Cooperative learning, conceived in 1980 by Robert Slavin, is a transformative instructional approach that revolutionizes the traditional classroom dynamic by placing emphasis on small-group student work and active participation rather than passive listening to teacher lectures (Slavin, 1996). In other words, cooperative learning is a pedagogical method that embraces the power of collaboration and group work to enhance student learning experiences. Unlike the traditional lecture-based approach, cooperative learning creates an interactive and dynamic classroom environment where students actively participate in their own education, empowering learners to take ownership of their education and engaging them in collaborative activities to achieve common learning goals. This chapter will delve into the types, student-centered nature, and outcomes of cooperative learning, as well as provide educators with foundational understandings to implement this approach effectively in their classrooms.
Types of Cooperative Learning
Three popular approaches to cooperative learning are Student Teams Achievement Division (STAD), Teams-Games-Tournaments (TGT), and jigsaw grouping. Student Teams Achievement Division (STAD) involves dividing students into four-member teams consisting of individuals from diverse backgrounds and performance levels. These teams work together to teach and review subjects with clear right-or-wrong answers before receiving points as a team based on individual testing improvement (Slavin, 1996). This smaller group size has been confirmed as most beneficial for students’ social and academic goals in cooperative learning, as larger groups are too similar to lecture-based instruction (Gillies, 2016). STAD promotes peer tutoring, as higher-performing students assist their teammates in understanding and mastering the content (Tran, 2014).
The Teams-Games-Tournaments (TGT) approach to cooperative learning utilizes the same practices as STAD, replacing quizzes with weekly tournaments to review and assess students’ understanding of material. Students compete against members of opposing groups with similar skill levels to earn points for their teams (Slavin, 1996). This gamified approach fosters active participation and healthy competition among students, promoting both academic growth and social interaction.
Jigsaw grouping is a cooperative learning technique that eliminates teacher lectures by assigning different study topics to individual students within groups. Each student becomes an expert on their assigned topic, discusses the topic with students from other groups that have the same topic, then shares their knowledge with their group members (Slavin, 1980; Slavin, 1996). By combining each member's expertise, the group collectively develops a comprehensive understanding of subject matter.
A Student-Centered Approach
Cooperative learning is a transformative and student-centered instructional approach that empowers students to actively participate in their learning process, shifting the traditional, lecture-based power dynamic in the classroom. Rather than being passive recipients of information, students become engaged learners who work collaboratively to construct knowledge, solve problems, and deepen their understanding of the subject matter. By promoting autonomy, responsibility, and critical thinking, cooperative learning prepares students for success in the collaborative and interconnected world they will navigate beyond the classroom. This approach nurtures several outcomes such as collaboration, active learning, and student engagement, creating dynamic and inclusive classroom environments that foster academic achievement, social development, and the growth of essential skills.
Objectives of Cooperative Learning
Through working together in small groups, students develop not only subject-specific knowledge but also vital interpersonal and communication skills. Cooperative learning promotes academic achievement, social development, and the cultivation of a positive and inclusive classroom culture (Slavin, 1980). It is a broad concept implemented through specific learning techniques and types of group work and, therefore, has different outcomes depending on which technique is used.
Cooperative learning aims to enhance academic performance, retention, and understanding and limit traditional, lecture-based instruction. It intends, through collaborative efforts, for students to exchange knowledge, perspectives, and skills, leading to improved learning outcomes (Tran, 2014). Working together should allow students to engage in critical thinking, problem-solving, and creative exploration, promoting a deeper understanding of the subject matter (Slavin, 2014; Ugwu, 2019).
In addition to academic gains, cooperative learning emphasizes the development of important social skills. By working collaboratively, students should learn to communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, and appreciate diverse perspectives (Tombak & Altun, 2016). Cooperative learning intends to foster a sense of interdependence and cohesiveness within the classroom, cultivating a supportive and inclusive learning environment (Slavin, 1980).
Positive Outcomes of Cooperative Learning
Because cooperative learning can be so diverse, studies have shown that there are different outcomes depending on which strategy is used. In this section, we will refer only to the three most common strategies and their demonstrated academic and affective outcomes.
Student Teams Achievement Division (STAD)
As previously stated, STAD is a strategy used to review subject information in groups to solidify learning. In nine of his 28 studies on the STAD strategy, Slavin (1980) found two common results: higher academic accountability and stronger race relations. In each of his studies, Slavin (1980) recorded that individual work and accountability increased as it was necessary to obtain the group goal or reward. This is likely due to how STAD is set up, which encourages each student to learn and understand the information taught so they may perform well and earn points for the group. Furthermore, results from Slavin’s (1980) studies on STAD also found that nine months after the conclusion of the study, students from these groups made “significantly more cross-racial friendship choices than former control group students” (p. 329). This outcome was also likely a result of the way in which students interacted and relied on each other in STAD groups to reach a group end goal, thus overcoming differences in race and ethnicity and encouraging more mutual concern for others in their academic performance.
