Cooperative learning refers to instructional methods in which students work in small groups to learn academic content. Cooperative learning methods vary widely. Group sizes may range from pairs to groups of four or more. Children may be asked to work on projects, to tutor each other, or just to help each other as needed. Each group member may be responsible for a unique part of a task, or all may have the same assignments.
There are four major theoretical traditions that attempt to explain why cooperative learning should improve student learning. Each envisions and recommends different forms of cooperative learning.
Motivational theories of cooperative learning focus on the reward structure surrounding group work. Motivational theorists advocate the use of cooperative learning methods in which there is a group reward (such as recognition for successful groups) that the group can achieve only if all group members learn the academic content. For example, in “student teams— achievement divisions,” or STAD, children work in four-member teams to help each other master a well-defined objective, such as adding fractions, using commas correctly, or balancing chemical equations. Each week, group members take a brief quiz and teams whose members show the greatest gains receive certificates or other recognition. The only way the team can succeed is for the group members to learn, so this is where the group’s energies are focused. A key element of such methods is individual accountability, which means that the group is rewarded based on the sum or average of individual children’s performance, not on an overall group task. The rationale is that if there is one group task (such as solving a single problem or completing a common project without distinct roles), some children may do the thinking part of the work while others watch or do clerical or art work (as when one child makes a bar graph and teammates color it).
The evidence favoring cooperative learning methods that use group goals and individual accountability is strong. A 1995 review identified 64 studies of at least 2 weeks’ duration that evaluated programs incorporating group goals and individual accountability. These studies involved grade levels 2 through 12 and a wide variety of academic subjects. Fifty of these studies found significantly positive effects, and the remainder found no differences, for an effect size of +0.32. In contrast, studies of programs that did not use group goals and individual accountability found few differences, with an overall effect size of +0.07.
A second major perspective on cooperative learning is social cohesion theories, which emphasize the idea that because students identify with their group and want each other to succeed, they will work effectively to help their group-mates learn. A hallmark of such methods is an emphasis on team-building activities to create an “esprit de corps” within groups, but a de-emphasis on the use of external rewards.
Evidence for achievement outcomes of programs based on the social cohesion perspective is mixed. Such methods can be effective if they provide well-structured individual tasks within a group project.
A developmental perspective, based on theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, holds that interaction among peers enhances their mastery of critical concepts, and theorists in this tradition recommend against rewards or structure. There is much evidence from brief laboratory studies to support the idea that cognitive change can come from interaction itself, but longer-term evaluations in classroom settings have been rare and inconclusive.
A related perspective is called cognitive elaboration, which posits that cooperative learning enhances achievement by giving children an opportunity to master information by summarizing and restating their current understandings in working with peers. Methods in this category often involve pairs of students taking turns teaching each other discrete skills or content. Methods based on this theory, such as reciprocal teaching, cooperative scripts, and reciprocal peer tutoring have strong evidence of effectiveness.
Cooperative learning can be broadly applied to improve student learning, but research supports the idea that to be effective, cooperative methods should incorporate group goals, individual accountability, and task structures to emphasize cognitive elaboration of academic content.
- Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, http://www.co-operation.org
- Fantuzzo, W., Polite, K., & Grayson, N. (1990). An evaluation of reciprocal peer tutoring across elementary school settings. Journal of School Psychology, 28, 309–333.
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- Rohrbeck, A., Ginsburg-Block, M. D., Fantuzzo, J. W., & Miller, T. R. (2002). Peer-assisted learning interventions with elementary school students: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 240–257.
- Slavin, R. , Hurley, E. A., & Chamberlain, A. M. (2003). Cooperative learning and achievement: Theory and research. In W. M. Reynolds & G. E. Miller (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Vol. 7 (pp. 177–198). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.