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Week #6: Managing Cooperative Learning

and Learning Within the Social Context


As we seek to create the most effective, engaging and productive cooperative learning experiences for our students, consider how learning within a social context is different from learning independently. Recall the social learning theory in the previous section. The key to a successful collaborative effort is using the social aspect to the class’ collective advantage. If you are doing cooperative learning because you think they need a break from the routine, and want to try something a bit more social you may be missing the point. It may be a nice change and can be inherently more engaging for students to work in groups, but group work is not inherently the same as cooperative learning. The management of each will be similar, but as we discussed in week #4, true cooperative learning has a built in “psychological movement” to it.


A good place to start may be to ask yourself a few questions:

Teachers who make a commitment to cooperative learning, and understand that it is not just “individuals working in groups’ usually find a great deal of success. Here is an outline of ideas to discuss as a class as we consider managing the cooperative learning exercise:


1.  Design an Effective Cooperative Learning Environment/Exercise


A. Specify the Outcome and Purpose of the Exercise

·         Product/ Performance (i.e., group creates something).

·         Discovery exercise/ Lab (i.e., group does collaborative research using an inductive or deductive process).

·         Processing of content (i.e., group reads and discusses some text).

·         Jigsaw method (each member learns one part of a multi-faceted whole and then they take turns sharing their piece with the other members of the group).


B. Choose an Effective Task Structure

·         Size and membership of the group (be purposeful in your group selection).

·         Time of the task

·         Arrangement of desks/workspaces

·         Roles (if so, which?)

·          Manager

·          Reporter

·          Reader

·          Consensus builder

·          Recorder

·          Researcher

·          or any you think that fit the task


C. Teach the Process Skills that you want to see performed.

Take the time before and during the activity to teach students....

·         how to use the process that you have given them (i.e., how to perform each of the roles, or how to do inquiry, etc.).

·         how to give their opinions (i.e., I think, I feel, my idea, this is only my opinion, etc.).

·         how to listen (i.e., wait for others, active listening).

·         how to clarify what they heard by asking questions.

·         how to resolve conflict when there is a disagreement.


D. Select an Assessment/Incentive Approach best fitting the Goals of the Exercise

·         Group self-assessment form (good for low pressure, complex reasoning situations)

·         Group process evaluation rubric (reinforces that success comes from effort toward “how we get there” and “how well we work together”).

·         Group product evaluation (reinforces putting it all together, but may miss emphasis on the process elements).

·         Individual group-member evaluation rubric (reinforces individual accountability, but does not promote interdependence).

·         Informal group vs. group competition (this can be motivating, especially for tasks that are more for fun, but make sure the purpose is clear. Never grade or give any kind of meaningful reward based on group or individual competition).

·         No Assessment (promotes intrinsic motivation, but may not provide enough motivation for tasks that are less inherently interesting, or students who need a little external incentive).


2. Manage your Cooperative Exercise Effectively


Provide Good Directions

·         Be clear, get 100% attention, check for comprehension and have students wait until all is understood before any group begins.

·         Expect 100% comprehension before starting (if they do not understand the directions, what are they going to be doing?)


A.    Monitor and Provide Feedback

·         Move from one group to the next providing help and clarification

·         Have a well-established cue to stop students to be able to interject ideas, clarify the task, or micro-teach (the shorter the interruptions the better).

·         Use you words/conspicuous feedback to help clarify successful performance.  Be as concrete and specific as possible.

·         Use your attention and focus purposefully (per social learning model).

B.     Choose appropriate consequences to unwanted behaviors

·         Think in terms of the “social learning model” – what are the other groups learning by your action/intervention with the group you are working with?

·         Use the principle – activity is a positive consequence, inactivity is a negative consequence.  Reward with more work.  Students should never be penalized with more or different work!  Work should be associated with learning and growth.

·         If a group is having trouble working together, keep the locus of choice on students, and provide interventions that provide choices and consequences. All the while keep your intervention anger free and your attention on the groups that are on task.