Another demonstrated outcome of using STAD is improved comprehension. In a 2019 study done in Nigeria with secondary education students, Ugwu measured the effects of STAD on student reading comprehension. Through their study, Ugwu (2019) confirmed that using STAD improved comprehension of the material taught as learners could better engage and discuss their ideas with other students . STAD is set up in a way that allows students to deeply understand the information taught during direct teacher instruction. After listening to and seeing the information presented, students can then discuss and demonstrate that same information to their peers and thus further solidify their personal understanding of the information by teaching it to others.
Similar to STAD, the TGT strategy uses groups of students working together to review and assess information; however, it includes an added level of competition among students through games or tournaments. The purpose of each group is to “maximize heterogeneity of ability levels, sex, and race” (Slavin, 1980, p. 319). In a study that researched the effects of TGT on student motivation in a middle school physics classroom, researchers found that students who used the TGT model had higher academic learning outcomes and overall motivation to learn than students who used other methods (Nadrah et al., 2016). Furthermore, a study done in Bangladesh surveyed the effects of TGT on student performance in mathematics similarly showed that the students in their study who used the TGT method scored significantly higher on posttests than those students who learned using a traditional lecture method (Salam et al., 2015). Tombak & Altun (2016) also confirmed other affective outcomes such as increased intrinsic value and motivation towards learning, as well as improved self-efficacy towards individual contribution to the group. These outcomes seem to be a result of the competitive nature of the TGT strategy, in that each student’s understanding and proficiency play a necessary part toward achieving the group end goal. This then builds the team effort and unity to ensure each student reaches this level of understanding to perform well in the game/tournament. By including heterogeneity of ability levels, sex, and race, students can also learn from a variety of backgrounds and understand principles from differing perspectives, thus enhancing their overall learning of the world around them.
Jigsaw is a popular strategy used in classrooms to allow students the opportunity to become experts on a specific topic that they can then teach to another group of students. Through research, studies have found that the Jigsaw approach has many positive outcomes, primarily with academic achievement. In one such study, researchers found that the students who participated in the jigsaw strategy scored significantly higher on posttests than those who participated in traditional lecture-based instruction (Jainal & Shahrill, 2021). Furthermore, Jainal & Shahrill (2021) showed that Jigsaw led to several positive social outcomes, such as interdependence; individual accountability; and increased group processing, or student evaluation of themselves and peers regarding group work. In the study by Tombak & Altun (2016), they had similar findings in that students had increased intrinsic motivation to help their classmates, thus leading to better self-regulation and self-determination to be accountable to their group members for their own work. According to Slavin (1980), jigsaw grouping “is an example of low reward interdependence and high task interdependence” (p. 330), meaning that while there is no external reward given for the work that was done, the students can start and work through the activity independently because of the individual effort students put into the completion of the task—the task being that of helping all group members understand the information being presented by each student. Because Jigsaw is set up with no external group rewards, as in STAD and TGT, positive outcomes come in the form of positive student self-identity in relationship to the group (i.e. better self-regulation, self-determination, accountability), better promotion of social connection, and an increase in overall academic achievement as students teach their classmates and individually become experts.
Five Key Components for Successful Implementation
Researchers have identified five key components to successfully implement cooperative learning: structured positive interdependence, promotive interaction, individual accountability, negotiation or teaching of interpersonal skills, and group processing (Gillies, 2016; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Tran, 2014). These components were originally coined by Johnson & Johnson (2009) with the intent to improve cooperative learning practices and assess the variances among early success rates. Without proper implementation of these components, cooperative learning is ineffective in practice (Tran, 2014). Often, challenges arise as most of these steps require proper execution and effort from both the students and the teacher.
Teachers need to structure positive interdependence by properly teaching groups that they depend on their team members for their success and must, therefore, help each other learn. Simply having groups and interaction is not enough—students must have “responsibility forces” (Johnson & Johnson, 2009, p. 367) within groups by attaching their identities to said groups, avoiding redundant work, placing responsibility on all students for the final outcome, and having transparency in how much work each student does (Gillies, 2016; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Tran, 2014). This can be done in a plethora of ways depending on the learning technique, including experts in each group on different topics, division of labor, and emphasis from teachers on learning and group goals. Individual and group accountability, which are crucial for group cohesion, will also improve with comparative feedback regarding individual and group performance (Gillies, 2016; Johnson & Johnson, 2009).
