Cooperative Learning

March 13, 2007 at 4:27 am (all, blogging, children, culture, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers)

You’ve probably heard teachers talk about using cooperative learning in their classrooms. For many, that means dividing students into groups and giving the groups an assignment or a project that they complete together. Oftentimes the project outcome or the completed assignment is mediocre at best, or one student ends up doing all the work. Some teachers then resolve not to use “cooperative learning” again, since the learning goals were not met or students were off task.

So how can you incorporate a cooperative learning model in your class that imitates real-life learning and problem solving and combines teamwork with individual and group accountability? Read on for tips to effectively incorporate cooperative learning in your classroom.

“Learning is a social process that occurs through
interpersonal interaction within a cooperative context.
Individuals, working together, construct
shared understandings and knowledge.”
– David Johnson, Roger Johnson and Karl Smith,
Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom


Research shows that achievement of success with cooperative learning results from students spending more time on task (Johnson & Johnson, 2003).

Research shows cooperative learning activities are beneficial across all grade levels and subject areas (Dyson, 2002).

Research shows that teachers can nurture effective helping in cooperative learning groups in the following ways: creating positive norms for the group, designing learning tasks that support learning and understanding, modeling appropriate behaviors, and monitoring group progress (Webb, Farivar, & Mastergeorge, 2002).



What is Cooperative Learning?
Cooperative learning is more than group work. According to The Language of Learning, cooperative learning is “a teaching strategy designed to imitate real-life learning and problem solving by combining teamwork with individual and group accountability.” It is an opportunity for students to work with their peers toward a shared or common goal. Each member is responsible for the outcome of the shared goal and all group members work together to reach it. It is important to note that the word “cooperative” precedes the word “learning.”

Effective cooperative groups usually have three to five members. Smaller groups work better if you have less time, a shorter task, or if students are less skilled. Larger groups work better if you have more time, want many ideas generated, or desire some controversy in opinions and ideas.

One goal of cooperative learning is the acquisition of social skills. Students can negotiate through role-plays (perhaps a puppet show which depersonalizes the issue from those involved, or a skit for older students) or even a debate where each side presents its case. By learning how to handle conflict, students learn how to monitor their own behavior and deal with conflict when it arises in their day-to-day lives.

Ideally cooperative groups would always get along – cooperate – but that’s not always the case. There is bound to be disagreement at some point among your students. Fortunately, they can learn – and need to learn – how to negotiate. That is one way that cooperative learning imitates real life and problem-solving opportunities.

Make cooperative learning meaningful to students
When students understand the benefits and expected behavior of working in cooperative groups, then they are more likely to reap the reward of meeting the learning goal.

Be sure your students understand what you mean by “cooperative learning.” Give them a definition or come up with a class definition by examining what is meant by “cooperative” and “learning.” Your definition should include some of the following information:

Cooperative learning is an opportunity for students to acquire knowledge and social skills through teamwork.
All individuals are accountable to the team.
Each team member has a responsibility that is essential to the assignment.
The key to cooperative learning is the word “cooperate.”
Students also need to understand what behaviors are expected from them before they can truly use cooperative learning. Take the time go over expected behaviors with them.

Teach your students the acronym PALS when you discuss appropriate cooperative learning behaviors.

Stay on Task

Together with your students, come up with lists defining the behaviors for each of the four letters.

For instance, Participate could mean offering ideas, taking turns, and sharing. Examples of Participate: We invite others to participate when we ask: “What’s your opinion?” or make eye contact with them.

Attend means staying in the group and paying attention. Examples of Attend: We invite others to attend when we say, “Please give us your eyes” or “Move in closer, please.”

Listening means focusing on the person talking and waiting until they have finished before adding anything. Examples of Listen: We invite others to listen when we say, “Let’s all hear him out” or “What else?”

Staying on task means following directions and keeping track of time. Examples of Stay on Task: We invite others to stay on task when we say, “Let’s get back to work” or when we get started on work quickly.

Create an opportunity for students to practice PALS right away. Give them an assignment (e.g., creating a list of body parts found on an insect model, or brainstorming for ways to recycle household trash) and discuss PALS as part of the debriefing. When you take the time to lay the groundwork for cooperative learning, students will stay on task, model the behaviors they have identified as important, and meet the learning outcomes.

Source: The above tips are based on PLS’s graduate course Achieving Student Outcomes Through Cooperative Learning®. For more information see “Helpful Resources.”



Once your students know what behaviors are expected, one way to get started with cooperative learning is through Cooperative Starters.

Cooperative Starters are short cooperative learning sessions of less than seven minutes during which students interact in groups by doing a specific assigned task. Cooperative Starters usually have built-in success: There are no wrong answers. They are real-life situations or problem-solving opportunities that may arise for the student.

Here are some examples of cooperative starters:

Primary school students can look at pictures and describe to one another what they see.
Elementary students can discuss what qualities comprise a good speaker.
Junior high students can create a list of factors that led to World War I.
High school students can compare two poets’ views of winter.
Cooperative Starters give you a chance to make sure that the outlined behaviors are practiced and to adjust groups if necessary. They also give you a chance to point out when students are on task, meeting the expected behaviors, and especially when they are meeting their learning goals.

For more examples of Cooperative Starters visit our Web site at

Dyson, B. (2002). The implementation of cooperative learning in an elementary physical education program. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 22(1), 69-85.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (2003). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McBrien, J. L. & Brandt, R. S. (1997). The Language of Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Webb, N. M., Farivar, S.H., & Mastergeorge, A. M. (2002). Productive helping in collaborative groups. Theory Into Practice, 41(1), 13-20.


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