by means of explanations, modeling, discussion, encouragement, support and joint participation. [7]

Co-operative Learning and Technology

There are many devices available to help any teacher implement cooperative learning in their classroom.

i-Phone and i-Pad Applications: Kagan Publishing and Development has recently released four different applications [apps] related to cooperative learning. NameSelector, StudentSelector and SelectorSpinner are apps that can help you to create heterogeneous groups, as well as ensure individual and team accountability.[8] Simply enter all of your students, names and the app will randomly and fairly pick either a student or team, depending on task you have chosen. TimerTools is a timer app that teachers can use when they are giving their students timed tasks or when students are given wait-time (i.e. the time alloted after a question has been posed in order to allow for students to process the question and determine possible answers). These are available at the iTunes App Store.

Software: Kagan Publishing and Development also has created interactive software that can be used on a personal computer, Macintosh computer or Interactive Whiteboard. This software is structured toward pair, class or team activities, and it is designed to cover a broad range of learning objectives.[8]Teachers can customize these tactics by adding in their own content and questions.

The Internet and Web 2.0 Tools - More and more, teachers are using cooperative learning in conjunction with technologies such as the internet and Web 2.0 tools. Common cooperative learning platforms are group wikis, blogs and webpages, where the students work together in order to create a site where they can post research, questions, information and discussions regarding their given topic/project. The integration of the internet and cooperative learning can result in a dynamic and engaging experience for learners.[9] Web 2.0 tools such as e-portfolios are used in cooperative learning settings. In addition to being used to collect and showcase students' work, it can serve as a means of reflection and revision of students' work, achievement, efforts and progress.[10] Metacognition and self/group assessment is a major component of effective cooperative learning. Students can work together towards common goals designed around an online portfolio, and as a result, it can be a driving force of interaction within the classroom, as well as help to foster cooperation among team members and a feeling of community within the class.[10]

Benefits and drawbacks of cooperative learning


Research has shown the following benefits as a result of using effective cooperative learning:

  • students experience less classroom stress/anxiety[4]
  • students experience increased retention[5]
  • students experience higher self-esteem[5]
  • students improve social skills, communication skills and criticial thinking skills[3]
  • students achieve higher academic achievement[5]
  • students experience greater intrinsic motivation to succeed in the classroom[5]
  • students learn to better support and accept the differences of their peers.[4]
  • strategies and tactics can be stacked (used together) or integrated to create a more comprehensive cooperative learning environment[3]
  • there are numerous strategies and tactics to choose from in order to best suit the learners' needs.


As Johnson and Johnson state, "Not all groups are cooperative. Placing people in the same room, seating them together, telling them they are a group, does not mean they will cooperate effectively."[1]

  • If Johnsons' five elements are not properly implemented, most likely positive outcomes will not be achieved.[4]
  • It requires a lot of time, planning, adjusting and monitoring to effectively implement and/or create a cooperative learning setting.
  • Students that struggle in social settings may have difficulties working in a group.
  • Unforseen issues will always pop up. Problems such as student absences, unmotivated students, student conflict, classroom noise levels, and groups finishing at different times can put a wrench in cooperative learning based activities.[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (n.d.) Introduction to Cooperative Learning. Retrieved from
  2. 2.0 2.1 Craigen, J., & Ward, J. (1999) Co-operative learning: A resource booklet (no publication information given).
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Bennett, B., & Rolheiser, C. (2001). Beyond monet: The artful science of Instructional Integration. Toronto, ON: Bookation, Inc."
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Artzt, A., & Newman, C. (1997). How to use cooperative learning in the mathematics class. Reston, VA: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Bennett, B., Rolheiser, C., & Stevahn, L. (1991) Cooperative learning: Where heart meets mind. Toronto, ON: Educational Connections
  6. Spencer, K. (1994). Cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Miller, P. H. (2002) Theories of developmental psychology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Worth
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kagan Publishing & Professional Development (2012). Retrieved from
  9. Scheuerell, S. (2010). Virtual Warrensburg: Using cooperative learning and the internet in the social studies classroom. Social Studies 101(5), 194 -199. doi:10.1080/00377990903493861
  10. 10.0 10.1 Kan, S. O. (2011) Cooperative learning environment with the web 2.0 tool e-portfolio. European Journal of Social Sciences 21(1), 17-27. Retrieved from

External links