Once upon a time, two teachers went together to an evening workshop on effective teaching strategies. The speaker was dynamic, her ideas were interesting, and everyone in the large audience enjoyed the speech. Afterwards, the two teachers drove back to the town where they lived. The driver talked excitedly with her friend about all the wonderful ideas they’d heard, raised questions about how to put them into practice, and related them to things she’d read, heard, and experienced before.
After an hour’s drive, however, the driver realized that her friend had been asleep for the whole return trip.
Now here’s my question: who learned the most from the speech? Both the driver and her friend were equally excited by the speech and paid equal attention to it. Yet no one would doubt that the driver learned much more, because after the lecture, she talked all about it, thinking her friend was awake.
Every teacher knows how much they learn about any topic by teaching it, or discussing it with others. Imagine how much more the driver and her friend would have learned from the lecture if they had both been participating fully, sharing ideas, perceptions, agreements, disagreements, and new ideas.
So far, this is all obvious, right? Everyone knows that people learn when they are engaged, when they have opportunities to discuss with others, explain to others, ask questions of others, and receive explanations.
Yet in traditionally organized classes, learning does not often happen like this. Teachers teach, students listen, and if genuine discussion takes place at all, it is between the teacher and a small minority of students who always raise their hands and ask good questions. Even in the most exciting and interactive of classes, many students, often a majority, say little or nothing. They may give an answer if called upon, but “giving an answer” is not at all the same as engagement. Even in classes that are organized in groups and encourage group interaction, some students do most of the participating, while others just watch, at best. Evidence from research, especially studies by Noreen Webb (2008), find that the students who learn the most in group settings are those who give full explanations to others. These are the drivers, returning to my opening story. Those who receive a lot of explanations also learn. Who learns least? Those who neither explain nor receive explanations.
For achievement outcomes, it is not enough to put students into groups and let them talk. Research finds that cooperative learning works best when there are group goals and individual accountability. That is, groups can earn recognition or small privileges (e.g., lining up first for recess) if the average of each team member’s score meets a high standard. The purpose of group goals and individual accountability is to incentivize team members to help and encourage each other to excel, and to avoid having, for example, one student do all the work while the others watch (Chapman, 2001). Students can be silent in groups, as they can be in class, but this is less likely if they are working with others toward a common goal that they can achieve only if all team members succeed.
The effectiveness of cooperative learning for enhancing achievement has been known for a long time (see Rohrbeck et al., 2003; Roseth et al., 2008; Slavin, 1995, 2014). Forms of cooperative learning are frequently seen in elementary and secondary schools, but they are far from standard practice. Forms of cooperative learning that use group goals and individual accountability are even more rare.
There are many examples of programs that incorporate cooperative learning and meet the ESSA Strong or Moderate standards in reading, math, SEL, and attendance. You can see descriptions of the programs by visiting www.evidenceforessa.org and clicking on the cooperative learning filter. As you can see, it is remarkable how many of the programs identified as effective for improving student achievement by the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA make use of well-structured cooperative learning, usually with students working in teams or groups of 4-5 students, mixed in past performance. In fact, in reading and mathematics, only one-to-one or small-group tutoring are more effective than approaches that make extensive use of cooperative learning.
There are many successful approaches to cooperative learning adapted for different subjects, specific objectives, and age levels (see Slavin, 1995). There is no magic to cooperative learning; outcomes depend on use of proven strategies and high-quality implementation. The successful forms of cooperative learning provide at least a good start for educators seeking ways to make school engaging, exciting, social, and effective for learning. Students not only learn from cooperation in small groups, but they love to do so. They are typically eager to work with their classmates. Why shouldn’t we routinely give them this opportunity?
Chapman, E. (2001, April). More on moderations in cooperative learning outcomes. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.
Rohrbeck, C. A., Ginsburg-Block, M. D., Fantuzzo, J. W., & Miller, T. R. (2003). Peer-assisted learning interventions with elementary school students: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 240–257.
Roseth, C., Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (2008). Promoting early adolescents’ achievement and peer relationships: The effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 223–246.
Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Slavin, R. E. (2014). Make cooperative learning powerful: Five essential strategies to make cooperative learning effective. Educational Leadership, 72 (2), 22-26.
Webb, N. M. (2008). Learning in small groups. In T. L. Good (Ed.), 21st century learning (Vol. 1, pp. 203–211). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
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