What’s Happening to Cooperative Learning?

Any former student who was ever assigned a group project knows the difficulty in group work: more often than not, the bulk of the responsibilities falls on one or two students while the others quietly tag along. Cooperative learning is a highly structured educational model where each member is not only responsible for learning an individual concept, but also for educating other group members about it. While the theory has really gained traction in recent years, cooperative learning was first developed in the early 90s — it began as an approach intended to be equally applicable in traditional classrooms and in business settings.

It's based on the premise that all group members succeed or fail together. A commonly used iteration of this model is called a jigsaw activity. Each member is required to take ownership of an idea, or puzzle piece, and gain an understanding of it. Then all other group members share their knowledge of other puzzle pieces to fellow group members. When each puzzle piece is understood and assembled, the group successfully grasps a new concept.

There are three styles of cooperative learning groups: formal, informal, and cooperative. Formal groups are very common in classrooms today; educators structure out a particular study method and then designate a strict list of activities, built around a clearly defined subject, all of which is finished over a short period of time. Informal learning is somewhat off-the-cuff and is often used to break up lectures with group exercises. Cooperative-based groups are designed to exist over a longer period of time; group members support each other by meeting regularly and holding each other accountable for their contributions.

The Five Fundamental Concepts of Cooperative Learning

All cooperative learning is distinguished by the presence of five key elements: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, accountability, interpersonal skills and group processing. True cooperative learning study design incorporates all five of these concepts for each member to successfully learn. Student motivation is crucial to the entire process; as group members move through an assignment, momentum should be generated by each member's desire to share information so that the entire group succeeds.

  • Positive Interdependence.Students must understand that they essentially sink or swim together. Each member of the group must participate fully, or the entire group will fail. Each participant is assigned a distinct role without which other group members will not complete the assignment. Groups may be assigned to develop a solid understanding of a complex idea, to develop a product that has multiple interdependent components or perform peer review of scholarly literature to reach a consensual opinion.The idea here is to use the division of labor to accomplish a mutual goal. Carefully structured design creates an atmosphere that is far superior to seating several students in a group and simply instructing them to discuss an idea. The project outcome, whether it be a grade, a paper or a product, is judged equally among all participants, so all group members have a stake in the success of the project.
    Educators can create this interdependence in a variety of ways. The group may have a common goal or incentive; the group's progress may be dependent on each participant's contribution; groups might compete against other groups; or group work can be bound to a designated physical space. Written lab work, research projects, case study review and interactive role play can all serve to foster this interdependence.
  • Face-to-Face Interaction:Sometimes referred to as promotive interaction, this element of cooperative learning relies on group dynamics to exchange ideas and collaborate effectively. Instructors strive to create as much oral discussion as possible; this is accomplished via classroom message boards like Blackboard or pre-scheduled online chats. These interactions underscore the idea that participants are dependent on one another for success, which ultimately ends up building up the group's trust.
    Cognitive learning is reinforced when students share data and resources, problem-solve, and support one another's group roles. Educators should consider this an opportunity to challenge traditional societal roles; group facilitators can also use these interactions to observe individual skills or competencies in group members and ensure that each member's talents are put to the best use. Incorporating spontaneous face-to-face encounters often helps group members get to know one another in a non-threatening environment, which can strengthen a group's personal commitment to success.
  • Accountability: Individual and group accountability is really what makes cooperative learning different from the days when lazy participants could get away with little to no contributions. Educators design projectsso that accountability is built into the process at both expected and random times. Formative assessment occurs while the project is ongoing and serves to provide feedback to group facilitators and students. Summative assessment takes place at the completion of the activity, and evaluates individual participation instead of evaluating the whole group.
    Educators, members of a particular group and the other participating groups can all provide accountability feedback. Teachers may assign roles like secretary or recorder; these individuals must be able to give a current report on the group status at all times, thus requiring good communication among participants. Teachers may also request unscheduled oral reports or administer pop quizzes to test the group's participation; group participants also benefit from this as its a chance for them ro refine their extemporaneous speaking and writing skills.
    Students may assess one another's participation during and after the project is completed. Anonymous ratings sheets can be used for this purpose. Other groups may assess the group's accountability by evaluating the finished product or quizzing various group members during project presentations. Students may be required to teach other students or groups what was produced or learned during a project.
  • Interpersonal and Small Group Skills. The social skills that are required for effective group collaboration are learned skills that students often need to be taught. As group participants learn to function as part of a team while they accomplished a defined task, this cooperative learning increases cognitive development. Social nuances such as leadership, trust, confidence, good communication and conflict management skills are all required to function in a group; educators anticipate this in project design and focus on this aspect of learning just as much as the task at hand. Over time, students should be able to appreciate other group member's strengths and weaknesses, and then learn to articulate questions and answers about projects.
  • Group Processing. This fifth component of cooperative learning is absolutely essential, though it is the step most likely to be rushed at the end of a project or class. During group processing, participants reflect individually and collectively on what worked and what didn't. Helpful and unhelpful behaviors are identified; ideally, decisions are made about the next time the group works together. This important phase adds much to students' comprehension of the material.
    In a best case scenario, all students give and receive positive feedback on individual contributions; this positivity will drive momentum in future group work. Students reflect on that feedback and then set goals for improvement. For example, a participant may choose a social skill that he or she would like to improve, or a group can decide to ask more questions of one another in the future. Finally, participants should have a celebration of some sort that marks the end of the project; this will also motivate positive cooperative learning experiences in the future.

