Effective Use of Cooperative Learning by Jjljyyz


               AN OVERVIEW

                                                  By Tracy J. White
                  For Teachers as Consumers of Research, Ed. 601-01
                                                  Pacific University
                                                       July16, 2004
       Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls
       down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him
       up! . . . Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three
       strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastics 4:9-12, NIV)

       If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of
       values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up
       conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated
       learning. (Carl Rogers.)


       “There are three basic ways students can interact with each other as they learn. They can

compete to see who is „best,‟ they can work individualistically toward a goal without paying

attention to other students, or they can work cooperatively with a vested interest in each other’s

learning as well as their own [italics added]” (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994,

Introduction section, para. 2).

       Cooperative learning has been described as “one of the most widespread and fruitful areas

of theory, research, and practice in education” (D. W. Johnson, R. T. Johnson & Stanne, 2000,

Abstract section, para 1. As of 1999, there have been more than 375 studies regarding

cooperative learning (Gentilucci, 2004). Much of the research concludes that this style of

learning is equal to and often preferable to traditional, individualistic learning. (Gentilluci; D.

W. Johnson et al.) Cited benefits include gains in academic achievement, self-esteem,

interpersonal relations, attitude toward school and other tangible and intangible rewards (D. W.

Johnson et al.; Lampe, Rooze and Tallent-Tunnels, 1996; Vaughan, 2002).

       There is some reason to doubt these findings, however. In a recent work, Gentilluci

(2004) found that a majority of surveyed sixth graders thought their teachers overused

cooperative learning. This perceived overuse resulted in feelings of discouragement, frustration,

and boredom (Gentilluci). (The author of this paper admits sharing these feelings throughout

her personal experience.) Other studies have questioned the extent of improvement gained

through cooperative groups (Gentilluci; Lampe et al., 1996).

       These seemingly conflicting results were the inspiration for this paper. The preliminary

research question was whether cooperative learning is or is not effective. As research

proceeded, it became apparent that this was too broad a question. Rather, the more useful

question is whether there is an effective way to conduct cooperative learning.

       This paper seeks to set forth the general principles found in the literature regarding

effective cooperative learning. The unansweredhttp://www.co-operation.org/ question arises as

to whether the conflict regarding the value of cooperative learning may arise from data taken

from group learning situations that do not incorporate the principles for effectiveness. Further

research on this issue would be valuable.


       The leaders in exploring what does and does not constitute an effective cooperative

learning group are Roger T. and David W. Johnson, brothers and professors at the University of

Minnesota. Professors Johnson are directors of the Cooperative Learning Center, part of the

University‟s College of Education.1 Other literature discussing the principles of effective

cooperative learning appear to reiterate some or all of the Johnsons‟ themes (see, e.g., Joyce,

1999; Leikin & Zaslavsky, 1999; Whicker, Bol & Nunnery, 1997).

       “Contrary to common belief, forming groups in the classroom is not sufficient to create a

genuine cooperative-learning setting” (Leikin & Zaslavsky, 1999, What is Cooperative Learning?

           Articles and other information can be found at their website at
section, para 2). Effective cooperative learning groups require goals and procedures for

avoiding the creation of either individualistic groups or “pseudo” groups (D. W. Johnson & R. T.

Johnson, 1996). These groups “are characterized by social loafing, free riding, hostility among

members, sabotage of each other‟s work and a variety of dysfunctional behavior patterns” (D.

W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996, Seven Principles of Assessment and Reporting section,

para. 3).

        Traditional learning groups are often structured so the students talk together, but complete

little joint work and are evaluated individually.       (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).

“The result is that the sum of the whole is more than the potential of some of the members, but

harder working and more conscientious students would achieve more if they worked alone.”

(D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996, Knowing What Type of Group is Being Used section,

para. 3).

        Even less effective are pseudo groups, which result when students are forced to work

together, but are evaluated competitively. (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996, section 4).

The members of these groups “see each other as rivals who must be defeated. Thus, they block

each other‟s learning, hide information, mislead, and distrust one another” (D. W. Johnson & R.

T. Johnson, 1996, Knowing What Type of Group is Being Used section, para. 2). The result is

worse than if each worked alone (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).


        A true cooperative learning group is designed to avoid these problems and create a

harmonious environment which will advance the interests of everyone in the group. Some of the


requisites for this ideal are:

        A.      Positive Interdependence

        It must be necessary for all group members to work together to achieve the goal (D. W.

Johnson & & R. T. Johnson, 1994, 1998). This element can be fostered in many ways. Some

examples include: 1) group rewards if each group member succeeds on individual testing, 2)

division of resources for project completion, 3) division of tasks, and 4) assignment of distinct

but complementary roles, e.g., reader, recorder, checker of understanding, encourager, and

elaborator of knowledge (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994, 1998).

        This element is extremely important to establishing a true cooperative group. Without

the need for each member‟s full participation, there is the very real risk of that some members

will let others do most of the work. For example, a study of cooperative learning in

mathematics noted that in a learning structure without group goals or individual accountability

(see below) “high achievers dominated the work and decision making, while low achievers

remained generally passive” (Whicker et al., 1997, Author Abstract section, para. 8).

