Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is a common term used in education. Many times, whenever people are working in groups, it is called cooperative learning. However, not just any group work can be called cooperative learning. Cooperative learning has distinct characteristics as we shall see and there is a clear process for using this teaching approach.

Distinct Traits

Task specialization is a key trait of cooperative learning. The group members each have a responsibility to perform, which helps them to achieve an overall goal. It is the teacher’s job to communicate what each member is responsible to do. If this does not happen the group work will often collapse into a group discussion. Action by each member focusing on their task is a component of cooperative learning.

While working in groups, students provide feedback and encouragement to each other. Even though they each have their own task to complete, students have to examine each others contribution to make sure it is acceptable. This maintains higher standards and helps in the development of such thinking skills as evaluation and judging.

Steps of Cooperative Learning

The steps of cooperative learning are as follows

  1. Set a goal(s)
  2. Organize
  3. Evaluate the process
  4. Monitor performance
  5. Debrief

1. Set Goals(s)

Setting goal(s) means telling the students what you expect. It is defining the outcomes of the group experience. The final outcome could be a presentation, portfolio, or anything that requires a group to work together. It is important to remember that group work should be used when the activity cannot be completed alone because of the complexity of the task. Therefore, group work should be avoided for easy tasks as this will lead to boredom and behavioral issues.

2. Organize

With the goal in mind, it is now time to determine who will do what. Other factors to consider are group size, who will be in which group, and sharing how they will be graded. Groups should normally have around four people. Larger causes problems in communication and smaller makes it hard to complete a complex task.

Groups should also have students of varying ability. Supergroups of elite students do not work well together. A group of weak students working together often cannot complete the assignment. Mixing helps both the strong and the weak most of the time.

Communicating grading expectations assists students in understanding the quality they need to produce. In addition, it helps them to see how hard they need to work to achieve what they want. One of the strongest ways to communicate grading expectations is through providing examples of a completed project. This provides a visual of what is expected of the students.

3. Evaluating the Collaborative Process

Students have worked in groups before but many have never worked cooperatively. As such, the teacher needs to model how to work in cooperative groups. Students need to see how to communicate, show respect for each other’s ideas, share specific points, and how to negotiate. Students need to understand that they are working together to help each other and this is demonstrated through the skills just discussed.

4. Monitor Performance

As the students work together, it is your job as the teacher to determine when students need help and when they need to be redirected back on task. If students are struggling the teacher serves as a guide to help them get back on track. This can be done by asking students questions so they can discover for themselves that they are going in the wrong direction.

5. Debrief

When the journey is over, it is time to discuss what happened. Reflection such as this is important in developing a stronger understanding of what took place. Students share how the group experience went and express concerns. At this stage, group members also should judge each other contribution to the team. This helps in holding people responsible. This experience helps the teacher to see how things went and what adjustments are necessary for using cooperative learning in the future.

Cooperative learning is an experience in group work that has distinct traits. As student work together, they are developing skills in communication, collaboration, and responsibility that are difficult to duplicate in other situations. A teacher should consider to occasionally include this experience in their teaching approach.

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