Making Cooperative Learning Work for Teaching and Learning, pp. 2 of 9

When designing the cooperative learning tasks, it is important for teachers to build in the cooperative learning elements in them. For positive interdependence, the following questions can be asked: “How can I ensure active student participation?”, “What are the common group goals?”, “What task and/or process roles will there be for group members to work together?”, “Will I use group rewards?”, “Will my students need to share the resources?” and “How can I help my students see the benefits of cooperation?” (Abrami et al, 1995; ASCD, 1990) For individual accountability, questions which can be asked include: “How can I avoid free riders and domineering students?”, “How can I ensure that every student learns?”, “Do I use individual quiz or homework or random selection of one group member for grading?” and “How do I encourage my students to assist other members to learn and contribute their share of work?” (Abrami et al, 1995; ASCD, 1990) For social skills, questions which can be asked are: “How can I select appropriate social skills for student development?”, “How will I develop my students’ awareness of these skills?” and “What behaviours do I expect to see my students engage in during group work?’’ (Abrami et al, 1995; ASCD, 1990) In addition, defining the criteria for successful task completion during planning is important for students to learn about self-evaluation of their learning. Ensuring that groups have adequate resources as well as time for grouping, giving of instructions, carrying out task and group processing are also crucial.

Organising Cooperative Learning Lessons

Teachers also need to be thoughtful about group organization to ensure student success in academic studies and the development of social skills. The aspects of organizational decisions to consider are group composition, group size, length of group life, room arrangement and role allocation. 

a) Group Composition

It is best to have teacher-selected groups initially until students are capable of collaboration with one another. The aim is to form heterogeneous groups in terms of ability, ethnicity, gender, interest or learning style. One way is to have random assignment which can be done by giving students pieces of paper containing the names of countries or capitals and getting them to look for the correct match of  countries or capitals and pair up. The other way is through stratified random assignment whereby students are banded according to their abilities and selected in such a way so that each group will have a mix of high, average and low ability students (Kagan, 1994).

b) Group Size

How big the group should be depends on students’ age and experience with group work and the nature of the task - whether it is a formal or an informal cooperative learning group or a cooperative base group task (Chambers, Patten, Schaeff & Mau, 1996; Jacobs, Gan & Ball, 1995). Generally, for students in the lower primary, it is best to start them off in pair work because of their limited interpersonal skills. Once they have gained the necessary experience of interacting with one another and have developed the skills and maturity to handle group dynamics, they can proceed to bigger groups at higher grade levels. Generally, the smaller the group, the more opportunity there is for all members to talk and contribute as none will be left out and decision-making can be hastened. Large groups which are more suitable for older students are advantageous because more hands and heads make light work and more members can contribute a wider range of ideas, expertise or skills and knowledge to the group work. Any group that is bigger than six students can be problematic as there is a greater likelihood of some students being free riders and creating work problems. The best is to have four students to a group as they can work in pairs first before interacting with one another in foursome (Kagan, 1994).

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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