The Skinny: Cooperative Learning


Here’s the skinny on cooperative learning.

First, it differs from flexible grouping. Flexible groups work to develop a skill; cooperative groups work together to complete a task.



Heterogeneous                Homogeneous 
Shared Task Skill Attainment 
Student-Led Teacher-Led 
Roles & Responsibilities Practice/Rehearsal 
Changes by teacher-design Changes as skills are mastered

When implementing cooperative learning, consider the following five critical components.

1.  POSITIVE INTERDEPENDENCE:  Group members get the sense and come to understand that they need each other to complete the task. All the work does not simply rest on the shoulders of one or two individuals.


We are  not sure who designed this meme, but it certainly illustrates how cooperative learning groups fizzle due to no positive interdependence and no individual accountability, which is Roy’s second critical attribute. 

2.  INDIVIDUAL ACCOUNTABILITY:  Every individual in the group is accountable for content mastery of the learning task.  A series of individual roles and responsibilities can increase individual group accountability in such ways that every member contributes to the overall learning goal.

Roles & Responsibility:  There are, of course, some generic roles that can increase the kinds of individual student engagement for any cooperative learning tasks. Some such sample roles could include but are not limited to the following:

Facilitator: Acts the unofficial leader for the group, facilitating processes, procedures, and democratic decision-making

Recorder: Keeps records for team, ensuring printing and presentation of products are acceptable for the group

Press Secretary: Speaks for the groups and presents information including final product

Time Keeper: Manages time constraints for working and presenting

Fact Checker: Verifies content information received, collected, and shared

Numbers Cruncher: Deals with numbers, stats, and other calculable content for the group

Materials Manager: Secures and maintains the materials necessary for engaging in and completing tasks

Encourager: Keeps groups interactions positive and productive; provides additional support for Press Secretary during presentations

Task Force: Carries the collective responsibility of the group to complete a general or specified task or deal with a particular problem within and/or outside the group’s working dynamics

Specificity: Additionally, we believe roles should be designed and assigned relative to both the context and the content of the cooperative learning task.  For example, a Media Literacy Specialist would be essential for tasks that involve reviewing content that is slanted, biased, pundit-produced, and intended to present a particular view to a particular audience. Media literacy skills become highly important. Think about the content and its major components and consider if, for example, a Propaganda Popper, Environmentalist, or other such specialized roles are required.

3.  PROMOTIVE INTERACTIONS:  Such interactions encourage and promote positive goal attainment and are led and facilitated by the group members themselves. Members provide quality feedback to each other, assist each other in decision-making, and share information–actions which are all targeted toward academic goal attainment.  The learning task should be structured in ways that inherently embed promotive interactions through positive interdependence.

4.  INTERPERSONAL SKILLS:  Social skills are the very bedrock of cooperative learning, and many teachers, like the ILTs with whom we work, confess that interpersonal skills are the missing attribute that often cause them to abandon the process. Social skills necessary for working with others must be directly taught and, ideally, self-, peer-, and teacher-assessed.  The following chart and accompanying explanation of levels, devised by friend and colleague Patricia Belvel, outlines which social or interpersonal skills must be in place for individuals to work in groups of 2, 3, 4, and so forth.



Uses others’ names                                    Gives ideas

Looks at others                                           Talks about work

Stays with a group                                      Asks questions

Cleans up area                                            Says “thank you”

Moves quietly to/from group                        Includes others

Gathers and shares materials                      Listens to others

Level 3: Communication Skills               Level 4:  Decision-Making           

Repeats what has been said                       Listens to different points of view

Encourages                                                Defines the problem

Shares feelings                                           Generates solutions

Disagrees in agreeable way                        Summarizes

Paraphrases                                               Implements solutions

Acknowledges                                           Gets group back on task

Expresses appreciation                              Uses processes for decisions

5. GROUP PROCESSING:  Learning tasks with accompanying checklists, rubrics, and formative assessments include opportunities for groups to determine how successfully they are working together, following procedures, and meeting social and task expectations.  Rubrics, self-checklists, and peer and teacher observations should describe and evaluate the desired group behaviors.  One of the teachers in the NTN cleverly implements End-of-Class Benchmarks, which outline which portions of an on-going task should be completed by a specified timeframe–in this particular case, the end of the class period. Attached to such a practice, however, should be crystalized measures for providing immediate feedback to groups about benchmark attainment.

 Poll: Do you use cooperative learning in your classroom?

 How do you promote collaboration over institutionalized competition? How do you design cooperative learning tasks that embed the critical attributes outlined above? How do you design cooperative learning tasks and create cooperative learning roles that are authentic and content-driven ? And how do you effectively assess cooperative learning practices through both formative and summative measures?  

Contact us for additional information!


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