Cooperative learning is when students work together on a course assignment or project. The task complexity can range from a few simple math or reading assignments, or be very involving such as working on a large-scale project.
Examples of cooperative learning include groups working in teams on a common goal, students sharing resources to ensure everyone succeeds, and students testing one another to check for knowledge.
Cooperative Learning Examples
- Peer Support: Two students help each other with memorizing a list of vocabulary terms and then take turns testing each other.
- Group work: Smalls teams of students in an advertising course create their own internet ad for a product that students in another course designed (see also: positive group dynamic examples).
- Co-research: Students in a university hospitality management course work together to design a customer satisfaction survey, then administer it to students at the school cafeteria and later analyze the results.
- Group presentation: Three middle-school students construct a science poster on volcanoes that includes photos, graphics and facts.
- Role play: A European History teacher allows students to form their own groups, select an historical event, and then perform a short play that portrays key developments and characters.
- Inquiry-based groups: Students in an IT course work in small groups to debug a program and conduct testing on its processing speed and usability.
- Positive interdependence: This is a term used to describe a group dynamic wherein individual and group goals are aligned.
- Competitive group work: Students in an engineering course work in small groups to design and construct a paper bridge and then participate in a class competition testing its strength.
Case Studies of Cooperative Learning
Think-Pair-Share (TPS) is an active learning technique that utilizes cooperative learning to improve student engagement and learning outcomes. TPS was originally proposed by Frank Lyman (1981) to increase student motivation in topics in which they may have little intrinsic interest.
The process is simple and straightforward, but the benefits are substantial.
First, the instructor poses a question to students that they must contemplate individually. Then students form pairs and discuss their individual thoughts on the issue at hand. Next, they come to a mutual understanding of the problem and share their conclusions with the rest of the class.
Once various pairs have shared their conclusions, the instructor can guide a broader class discussion of the topic to hone in on key concepts and facts.
In addition to developing higher-order thinking skills, students also exercise their problem-solving, teamwork, and communication skills.
2. Four Corners
The Four Corners activity was developed by Kagan (1989) as a way to increase student engagement, develop higher-order thinking skills and encourage perspective-taking. It gives students an opportunity to formulate their own views and engage in group discussion.
The steps are simple to follow:
- The teacher labels each corner of the classroom with the terms: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.
- The teacher then presents a statement that reflects an opinion on a specific topic related to the unit of study.
- Students are given several minutes to reflect upon the issue, and then move to the corner that best represents their stance
- Students then share views with others at that corner, followed by creating a summary statement that best represents the group consensus.
- The groups then take turns sharing their views, supporting their stance with reason and facts.
- The teacher can then guide a broader class discussion to highlight key concepts and terms.
3. Problem-Based Learning in Medical School
Medical schools around the world implement a cooperative learning strategy centered on problem-based learning (PBL). Students are presented with a real case study of a patient’s medical condition. Instead of being told the diagnosis and treatment regimen, students work together to reach their own conclusions.
They begin by discussion of the facts presented in the clinical problem, identifying what further information is needed, and where their gaps in knowledge exist.
This leads to formulating a path of study and learning objectives that are often complex. The students work together to devise a plan of action and delegate learning tasks among the group that will be shared at subsequent meetings.
Each group is assigned an experienced tutor who offers advice or suggestions, but plays a minimal role in the assignment.
PBL increases student engagement, improves higher-order thinking and communication skills, fosters cooperative learning and mutual responsibility, and produces long-term retention of content.
4. Peer Tutoring: Rally Coach for Math
Peer tutoring can take on many forms. Because some students are more open to feedback from a peer than a teacher, it can be a very effective cooperative learning strategy.
The teacher creates pairs of students that consist of one advanced student with one that might need more assistance. One student begins by trying to solve a math problem while thinking aloud as they work through the calculation.
The other student listens and provides coaching and guidance when necessary. Afterward, roles are reversed. This gives the first student an opportunity to build their confidence and not always be in the role of the student “that needs help.”
Rally Coach fosters interaction and cooperation among students. It also helps students that might be overly dependent on the teacher to develop a sense of autonomy and personal responsibility for their learning outcomes.
For the more advanced students, it gives them a great sense of pride and helps them develop leadership skills as well.
5. Minecraft: Education Edition
The Minecraft education edition is a sandbox game-based learning platform that teachers can integrate into classroom instruction, to the joy and excitement of many students. The activities in the game help foster creativity, problem-solving, and cooperative learning when used in small groups.
The above video shows how teachers in Ireland use Minecraft to help students see the connections between history, science, and technology. The students take on the role of Vikings to build ships, settlements and even partake in Viking raids.
The lesson involves several quest challenges involve different learning experiences from archeological reconstructions to storyboarding their own digital Viking saga.
As the principal of the school presented in the video states, the kids think they are playing but they are really developing problem-solving and communication skills, while also expanding their knowledge base.
List of Additional Cooperative Learning Strategies
- Expert Jigsaw Group Work Rotation Method
- Three-Step Interview Method
- Round Robin Method
- Numbered Heads Together Method
- Pair Check (60-second peer review)
- Fishbowl Discussion Strategy
- Choose your own Adventure
- Group Investigation
- Inner/Outer Circle (Speed Dating) Method
- Quiz-Quiz-Trade Method
- Reciprocal Teaching Method
- Escape Room Activities
- Peer Editing
- Team Scavenger Hunt
Benefits of Cooperative Learning
There are numerous benefits to cooperative learning.
- Communication Skills: when students discuss task issues and goals, they develop enhanced communication skills. They learn to listen as well as explain their views more concisely and accurately.
- Conflict Resolution Skills: working in groups inevitably leads to disagreements. Students can learn how to resolve disagreements in a positive and constructive manner.
- Leadership Skills: one or more students may take on a leadership role, which will give them experience allocating tasks and resources and help them develop other project management skills.
- Deep Learning: sometimes students process information at a much deeper level when going at their own pace or working in a group, as opposed to a more passive mindset that occurs when listening to a teacher’s lecture.
- Independence: students learn to not rely on teacher supervision to keep themselves on task. This helps them develop self-discipline and personal responsibility.
- Teamwork: by working with others, students learn that team members offer different strengths to a project. They learn the value of relying on and helping team members and the importance of cooperation to reach a common goal.
Cooperative learning is an active learning strategy that involves students working together to complete a task or project. It helps students develop communication and teamwork skills as they discuss options and negotiate agreements on the best course of action.
There are many forms of cooperative learning that exist across the entire educational continuum, from kindergartens to some of the most prestigious medical schools in the world.
Think-Pair-Share and Four Corners give students an opportunity to formulate an opinion, discuss with others, and then arrive at a consensus point of view.
In addition to traditional cooperative learning approaches, there are also opportunities for teachers to integrate technology into classroom instruction using such tools as Mincecraft.
Gillies, M. R., & Boyle, M. (2010). Teachers’ reflections on cooperative learning, issues of implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(4), 933–940.
Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Interaction Book Company.
Kagan, S. (1989). The structural approach to cooperative learning. Educational leadership, 47(4), 12-15.
Lyman, F. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. In A. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming digest (pp. 109-113). University of Maryland College of Education.