Cooperative and collaborative approaches to group work are very similar. However, scholars have highlighted key differences between the approaches.
- A cooperative learning approach is designed to be specifically opposite to competitive education. The point is to work together to achieve a pre-set goal, rather than against each other. The teacher will often set out a clear and structured learning objective and expect a certain answer to the assigned group-work question.
- A collaborative learning approach has its origins in social-constructivism, whereby people work together to come to shared negotiations of meaning. It involves entering a learning scenario not to achieve a pre-set goal, but to go through a process of negotiation and discourse that will lead to new shared answers to complex problems.
Collaboration vs. Cooperation
Collaborative learning and cooperative learning are often used to explain the general concept of learning in groups. While some people use the terms ‘collaborative’ and ‘cooperative’ to mean the same thing, others do not.
For most educators, the distinction is not significant and both approaches follow the same general group work pattern.
However, theorists do draw a line between the two.
According to Barkley, Cross & Major (2014) the key distinction is that cooperative tasks are more structured and collaborative tasks are less structured. They state:
“Collaborative and cooperative learning [are] positioned on a continuum from most structured (cooperative) to least structured (collaborative)” (pp. 5 – 6).
A cooperative learning scenario is opposed to a ‘competitive’ scenario. In cooperation, students work together rather than competing against one another.
Group roles may be assigned by the teacher, and there is one common learning objective to be achieved.
Further, the learning objective is often known by the teacher in advance and students work in groups to ‘uncover’ the answers. This approach follows a cognitive-constructivist perspective.
Collaboration implies working together to create new knowledge that is not known in advance.
This approach follows as social-constructivist perspective where knowledge is ‘socially constructed’ or ‘co-created’ through negotiation and compromise.
Nether the teacher or students have authority over knowledge; rather, knowledge and ‘facts’ are agreed upon through discussion and consensus.
Key features of a collaborative approach include:
- Social Constructivism: Shared construction of meaning, where the ‘truth’ is considered the answer that is most agreeable and logical to the group.
- Embraces Individualism: Individual achievements and strengths of individual group members are embraced and encouraged.
- Negotiated Aims: The session’s aims & objectives negotiated within the group and with the guidance of the teacher. There is much less teacher structure in this approach because negotiation of objectives are part of the collaborative process.
Go Deeper: 10 Examples of Collaborative Learning
Key features of a cooperative approach include:
- Cognitive Constructivism: Working together to get closer to the objective truth that is not defined by the group, but rather uncovered by them.
- Anti-Competitive: Has the explicit aim of undermining competitive and comparative education in order to re-frame learning as a shared project.
- Emphasizes the group, not any individuals within it: The group members are seen as equals in all aspects, with no student seen as an ‘expert’ in any aspect.
- Teacher Control: The teacher is active in structuring the lessons, aims & objectives. Students present their work at the end of the lesson. However, during the lesson, the students are still active learners and the teacher is the facilitator.
Similarities Between Approaches
There are more similarities than differences between the two approaches. Similarities include:
- Group Work: Students work in groups to achieve a common educational aim.
- Deep Learning: Meaningful learning occurs when all group members participate equally.
- Social Learning: Both approaches believe social interaction supports learning and development. Through social interaction, students can give immediate feedback to each other and learn from each other’s perspectives. Students will refine their thinking by listening to others and incorporating other’s perspectives into their own thinking.
- Active learning encouraged: Students must learn through inquiry-based approaches, thinking through issues, and working on projects. Passive approaches like memorization and rote learning are discouraged.
- Preparing students for the world of work: Working in group is increasingly important in the 21st Century workforce. The more practice students get with working with others, the more prepared they will be for the future.
Personally, I’ve never come across a teacher (or indeed anyone assessing a teaching session) who has been up in arms about the difference.
The two approaches are very similar and in practice are often seen as one and the same. Nonetheless, theoretically there are clear distinctions that you may be required to know and talk about in a college paper or academic presentation.
Furthermore, knowledge of these distinctions may help you to think through how you will structure your sessions: will you encourage co-negotiation of facts and processes, or will you be more structured in creating your group work sessions?
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques. San Francisco: Wiley.
McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Collaborative or cooperative learning? In: Roberts, T. S. (Ed.). Online collaborative learning: Theory and practice. (pp. 203 – 214). Hershey: Idea Group Publishing.
Panitz, T. (1999). Collaborative versus cooperative learning: A comparison of the two concepts which will help us understand the underlying nature of interactive learning. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED448443.pdf
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.