Advantages to Cooperative Learning Models

Cooperative learning is of enormous benefit to schoolchildren. Academically, group participants gain a better comprehension of the course material when all five elements of cooperative learning are instituted. Students work with participants who have different learning styles; teaching a peer not only reinforces cognitive comprehension, but is likely to be better understood by the other student. When working in groups, lower-performing students will work harder to keep up with high-performing peers. Since group grading provides more students with an opportunity to "win" in the somewhat competitive school atmosphere, there is additional incentive to achieve.

Socially, learning in a group model exposes children to different learning styles, cultural or ethnic backgrounds and varying levels of enthusiasm. Cooperative learning allows educators to reinforce concepts of equality in the classroom, using a group environment to discount stereotypes. Sharing is implicit in this teaching model, enforcing the idea that knowledge is for everyone. Children who receive recognition for taking risks become more comfortable in doing so. Students also enjoy classes that require participation more than a traditional lecture class; in fact, they are more likely to attend and complete these courses.

Perhaps most importantly, cooperative learning teaches necessary life skills. Working as a group to reach a common goal demonstrates the value of teamwork, for example. Some group participants will emerge as natural leaders, allowing them an early opportunity to develop effective leadership habits. The ability to communicate ideas well, obviously a cornerstone life skill, is necessary for successful cooperative learning. Conflict can unfortunately be part of any collaboration effort, and conflict management skills cannot be taught too early. Learning to make decisions within a group also prepares students for a productive career.

What's in Store for Cooperative Learning?

This learning model also has economic ramifications. Because participants work in groups and share materials, fewer supplies must be purchased. This is good news for budget-strapped school systems in the U.S. As the planet's conventional resources are depleted, less consumption means less waste and less damage to the planet. The societal shift to digital resources meshes well with cooperative learning styles.

On a larger scale, cooperative learning techniques – like conflict resolution and effective communication – better prepare participants for a global society. Corporations today, ever more global in scope, are leaning on interdisciplinary teams that consist of different cultural influences and specialized skill sets.

The original cooperative learning model, which looked much like informal study groups in a dorm lounge, will become a more structured part of classroom curricula. Continued advances in technology will only augment this learning model, since learning blended with technology is already a large part of many schools' curricula. Cooperative learning models have been proven to enforce cognitive learning better than class lectures; it is reasonable to expect that advances in technology will continue to drive a more collaborative classroom that shares knowledge across a broader scope.

04 3, 2013
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