Cooperative Learning

Engaging students in the learning process is the job of the teacher. The problem is knowing what methods work best to ensure your students engage with the material. There are multiple ways to engage students in learning. In this chapter, we will look at grouping strategies that can be used to elicit the type of engagement from students that you desire.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Describe the benefits of cooperative learning.
  • Explain how to design, implement, and assess cooperative learning experiences.
  • Use various grouping strategies such as:
    • Think-Pair-Share
    • Reciprocal Learning
    • Jigsaw

Cooperative Learning*

Cooperative learning is students working together to “attain group goals that cannot be obtained by working alone or competitively” (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1986). The main purpose of cooperative learning is to actively involve students in the learning process. It is a process that requires knowledge to be discovered by students and transformed into concepts to which the students can relate. Learning takes place through dialog among students in a social setting. Each team member is responsible for learning the material and also for helping the other members of the team learn. Dean et al. (2012) assert that positive interdependence and individual accountability are critical components of cooperative learning. Students must realize their effort is necessary for the group to be successful and that each individual will be held accountable for their contributions and meeting the learning goals.


Cooperative learning is a methodology that employs a variety of learning activities to improve students’ understanding of a subject by using a structured approach that involves a series of steps, requiring students to create, analyze, and apply concepts (Kagan, 1990). Cooperative learning utilizes the ideas of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Kohlberg in that both the individual and the social setting are active dynamics in the learning process as students attempt to imitate real-life learning. By combining teamwork and individual accountability, students work toward acquiring both knowledge and social skills. It is a teaching strategy that allows students to work in small groups with individuals of various talents, abilities, and backgrounds to accomplish a common goal. As a result, they frame new concepts by basing their conclusions on prior knowledge. This process results in a deeper understanding of the material and more potential to retain the material.


After deciding to implement cooperative learning (CL), the biggest challenge will be planning and preparing the classroom and students for CL. According to Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991), there are several tasks that an instructor must accomplish before implementing cooperative learning in the classroom. This section will detail those responsibilities.

Tips from the Pros: Visibly Random Groups

Check out Jon Orr’s blog post Visibly Random Groups where he talks about using cards to assign students to random groups of three. He has generously provided a download option if you want to print and use his cards in your class.

Specify Instructional Objectives (academic and social) of CL. The instructor must explain why they are using CL, describe its benefits, and the expected results.

Determine Group Size and Assign Students to Groups. Group size can range from two to four students, depending on the CL task. These groups can be homogeneous or heterogeneous. Groups can be formed by putting students together who share common strengths, interests, etc., or they can be randomly assigned. Liljedhal (2014) argues that regular use of random groupings will decrease social barriers and the reliance on teachers for answers while increasing classroom engagement and the mobility of knowledge between students.

Arrange room. Instructors should optimize the space in their classrooms so that students/groups can interact and move about the room easily. It is essential that a group’s seats face one another.

Plan instructional materials to promote interdependence. The instructional methods and materials that an instructor chooses must allow each individual to contribute to the group’s success in a unique and meaningful way. Without these unique contributions, a group’s structure and cohesion will be put in jeopardy.

Assign group roles. There is some debate about whether or not the instructor should play a role in this decision. Whether or not an instructor chooses to assign roles within a group, they should ensure that each student has a distinct role. Also, the instructor should choose or assist the students in choosing roles that use their strengths and improve their areas of weakness. Instructors should also oversee that students do not choose the same role over and over again. Some of the roles that could be chosen or assigned include facilitator, recorder/reporter, checker (for understanding), summarizer, elaborator (on prior knowledge or discussion points), materials-runner, and wild card (does anything else that needs to be done). Sample role descriptions.

Assign task. When picking an assessment task (product to be produced), the instructor should choose one standard to address and match it to the learning approach. The cooperative learning group’s task should be interesting, challenging, and motivating. It should also be a performance-driven and authentic task. The instructor should clearly explain procedures for the task, provide structure (especially useful for inexperienced CL students), and set a specific time frame for each part and the whole task. Finally, the instructor should question the students to check for understanding of the task and its procedures.

Explain the criteria for success. The instructor should communicate the group-work skills that will be evaluated. A rubric could be created, possibly with the students’ assistance, to evaluate the group-work skills as well as the assessment task. The goals of your CL task will determine if you need a formal or informal evaluation tool.

Structure positive interdependence and accountability. Group size should be kept small so that each member participates and contributes uniquely to the group. Instructors should also monitor groups and individuals by asking questions of both. A group should be asked to collectively explain its results and individuals should be able to defend their own position as well as the group’s as a whole.

Specify desired behaviors. An essential part of cooperative learning’s success is teaching students how to work in a group. To accomplish this, the instructor can conduct mini-lessons on ways to respect others (i.e. praise, taking turns, and shared decision-making). Students also need to be trained in conflict resolution.

Without students’ complete understanding of the goals, objectives, and procedures, cooperative learning will not be a success.


After all the preparations, it is time to begin working. During the implementation phase of cooperative learning, the students play the most important role. Some of their tasks at this stage include:

  • working together;
  • listening to one another;
  • questioning one another;
  • keeping records of their work and progress;
  • producing the assessment task (product);
  • assuming personal responsibility/being involved in the group.

The instructor also has responsibilities during this stage as well. Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) list several roles that an instructor has during the implementation of cooperative learning.