        This problem is recognized frequently in the literature, with the nonparticipating group

member referred to as a “free-rider” (see, e.g., D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994; Joyce,

1999). William Joyce, in an article entitled, “On the Free-Rider Problem in Cooperative

Learning” (1999), states, “The free-rider problem is perhaps the most important element and the

most difficult element of CL [cooperative learning]” (Abstract section, para. 3).

        Effective use of positive interdependence, as well as individual accountability (discussed

                below), reduces the likelihood of unequal and/or unfair participation in the

                learning experience. B.       Individual Accountability

       Individual accountability is necessary to assess each student‟s performance and preclude

“free-riders” (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994; Joyce, 1999). Cooperative learning should

not merely make the members stronger as a group; it should also make each member stronger

individually (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994). “Students learn it together and then

perform in alone” (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994, Individual Accountability/Personal

Responsibility section, para. 4).

       Achieving this goal requires the teacher to actively and frequently assess how each

student is contributing to the group and attaining individual goals. Some ways to do this

include: 1) giving individual tests, 2) randomly requiring students to present their group‟s work

to the teacher or classmates, and 3) observing groups and noting member contributions (D. W.

Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994). As discussed further below regarding assessment, cooperative

learning is not a passive process for the teacher, but requires active planning, participation,

management and assessment (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996). This is one of the key

factors that distinguish true cooperative learning from ordinary group work frequently seen in


       C.      Face-to-Face Promotive Interaction

       This refers to the process by which group members help, support and praise each other‟s

efforts to learn (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994). This could include: a) explaining how

to solve problems, b) discussing the concepts being learned, and c) connecting present with past

learning (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1998). To maximize such interaction, groups should

be small, no more than two or four.      (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1998).

       D.      Use of Teamwork Skills

         Crucial to the entire idea of cooperative learning is the principle that the group must work

effectively as a team. Before embarking on a cooperative learning experience, as well as

throughout the process, the teacher must instruct the students in leadership, decision-making,

trust-building, communication, and conflict management skills (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson,


         E.     Group Processing

         The final element appears less essential to cooperative learning, though no doubt a

valuable aid. Johnson and Johnson urge the use of group processing--i.e., reflection on how

well the groups are functioning--at both the group and class level (D. W. Johnson & R. T.

Johnson, 1994, 1998). According to the Johnsons, such processing 1) enhances working

relationships, 2) helps students to learn cooperative skills, 3) ensures feedback, 4) ensures

“metacognitive” thinking, and 5) allows for celebration and positive reinforcement (D. W.

Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994, Group Processing section, para. 3). An example of how this

may be done is to invite consideration of three things the group did well today, and one thing that

could be improved (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1994, Group Processing section, para. 3).


         It is apparent from a review of the elements of a successful cooperative learning group

that such a group is unlikely to arise without the committed and extremely active involvement of

the instructor. The teacher must set up the groups, the projects, the group and individual goals

and rewards, the ongoing assessment procedures, the teamwork training and the group processing

sessions in such a manner as to maximize the benefits of cooperative learning.

         Johnson and Johnson have developed a detailed set of principles, guidelines and

suggestions for teachers to accomplish this herculean task (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson,

1996). Two of these principles are especially worthy of note.

       A.      Detailed Outcome and Assessment Planning

       First, the teacher must make a detailed outcome and assessment plan for both the groups

and the individual students (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996). In making this plan, the

teacher should consider the different types of outcomes that may be achieved through the

cooperative learning process. These include a) individual achievement, such as subject matter

knowledge; b) group performance, such as science experiments or dramatic productions; c)

student relationships, including the inclusion of students with disability or different backgrounds;

and d) psychological health, which may include social skills, conflict management, self-esteem,

and attitude toward school (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).

       B.      Consideration of Students with Special Needs

       Second, teachers must consider whether any of their students have special needs that

should be addressed in formulating the cooperative learning scenario (D. W. Johnson & R. T.

Johnson, 1996). Although any student may have special issues, three groups to be especially

aware of are students with disabilities, students with academic gifts, and students from minority

groups (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).

               1.      Students with Disabilities

       The literature suggests students with disabilities should be included in groups as much as

possible (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996; Sapon-Shevin, Ayres & Duncan, 1994 ). This

promotes the welfare of the children with special needs while teaching the class fundamental life

principles such as community, diversity, and helpfulness (Sapon-Shevin et al., 1994). There is

also evidence that low-achieving students learn more in groups than alone, especially when they

are actively included in the group (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).

       There may, however, be the need to tailor the learning goals, responsibilities, and

assessment standards for the individual (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).

               2.      Gifted Students

       The research is mixed on the role gifted students should play in cooperative learning.

There is evidence gifted students sometimes prefer competitive or individual learning

(Feldhusen, Dai, & Clinkenbeard, 2000). Other research suggests they often perform better in

homogeneous groups of high-achievers rather than heterogeneous groups of mixed abilities

(Webb, Nemer & Zuniga, 2002). On the other hand, some research suggests they do just fine in

heterogeneous groups (D. W. Johnson & R. T. Johnson, 1996).