Promotive interaction, a type of interaction where group members motivate and encourage one another, relies on students’ desire and willingness to interact with and help others within their groups. Students should assist and encourage others within the group to meet goals when applicable (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). As students positively communicate, they better understand others’ needs and how to meet said needs through explanations and assistance. By reiterating learned material—as this group work generally occurs after instruction—students deepen their understanding of complex concepts as well as bring others to higher levels of understanding. Teachers can help facilitate these types of interactions by organizing class layouts that allow students to sit close to one another (Gillies, 2016); discussing proper group etiquette; providing time to assess group and individual efforts, also known as group processing (Johnson & Johnson, 2009); and permitting talking in the classroom.
The third component to successfully implementing cooperative learning is individual accountability, or students holding themselves individually accountable for their work and assisting others in finishing their work on time. Group processing, as aforementioned, promotes student evaluations of their own and others’ contributions to group efforts. Gillies (2016) confirmed Johnson & Johnson’s (2009) claim that individual accountability is best facilitated through structured positive interdependence—making students feel responsible for the group’s success—and through clearly identifying individual responsibilities. Cooperative learning techniques should result in students asking group members for help, taking care of other group members, and sharing ideas, thus increasing group cohesion and interaction (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Tran, 2014). Teachers need to give consistent feedback to groups and individuals as well as receive feedback from group members to address collaboration issues. This accountability must be well-structured for the intended results. A single grade or goal for a group is insufficient, as individuals must feel that their own grade also depends on their individual efforts for the group’s and others’ success. Tran (2014) determined through analysis of various studies, along with his own, that groups’ success should depend on the individual improvement of each group member. In the original proposition of individual accountability in cooperative learning, Johnson and Johnson (2009), supported by many psychological studies and confirmed later by Gillies (2016), claimed that smaller group sizes contributed to unity and respect within groups, as it made individual efforts clear and manageable, with less “redundant” work (p. 368).
Students will not always have the social skills necessary to properly work in groups, necessitating the negotiation or teaching of said interpersonal skills by the teacher. This approach should vary depending on students’ ages and maturity levels, complicating the practice. Negotiation generally means explicitly identifying and communicating social expectations to students who already understand the necessary social skills, whereas teaching generally means clearly explaining expected social skills with the inclusion of whys and hows. Typically, negotiations will be with older students, while teaching will be necessary with younger students (Gillies, 2016). Social skills are not intuitive for all students, leaving each student at a different starting place; therefore, heterogeneous groups are a key component to cooperative learning, including heterogeneity of social skills when possible (Tran, 2014). Students are more than capable of learning social skills through observation and practice, especially when given specific target skills and being individually evaluated on social efforts. Archer-Kath et al. (1994) found that individual rather than group evaluations were more successful when addressing target social skills and even resulted in higher group cohesion and respect (as cited in Johnson & Johnson, 2009); therefore, target social skills must be addressed by the teacher, whether in verbal or written instructions, for both groups and individuals. Students need to be given time to converse about more than just the assignment: they need to know, trust, and accept one another, which is best facilitated through casual conversation before addressing the given assignment. While building this trust may require more allotted time than in a normal group project, Gillies (2016) concluded in his research that it results in higher academic and social achievement, as was originally claimed by Johnson & Johnson (2009), with less time being spent in future projects as students expand their circles within the class.
Through his review of various studies, Gillies (2016) determined five specific areas of social competency that are best negotiated or taught: active listening, idea and resource sharing, constructive commentary, acceptance of individual responsibility, and democratic decision-making. Tran (2014) claimed that if these social skills are not taught or negotiated, it undermines the entirety of cooperative learning’s structure, as students will not cooperate or reach group goals successfully. He claimed that group processing further solidified these social skills when clearly taught or negotiated.
The last component necessary for cooperative learning is group processing, or student evaluation of themselves and peers regarding group work. This component is a necessary element of all four other key components of cooperative learning and must be applied to various aspects of group work. Group processing requires students to identify helpful and harmful contributions (or lack thereof) of group members, themselves included. Teachers should also evaluate individual students. This can look very different based on teacher or student preference, but the purpose is to consistently help students identify what should remain the same or change in the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Tran, 2014), leaving teachers with leeway to decide how to implement evaluations. When group processing is applied to interpersonal skills as well as academic contributions, the benefits include better teacher-student and student-student relationships, including among disabled students; greater group cohesion; higher academic achievement, individual contribution, motivation, self-esteem, respect for others, and subject retention; and more positive attitudes toward the subject (Gillies, 2016; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Tran, 2014). This key cooperative learning component ties into accountability and structure from the other components, making it pertinent for the success of each learning technique within cooperative learning.
While there are various techniques to implementing cooperative learning, there is no question of its success and benefit in the classroom. Cooperative learning could change the primary teaching format and improve academic and affective success if implemented properly in the classroom (Slavin, 2014). With new technological developments, new research could be beneficial to find additional methods for implementation. Having provided a foundational understanding of cooperative learning, this chapter paves the way for further exploration and implementation of this powerful pedagogical approach, and it is our responsibility to embrace cooperative learning and harness its potential to unlock the capabilities of our students.
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