Tuesday, April 14th, 2009...8:05 am

Five Surefire Ways to Engage Students, Part 3: Cooperative Learning

Jump to Comments

This month, we will look deeper into the third Way to improve student performance in our series, Five Surefire Ways to Improve Student Performance.

Cooperative Learning models have been used at all educational levels, but are also applicable in the fields of business, law and medicine and in all kinds of workplaces.  By using cooperative learning effectively, teachers are not only helping to engage students in their own learning, they are also setting them up to be good employees who work together to solve workplace problems.

Cooperative Learning requires that students work together to accomplish a task or to produce a product in a particular way.  Research shows that when students work in cooperative groups, there is an increase in student achievement, social and emotional skills, confidence and self-esteem and responsibility (Johnson, Johnson and Stenne, 2000).


Cooperative Groups should be used when social and emotional skills need to be practiced, when there is a limited amount of materials or when a task has to be accomplished.  As an example, below you will see some ideas for conducting a field trip/study.  Instead of leading students along and letting them passively listen to the speaker, make them active detectives in search of important information that interests them individually.  Students will focus on the information they gather, but at the end, you will require them to put all this together in a comprehensive presentation so that the BIG picture is seen and students will learn from each other’s groups.  You may have teams set up for finding information, but change the teams for presentation and putting the information together.

There are TWO very important steps to creating cooperative learning teams that can accomplish their learning tasks.  First, the teams need to be set up to succeed.  Have you ever been ‘assigned’ to work (as an adult) in a team that just couldn’t accomplish the tasks at hand?  You had good intentions, you met, you even took notes, but you couldn’t work well as a team.  Have you ever gone back to that time to figure out just WHY it didn’t work?  Let’s work on some ways to set up your teams so that they CAN cooperate and so they CAN learn at high and deep levels.

Secondly, the teams need to have an established and real purpose.  Cooperative Learning teams need to investigate information that is focused on the specific subject at hand.  This is not to say that students cannot go beyond that realm, but you, as the teacher need to set the bar for what they need to find out and what they need to learn (examples in the questions on the field study example below).

Last month we discussed the use of Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles.  We know from looking at these strategies and theories that we don’t all learn in the same way.  By the same token, we don’t all ‘reason’ in the same ways.  But if we group ourselves to ‘like minded’ individuals (not meaning we all agree on the same things, but that we all process information in the same way) we won’t end up with a very diverse learning outcome, will we?

Let’s use Multiple Intelligences (for example) to put our learning teams together.  We will use 6th Grade Science as an example of how I might put together my cooperative learning team.  We are about to visit our local water treatment plant to learn how water is processed and what kinds of contaminants are found in our fresh water sources.

Notice below how I would group students so that they can work together naturally.  They are being asked questions that would naturally interest them and at the same time, the questions act as the general ‘guide’ for the learning.


6th Grade Science
Unit:  Population Dynamics

Culminating Activity:   A visit and tour of the Franklin Water Treatment Plant in Charlotte, NC.

Students will be placed into teams as we visit the Franklin Water Treatment Plant in Charlotte.  Our aim is to see how the water that we drink is processed and deemed ‘safe.’  

From Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, we will put the teams together based on multiple intelligences domains, allowing the class to be grouped according to learning preferences.  The groups will all come back from the field trip and create a project.

Team 1: Logical Mathematical, Musical, Naturalist  (Analytic)

This group, by nature, is driven to analyze their learning or analysis of knowledge.  The mission of this group is to get the facts or to ask the WHAT.  They will gather this type of information:

  • How much water is processed each day?
  • How many pounds or units of chemicals are used to clean the water?
  • How much does it have to rain to increase the water levels in the lake that feed the treatment plant?
  • What are the kinds of pollutants or elements that are eliminated from the water?
  • How many people are served from this treatment plant?
  • The gathered data and materials can be presented on a poster board, on a power point or other presentation method that builds a case, using data for water conservation and preservation.

Team 2: Linguistic, Interpersonal, Kinesthetic (Interactive)

This group is probably the loudest group of the three.  These students express themselves through their intelligences to explore their learning.  They may talk, jump, run and even argue with each other (productive debate).

The mission of this group is to ask questions that go beyond finding simple answers.  This group may have a water official sit down for an interview on camera.  They edit the material as a program on water quality focused on their selected topic, such as WATER SAFETY or call their program “What are You Really Drinking?”  They can ask questions such as:

  • Why is there a need to put chemicals in the water to make it safe?
  • What kinds of pollutants are in the water?
  • Where do the pollutants come from?
  • How much does it cost to get rid of the pollutants?  Or how much does it cost to make our water safe?
  • Who is the biggest polluter?

Team 3: Visual, Existential, Intrapersonal, Spatial  (Introspective)

This group is more emotional than the other groups in that their emotions tend to drive what they want to learn. The mission of this group is to ask questions to find out WHY. This group may:

  • Draw flow charts that represent where the water comes from (rain), how it goes into lawns that are fertilized then runs into the lake where it is drawn into the water treatment plant. 
  • Create a project that represents WHY people pollute unknowingly.  The project allows the group to express their feelings and their position on protecting the environment and our precious water supply.  
  • Create a drawing or model that represents how much water from the processing plant goes into homes only to be used for irrigation.  Why do people care about beautiful lawns and is it at the risk of our water supply?

From this activity and field trip, students are allowed to express their learning in a real-world situation.  They transfer what they learned about the environment, pollution, laws and regulations, etc. to something that affect their own lives.  They apply the knowledge to this new situation.