       Further research on this issue would be helpful. In the meanwhile, teachers should be

sensitive to the differing abilities and needs of students and strive to construct the learning

environment to maximize everyone‟s education. This may include, for example, allowing a

child who has a unique interest or ability for self-direction to work autonomously, while the rest

of the class engages in a cooperative activity (Feldhusen at al., 2000).

               3.      Minority Students

       Students from minority groups must, like everyone else, be considered as individuals.

They may have average abilities and working styles, they may have disabilities, or they may be

gifted. It is nonetheless helpful to be aware of the research regarding cooperative learning and

minority group members. That research seems to suggest that some cultures find cooperative

work especially beneficial. This includes Hispanic students and students “of color” (Lampe et

al., 1996; Vaughan, 2002).


       This paper shows the researching indicating that cooperative learning can be effective if

done correctly. Establishing an effective cooperative learning experience requires a great deal of

active involvement by the teacher. It is not simply a matter of assigning people to work in

groups. Rather, questions such as how to ensure positive interdependence and individual

accountability, how to teach teamwork skills, how to assess both individuals and groups, how to

avoid unproductive group environments, and how to tailor instruction to individuals with

differing needs must all be addressed.

       The author suspects these issues are not often, or even usually, addressed in classrooms in

which the teacher believes cooperative learning is in process. As a result, research regarding

so-called cooperative learning may be contaminated by the failure to use effective processes.

For example, a recent article entitled “Cooperative learning: listening to how children work at

school,” purports to provide insights into how students work within cooperative groups (Mueller

& Fleming, 2001). The article notes, but does not focus on the fact that most of the groups

studied involved some of the members taking on the bulk of the work, sometimes to their clear

feelings of frustration. The scenario described clearly did not require interdependence and

individual accountability, nor did the teacher monitor the situation effectively to encourage


       Further research is thus needed into the value of cooperative learning groups that meet the

criteria for effectiveness, absent data from ineffective groups. Additional research is also

needed in how to ensure a high-quality education to gifted students.

       This research has actually persuaded the author to reconsider the value of cooperative

learning and consider using it in the classroom. Preparing this report was thus useful not only an

academic exercise in research, but also as an education regarding a potentially useful tool for



       Feldhusen, J. F., Dai, D. Y., & Clinkenbeard, P.R. (2000). Dimensions of competitive

and cooperative learning among gifted learners [Electronic version]. Journal for the Education

of the Gifted, 23, 328-342.

       Gentilucci, J. L. (2004). Improving school learning: The student perspective

[Electronic version]. The Educational Forum, 68, 133-143.

       Johnson, D.W. & R.T. (1994). An overview of cooperative learning. Retrieved July 14,

2004, from http://www.co-operation.org/pages/overviewpapr.html. Originally published in J.

Thousand, A. Villa & A. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and Collaborative Learning.   Baltimore:

Brookes Press.

       Johnson, D.W. & R.T. (1996). The role of cooperative learning in assessing and

communicating student learning [Electronic version]. Yearbook (Association for Supervision

and Curriculum), 1996, 25-46.

       Johnson, D.W. & R.T. (1998). Maximizing instruction through cooperative learning

[Electronic version]. ASEE Prism, 7, 24-29.

       Johnson, D.W, Johnson, R.T., & Stanne, M.B. (2000). Cooperative learning methods: A

Meta Analysis. Retrieved July 14, 2004, from


       Joyce, W. B. (1999). On the free-rider problem in cooperative learning [Electronic

version]. Journal of Education for Business, 74, 271-274.

       Lampe, J.R., Rooze, G.E., Tallent-Runnels, M.M. (1996). Effects of cooperative

learning among Hispanic students in elementary social studies [Electronic version]. The Journal

of Educational Research, 89, 187-191.

       Leizin, R, Zaslavsky, O. (1999). Cooperative learning in mathematics [Electronic

version]. Mathematics Teacher, 92, 240-246.

       Mueller, A., Fleming, T. (2001). Cooperative learning: listening to how children work at

school [Electronic version]. The Journal of Educational Research, 94, 259-265.

       Sapon-Shevin, M., Ayres, B.J., & Duncan, J. (1994). Cooperative learning and

inclusion. Retrieved July 14, 2004, from http://www.co-operation.org/pages/overviewpapr.html.

Originally published in J. Thousand, A. Villa & A. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and Collaborative

Learning.   Baltimore: Brookes Press.

       Vaughan, W. (2002). Effects of cooperative learning on achievement and attitude among

students of color [Electronic version]. The Journal of Educational Research, 95, 359-364.

       Webb, N.M., Nemer, K.M., Zuniga, S. Short circuits or superconductors? Effects of

group composition on high-achieving students‟ science assessment performance [Electronic

version]. American Educational Research Journal, 39, 943-989.

       Whicker, K.M., Bol L., Nunnery, J.A. (1997). Cooperative learning in the secondary

mathematics classroom [Electronic version]. The Journal of Educational Research, 91, 42-48.


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