Cooperative Learning Techniques

Gisele Glosser

Cooperative learning is more elaborate than group work activity. Cooperative learning can be incorporated into your classroom management system. If you train your students to work effectively in groups, the results can be a very productive and fun learning environment.

One of my first experiments with cooperative learning was to let my students work in groups of their own choosing. Of course, they chose to work with their friends and were not very productive. I used this to my advantage when I later assigned group partners, careful to avoid having close friends in the same group.

Each school year I wait until October before assigning groups. This gives me a chance to get to know my students and learn about their social and academic abilities. After about 6 weeks of teacher-directed lessons, students welcome the idea of group work. I set aside an entire 40-minute period for our first group work experience. I assign four partners to a group (chosen ahead of time). The partners are chosen mainly by ability so that each group will have one top-level, two middle-level and one struggling student in each group. I also try to account for personality differences. Students may choose any name for their group that is appropriate for a classroom.

The first group work assignment is usually a simple and easy one. This gives students a chance to adjust to their partners and to choose a group name. Students love to choose group names because it is cool and because it gives them decision-making power. Ideally, all groups should choose a name by the end of the class period. One member of each group places the name of the group and the names of its members on an index card for me.

I then create a handout that lists the name of each group and its members in alphabetical order. This handout is distributed to the class, along with a list of cooperative learning rules (see below).

     checkmark-blue.gif  Every member of each group is responsible for all work assigned.

     checkmark-blue.gif  If there is a disagreement, form a consensus, not a majority rule. Be constructive.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Be open to other members' ideas and encourage their participation. Make sure no one is left out.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Every day one member of each group is designated as the facilitator. The facilitator is not in charge of the group, but simply keeps the group organized on a particular day.

Each day I choose a different group facilitator. For example, if the facilitator is member 1, then the student whose last name is alphabetically first is the facilitator for each group. (Remember the handout that lists group names and members?)

So why do I go to all this trouble? Allow me to elaborate on the benefits of all this work. 

     checkmark-blue.gif  The facilitator distributes and collects materials for the group. Instead of dealing with 28 students, I am dealing with 7 group facilitators. This saves me a lot of time and energy.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Manipulatives are very important but expensive for grades K through 8. Instead of asking the principal for 28 sets of fraction pieces, I ask for 7 sets (one for each group). This saves school funds.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Having one set of manipulatives per group reduces the time needed to put things away at the end of an activity.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Students sometimes explain things to each other better than a teacher can to an entire class of students. This usually results in better retention of material.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Questions are more likely to be asked and answered in a group setting. This saves a lot of time over a long question-and-answer session with the entire class, which can cause some students to become bored.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Students today seem to have a much shorter attention span than they did years ago. With cooperative learning used on regular basis, they are less likely to become restless or misbehave during a teacher-directed part of a lesson since they know they will have time in groups.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Varying from teacher-directed to group-directed activities prevents your class from falling into a rut.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Shy students are more likely to ask and answer questions in a group setting. The same is true of low-skills students.

     checkmark-blue.gif  Today's job market is looking for people with good interpersonal and problem-solving skills. Regular participation in cooperative learning activities can help develop and hone these skills.

It is a good idea to change group partners during the school year, otherwise tempers might flare. I assign new group partners each marking period. My students look forward to this since they get to choose new group names.

It took time for me to adjust to the noise level in my classroom during group work. Eventually I was able to differentiate between academic and social conversations. I also had to get used to the time it takes for students to move the furniture in the room. However, this time diminishes as students get used to group work. I remember one time when an administrator observed a class of mine. She commented on how quickly my students moved into groups and started their assignment (under 2 minutes). She concluded that they must be working in groups every day since they were so quick and well-trained.

Cooperative learning should not be used haphazardly. However, when used with a plan, it can offer many educational benefits. Most of all, it is just plain fun.

This article is by Gisele Glosser. You can find me on Google.