Another way to group students for cooperative learning teams is to use learning styles.  As the teacher, you know your students and you know how they prefer to learn, probably more than they do.   Using learning styles as a guide for forming cooperative groups will give you a completely different outcome.  This technique is best used to accomplish a finished task or problem that is diverse in nature.  

In putting these groups together, DIVERSITY is the key.  From the Learning Styles Chart from last time, look at the different types of personalities, such as the NUMBER 2 person. This student is very ‘task’ oriented; they are driven to get things done.  They will be the ‘task master’ of the group, but you don’t want more than one of these in the group or all they will do is ‘FINISH.’  Perhaps not the outcome you want.  You’ll need a person who will lead the ‘discussion’ about what needs to be done and a person who sees the Big Picture—review the chart below.

multiple intelligences
From this chart, you can also see where the ‘categories’ of Multiple Intelligences’ might fit in as well, such as an auditory person, tactile, kinesthetic, and visual.  For this type COOPERATIVE LEARNING exercise, we are working on a learning exercise that requires a diverse way of thinking.
As our example, we will discuss JIGSAW.  I’ll bet many teachers use the JIGSAW technique and never thought of it as cooperative learning.  Perhaps in our 6th Grade Science lesson we are learning about different types of biomes in the United States and we have found a great video that runs about 30 minutes.  Some educators might find it useful to hit play and let the students sit back and see the different habitats.  But if we don’t develop clear instructional goals, we don’t know what the student is taking in and we are not setting any expectations for learning.
  1. The first step to implementing COOPERATIVE LEARNING is to Develop Clear Instructional Goals in the know, understand and to do format.  What is it that we want students to learn?  Remember, clarity is a very important need of learners.
  2. Consider and plan the number in and composition of groups.  Look at the task you are asking students to accomplish and determine what kinds of skills are needed.  Do we need diverse skills?  Are we trying to solve emotional and social skills problems, what is our learning task?   Can we use multiple intelligences, can we use learning styles?  How do we consider those?  Remind students of their duty to support each other in their groups, especially if they are assigned a difficult task.  Identify and praise supportive behaviors.  Specify those behaviors to the students and model how group members speak to each other in support.
  3. Make sure that the cooperative activity has all the key elements of cooperative learning.
                -Face to face communication for positive interaction
                -Materials and roles that support interdependence
                -Necessary social skills
                -Positive goal interdependence
                -Individual accountability
Monitor and provide feedback during group work.  Ask each group to summarize their outcomes and process. Evaluate the work from an established and clear list of criteria, perhaps a rubric that defines the characteristics of an excellent outcome and the characteristics of an undesirable outcome (examples and non-examples).  Evaluate the group’s processes. 
Did you know that the Jigsaw method of cooperative learning was created in Texas in the 1970s to help students and teachers successfully navigate newly desegregated schools?   Elliot Aronson developed the technique by assigning students to teams and gave each team ONE piece of information.  In order to reach the lesson’s objectives, students were forced to fit their individual pieces together.  The puzzle could not be solved unless each team member shared their piece of information.  Since the inception of the Jigsaw, it has been refined and developed to serve a broader audience of students.
A jigsaw divides the class up into two different kinds of groups, a learning group and an expert group.  The expert groups read all and student the same material, they become expert on the topic and prepare an outline or product (PowerPoint, graphic, etc.) that summarizes the critical information they have learned.  The group decides what information needs to be included and shared.
Once the expert group has completed their study, each expert teaches his or her topic to the learning group.  This can be done simultaneously in that while the expert group is becoming EXPERT in Population Dynamics, for instance, the learning group might actually be an EXPERT Group in Biomes.  Expert Student Groups then prepare and share information with the learning groups.
In the example of the video, the teacher might create cooperative learning teams that are assigned to gather information ONLY about their assigned time zone.  This would require students to have some prior knowledge of time zones so that when that part of the video comes up, it would be apparent to them.  Students would be required to take notes on the section or time zones assigned and have some idea of what part of the country that time zone encompasses.
Also, let’s think back to the FIRST Surefire Way to Improve Student Performance, brain-based learning.  How can we incorporate brain-based learning into this activity?  Perhaps we can create or show ‘patterns’ to the learning.    What if we had students to create a map of the USA and segment the parts of the country by time zones?  Students would see the time zones from the west coast to the east and from the north and to the south.  Point out patterns, let them see the patterns. 
Remember, we need to give students a clear instructional goal.  We are asking them to ‘take notes on’ their part or their time zone.  Specifically, WHAT do we want the student to do?  Is the goal to ‘take notes?”  If so, what is the measurable and observable behavior to that?  
We need to set instructional goals by looking at our content standards and matching them up.  Perhaps we want them to list at least X number of plants, animals or whatever we need for them to learn and have them start thinking about what they will be doing with this information.  Tell students what you want them to learn, your expectations for their learning and how they will be required to ‘prove’ or display their learning to you.
One of the MOST IMPORTANT aspects of cooperative learning is to allow student processing time.  The Expert groups need time to think through the information and to make sense of the information they just took in.  Give these groups guiding questions to help them to make connections between what they already knew and their new information.  Allow students to complete these guiding questions individually before discussing as a group.
For more information about JIGSAW cooperative learning visit this website:  www.jigsaw.org/index.html
For more information about Cooperative Learning:
Aronson, E., Blaney, N., Stephan, C., Sikes, J., Snapes, M. (1978)  The Jigsaw Classroom. Beverly Hills, CA:  Sage Publications.

Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. & Stenne, M. (2000). Cooperative Learning Methods:  A Meta Analysis.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota.

Leave a Reply