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Collaborative Learning

How Cooperative Learning Can Benefit Students This Year

Working on tasks that have been carefully designed to require collaboration helps students develop interpersonal skills.

November 5, 2021
High school students build a speaker together
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

As students have returned to the classroom this year, it’s important to reignite the power of cooperative learning. Valiant teachers worked to incorporate this invaluable tool in remote learning, but let’s remember its importance as the school year progresses. Cooperative learning skills are crucial for students especially as globalization and technological and communication advances continue to increase the quantity of accessible information and the need for collaboration.

Cooperative learning opportunities aren’t new learning tools, but they have never been more valuable than they are now. With less interpersonal contact and collaboration during remote learning, students spent more time in the digital world. The return to in-person classes gives us the chance for cooperative learning to guide their brains’ reconstruction and boost social and emotional cue awareness.

Common threats to students include making embarrassing mistakes in front of the whole class, being called on when they don’t know the answer, concerns about their mastery of English as a second language, and, for older children, fear of appearing too smart or not smart enough and risking ostracism by peers. These fears can be reduced by the interdependence and support of smaller group collaboration.

What Constitutes Cooperative Work?

To qualify as doing cooperative work, rather than individuals working in parallel in a group, students need each other to complete the task. Students are expected to participate in tasks that are clearly constructed and necessary for the group’s success. The learning objectives are clear and connect to their interests, and students have prerequisite knowledge and know how to seek help when they need it.

The inclusion of belonging to a group, where a student feels valued, builds resilience, social competence, empathy, and communication skills. The interactive and interdependent components of cooperative learning offer the emotional and interpersonal experiences that boost emotional awareness, judgment, critical analysis, flexible perspective taking, creative problem-solving, innovation, and goal-directed behavior.

Planning is essential for developing cooperative group activities, especially in stressful times. When you plan groups, make sure to weigh each member’s strengths so that each is important for the ultimate success of the group’s activity. This means designing groups where all participants have the prerequisite knowledge to participate in general as well as opportunities to enhance the group goal with contributions—from unique past experiences, talents, and cultural backgrounds. This planning can create a situation where individual learning strengths, skills, and talents are valued, and students shine in their forte and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert.

Consider these questions when planning:

  • Is there more than one answer and more than one way to solve the problem or create the project?
  • Is the goal intrinsically interesting, challenging, and rewarding?
  • Will each group member be able to contribute in ways that will be valued and appreciated?
  • Will each member have opportunities to participate through their strengths?
  • Is participation by all members necessary for the group’s goal achievement?
  • How will you monitor group and individual skills, learning, and progress?
  • Is time planned throughout the experience, not just at the end, for metacognition and revision, regarding goal progress as well as the group’s interpersonal interactions?

Designated, rotating individual roles can promote successful participation by all. These can include recorder and participation monitor (who can act to decrease overly active participation and use strategies to increase participation in those who aren’t engaged). Other roles are creative director (if a physical product such as a poster or computer presentation is part of the project), materials director, accountant, and secretary as needed. When these roles are rotated in projects extending over days or weeks, students build communication and collaboration understanding and skills.

Participants can also periodically check in with each other during group time to answer collaboration questions during the activity, perhaps initially with a checklist. They can consider the following: Is everyone talking? Are we listening to each other? Are we giving reasons for our own ideas and for why we don’t agree with another member’s opinion or ideas? What can we do differently?

Examples of Collaboration in Different Content Areas

Math: Groups collaborate on open-ended problem-solving with members sharing different approaches, strategies, and solutions. Students expand their perspectives as they get to test one another’s conjectures and identify what seems valid or invalid. They are engaged as they discover techniques to test one another’s strategies.

Social studies: Students in groups use their individual skills and interests to put on a political campaign supporting Lincoln or Douglas through posters, political cartoons, oral debates, skits, and computer or video ads. In this small, safer place, they try out ideas as they work together to negotiate rules for campaigning, debating, and scoring the debates.

Reading: Pair-share with a partner. Reading or being read to becomes a learning experience as all students process the material with their partners. They can be guided on topics to discuss such things as big idea, predictions, personal connections with the material, or the literary style and tools used by the author.

Science: Students select a question that they want to evaluate about dinosaur extinction (e.g., asteroid impact, over-foraging). They join a group with their same favorite theory. All members read text or articles or view videos about their chosen dinosaur extinction theory. Then, through a strategy of tea party, card party, or jigsaw, the groups disperse, and members join new groups as the experts on their theories. They then build and carry out plans to evaluate which theory the group will support, why, and how they will represent the validity of their conclusion.

Outcomes of Cooperative Learning

As students have more positive experiences in their small groups, they become more comfortable with participation and academic risk taking (willingness to risk being wrong, offer suggestions, defend their opinions, etc.).

Since it is impossible for all students to have frequent one-on-one teacher experiences throughout the day, cooperative groups can reduce their dependence on their teachers for guidance, behavior management, and progress feedback.

The nature of cooperative group interdependence increases emotional sensitivity and communication skills. The planning of cooperative learning transfers the responsibility of decision-making and conflict resolution to the students. It’s reassuring in times of change and unpredictability to have the supportive and growth experiences of well-planned cooperative learning.

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Filed Under

  • Collaborative Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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