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What is Cooperative Learning?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2014
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Cooperative learning (CL) is a type of education strategy that is gaining in popularity and can be successfully used in a variety of learning environments. Instead of each student learning without aid from other students, much of the classwork in a cooperative learning situation is done in small group settings. This doesn’t usually mean that students very occasionally work on a group project together. Instead it means that students regularly work on assignments together and may have a specific group to which they belong for a given semester or school year.

Proponents of cooperative learning say they are many benefits to this type of learning environment. Students don’t only learn the material, but they may learn better because they have more time to contribute and discuss the material. Shy students may feel more at ease in sharing thoughts and ideas in small groups than they would with a whole class. Successful groupings of students can foster more social and cooperative behavior, which is a very useful skill in many real life situations.

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There are a few ways that teachers may help build cooperative learning environments that are successful. Since individual accountability is still important, teachers may choose to give both team and individual tests. Grading that can be partly based on group work and partly based on individual performance can help allay the fears of students who would typically perform better outside of a group. This includes some gifted students, who may not always benefit in cooperative learning situations, and may feel that lower levels of academic performance on the part of the group will negatively impact grade.

Teachers also need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of students who may not be able to perform at the level of most other students due to learning disabilities or to behavioral problems. In a cooperative learning situation, it should not be the group’s responsibility to police other members of the group on a regular basis. A person who cannot make a significant contribution to the group may need a different learning environment. One person’s failure to stay on pace with the group can sink a whole team if most grades are based on team performance. This doesn’t mean that a child with learning disabilities can’t work well in cooperative learning classes, but teachers need to consider how to best place these students so that they will contribute rather than detract from other learners.

There can be great benefit to CL instruction. There is much to be said for the idea that students may make excellent teachers to each other. Clearly defining the tasks of a group help to reinforce this. If students can’t leave an activity until all group members comprehend it, this may be an incredibly effective method for reinforcing class material. Students do have to care how they and their group members perform, and this may be achieved by receiving group grades on certain projects.

Some teachers utilize cooperative learning at all times and others use it on an occasional basis. In high schools and middle schools, there are even some courses where students have the option to take a CL class or one that is more traditional in model. Giving this option may prove helpful because students will be less likely to be involved in the CL setting unless they really enjoy it. Meanwhile students that benefit from more traditional methods of teaching will be able to pursue their education in a way that best fits them.

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