Monitor behavior. During cooperative learning, the instructor should circulate throughout the classroom, visiting each group. This is a great time to integrate formative assessment strategies such as questioning.

Intervene if needed. While circulating, they should intervene if the instructor notices any group conflict or off-task behavior. Small-group conflict should be resolved as soon as possible, and students should be shown how to prevent problems in the future. The instructor might use a conflict resolution checklist to resolve the group’s conflict. This checklist includes items such as explaining the importance of listening to everyone in the group, defining responsibilities, valuing each person’s gifts, modeling excellence, and promoting humor. Having these listed on a handout for each group could prevent group discord and off-task behavior.

Assist with needs. While monitoring the groups’ work, the instructor should assist groups with their needs. This might involve pointing out additional resources and/or points-of-view, and it also includes helping the students reflect on the work they have completed and their progress.

Praise. Students need to know if they are completing the assignment in a satisfactory manner, especially if they are inexperienced at working in cooperative groups. For this reason, the instructor should let individual students and groups know when they do something right or well.


Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) give three jobs for the instructor to complete after the students have worked together to complete and submit the task.

Provide closure through summarization. The instructor should reconvene the entire group of students. At this point, the instructor can summarize the important points of the lesson/unit. Another suggestion is to have each group summarize their work and points that they think were important. This helps the instructor to know exactly in which knowledge level the groups are working.

Evaluate students’ learning. The instructor should use a rubric to grade/evaluate each group’s assessment task. They should also be evaluated on their group work using a rubric. After the instructor has completed the evaluations, it is important that they provide feedback to the students about their product and their group performance. Without this information, the students will not be able to improve their cooperative learning skills. Remember, the goals of your CL task will determine if you need a formal or informal evaluation tool. If you are using informal grouping strategies that require students to engage in brief tasks that are either not submitted for evaluation or are used for formative assessment, then your evaluation process may be less formal as well.

Reflect on what happened. Instructors should keep a record of what worked and why it worked each time they undertook a CL lesson or unit. The instructor should also adjust their lessons based on the reflection and feedback of the students. This will prevent the stagnation of a CL unit; it will grow and change with each group of students.

Cooperative Learning Strategies*

The following is a non-exhaustive list of CL strategies.

Think-Pair-Share. Students discuss briefly with a partner. Best practices.

Reciprocal Learning. Pairs coach one another through practice sessions.

3-review. The teacher gives teams 3 minutes to review/clarify what has been said.

Numbered heads. Group members are assigned a number. The group discusses as one, and then the instructor calls one number. The person with that number answers for the group.

Pinwheel Discussions. Variations in desk layouts can be used to promote discussion and support your expectations for active participation.

Concentric Circles (aka Speed Dating). Students sit facing each other in two concentric circles. The teacher poses a question for pairs of students to discuss. Partners switch as the teacher poses a new question.

Team-pair-solo. Students do the problem(s) first as a team, then in a pair, and finally, solo.

Jigsaw. Students form expert groups to learn about a specific concept, then return to teach the concept to their homegroup. All students are assessed on all content.

Structured problem-solving. Groups are given a problem to solve within a specified time. All members must agree and all must be able to explain the solution.

Chat Stations. Students have short discussions in groups as they move about the room.

For an accessible-friendly version of the information above, download the HyFlex Learning Activity How-To Guide [.docx]


Cooperative learning promotes social interactions; thus students benefit in a number of ways from the social perspective. By having the students explain their reasoning and conclusions, cooperative learning helps develop oral communication skills. Because of the social interaction among students, cooperative learning can be used to model the appropriate social behaviors necessary for employment situations. By following the appropriate structuring for cooperative learning, students are able to develop and practice skills that will be needed to function in society and the workplace. These skills include leadership, decision-making, trust building, communication, and conflict management.

Summarizing Key Understandings


Exercise: Use the self-evaluation tool below to assess your current efforts to establish a positive learning environment.

Establishing a Positive Learning Environment Component Yes No Working on It
When designing a lesson, I consider student groupings, location, and activity level.
I provide positive and corrective feedback while moving around the room.
80% of my students can tell the classroom expectations and rules for cooperative learning activities.

References & Attributions

Attribution: “Cooperative Learning,” “Background,” “Pre-Implementation,” “Implementation,” “Post-Implementation,” “Cooperative Learning Strategies,” and “Conclusion” sections were adapted in part from Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology (Chapter 29) by Michael Orey, licensed by CC BY 3.0. Retrieved from

Attribution: “Learning Activities” H5P resource was adapted from Hyflex Course Design and Teaching Strategies (Module 2 Unit 3) by Angela Barclay; Krista Ceccolini; Kathleen Clarke; Nicole Domonchuk; Sidney Shapiro; Jupsimar Singh; Mel Young; Jenni Hayman; Joseph Beer; and Courtney Arseneau, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Retrieved from

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Holubec, E. J. (1986). Circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, Minnesota: Interaction Bock Company.

Kagan, S. Educational Leadership (Jan. 1990). Retrieved September 2, 2003, from

Liljedahl, P. (2014). The affordances of using visually random groups in a mathematics classroom. In Y. Li, E. Silver, & S. Li (eds.) Transforming Mathematics Instruction: Multiple Approaches and Practices. New York, NY: Springer


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Teaching Methods & Practices Copyright © by Jason Proctor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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