·         Intervention 1 – What is the problem? (clarify any misunderstanding)

·         Intervention 2 – How are you going to solve your problem? (when I come back what will I be seeing from this group)

·         Intervention 3 – Given a clear understanding of the task and a second opportunity to get it together, the behavior is a result of choice, so at this point it might be appropriate to withdraw the students opportunity to take part in the activity.

·         Intervention 4 – (optional) members write how they are going to solve their problem for the next time, and/or another chance after a few minutes.


3. Debrief the Process after the Activity

·         This time will create or reinforce your concept of “a good group member” and be motivational to students at all ability levels. It is well worth the time investment.

·         Ask your students for examples of other students in their group they observed doing a good job of those things in your “good group member” concept (e.g., things that you consider important to making a successful group such as positive attitude, consistently making an effort, being cooperative, doing their role, working through conflict, working through a problem, or whatever you think makes a group learn, succeed at the task, and function well).  Ask for one specific area at a time, and encourage students to give specific examples of what they saw that was so valuable.

·         This exercise provides students opportunity to compliment one another which makes both complimenter and complimented feel good, and builds community in the class.

·         It provides for groups to hear how other groups functioned  (i.e., better, worse, different approach), so that they can hear very specific behaviors that will help them in their efforts in the future.


In-Class Group Activity


In groups of 3-5, develop a cooperative activity for a grade level and subject(s) of your choice, and later share your creation with the class.


1.        Brainstorm some good activities that would fit well into a cooperative structure, them select one that you want to use to construct an activity around.


2.       Decide on the structure of the activity.

·         Process and Goal?

·         Roles?

·         Incentives?

·         Assessment?


3.       How are you going to communicate your expectations to your students for how to function in a cooperative group?


4.       What do you plan to do if there are groups that are not on task or in conflict? What if it is . . .

·         One student in the group that is the problem?

·         A whole group that is mired in conflict?


Group Assessment Options Chart:



Individual Accountability

Group Accountability


No Formal Assessment

Fine, as long as the task is inherently engaging and you want to promote internal LOC. May not provide enough incentive.


Formal Self- Assessment

Good for having the students reflect on their process effort.  Problematic when trying to promote accountability.


Process Assessment

Helps motivate the student to put forth full effort and be cooperative. Does not penalize students for other’s lack of effort


Helps motivate the group to work through problems, collaborate and use the prescribed process format.


Product Assessment

Rewards students for their personal contribution and does not penalize them for others lack of quality. Does not readily promote cooperation skills.

Helps motivate students to create a quality outcome, but may lack the ability to reward effort and desired process along the way.



Learning Stations or Centers

Learning stations are a good way to organize time in the classroom. Learning stations provide the needed change in a routine while moving students around in an orderly fashion. They can also maximize the use of limited equipment or other resources. If you have only one computer in your room, make it one of the learning stations. Both cooperative learning groups and learning stations provide hands-on learning experiences, require that students practice essential knowledge and skills, free you up to observe and assess learning, and are more likely to meet the needs of individual students.

To use learning stations, divide the class into learning teams and rotate the teams through a series of learning stations that require the teams to perform a key task related to the topic under study at each learning station. Here is a sample time line:

15 minutes  

Introduction of the lesson and instructions for using learning stations

15 minutes  

Station 1

15 minutes  

Station 2

15 minutes  

Station 3

15 minutes  

Station 4

15 minutes  

Review and refinement of the learning by each group

This time line assumes that the next class period will deal with a review to ensure that students have understood the material.

The keys to successful learning centers/stations are 1) meaningful activities and 2) good directions.  It may be helpful to put the directions on a sheet of paper and/or a poster board.  Model at each station before letting the students do the task independently.  Recall from our earlier discussions about what makes work meaningful (i.e., synthesis, problem solving, feedback, success at a relavent task, collaborative effort toward a goal). If your stations are not meaningful, why are you having the students do them? Also, consider the motivational questions. Why are students working at each station and how are they getting feedback about the quality of their effort? Consider a process assessment or a self assessment of what is accomplished each day.

Try this fun way to use learning stations. Assign groups a particular topic that you would like them to "master." Once groups have a thorough understanding of their topic, have them design learning stations for their classmates and conduct the review session. You could assign one group a topic per month and use learning stations creatively throughout the year.