Pedagogy Playground: Cooperative Learning, Part One

Monday June 1st, 2020

Definition Cooperative Learning: “A teaching strategy where small teams, each with students of different levels of ability, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of the team is not only responsible for learning that is taught but also for helping teammates learn. Since students work through the assignment until all group members successfully understand and complete it, this teaching strategy creates an atmosphere of achievement.”

Benefits: “Research … indicates that cooperation, compared with competitive and individualistic efforts, typically results in (a) higher achievement and greater productivity, (b) more caring, supportive, and committed relationships, and (c) greater psychological, health, social competence, and self-esteem.” (More recent research, that is also linked at Cult of Pedagogy, here)

Some takeaways:
(Part One)

1. Using Cooperative Learning Effectively Takes Time and Practice
2. Cooperative Learning is More than Group Work
3. From Personal Experience, Cooperative Project Based Learning is an Effective Way of Using Cooperative Learning

(Part Two – To be posted in a few weeks)

4. Active Learning Strategies can Enhance Cooperative Learning
5. CATME, Jigsaw, and Other Effective Methods for Cooperative Learning
6. Create Small Goals and Check in With Groups

1. Using Cooperative Learning Effectively Takes Time and Practice: I listened to the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast 138: Making Cooperative Learning Work Better on my hike today at White’s Woods (5.3 miles). I have had a love / hate relationship with using cooperative learning in my classes. As a new instructor in the late 2000s, I was idealistic about group work (there is a difference between cooperative learning and group work that I will discuss later in this post). I knew research showed that it was one of the most important tools for instruction, and that it is effective. However, that was not my experience.

I tried many different strategies; none of them seemed to work well. I convinced myself that I just needed to tweak something, and that it would all come together in time. I also would regularly stress out about students being distracted or goofing off (Later, I would learn that some distraction or goofing off leads to team building and positive impact in the classroom).

Then, a few years later, I started teaching about individualism / collectivism as part of the critical thinking component in my composition courses. I saw the data that the United States was the most individualistic country in the world, so I naturally came to the conclusion – ah, the problem having effective group work in my classroom is not my fault; it is our culture that is at fault! Cooperative work must just be impossible in the United States (ha!). If only I could live in China, this strategy would be much more effective!

Cooperative learning and group work continued to be a regular part of my classroom, but I began using it less frequently. I also segmented this work into individual tasks for each group member in a way that really made the focus less on cooperative learning and more on getting individual sections of an assignment finished. I heard fewer complaints from students (“Student A didn’t show up / turn in / or respond to e-mails”), so I assumed I had been successful. I had atomized and controlled cooperative learning to the point that it was completely individualized! (How American of me!) I now understand that cooperative learning was not the problem; Lack of experience and knowing how to access helpful materials was the problem.

2. Cooperative Learning is More than Group Work One of the problems that I had early in my career (and still struggle with on occasion) is conflating group work with cooperative learning. Often instructors, including myself, put students into groups, give them a problem, and then expect them to know how to work cooperatively towards their goals without being taught cooperative skills or having a structure to use. This process encourages a “divide and conquer” mentality and also creates students who may not fully participate. There are many times when group work is a useful strategy, but over the long term, cooperative learning is much more effective. Faculty Focus shows us some of the differences here:

Instead of a divide and conquer approach, students are expected to learn different aspects of the material, teach it to the other group members, then share it with the class. There are a number of different approaches to cooperative learning. One of the most popular is the Kagan approach. I prefer to borrow from a number of different approaches and methods.

One technique that I appreciate from the Kagan method is the structure of groups. Each group should ideally have a student from four different skill levels so that each student has someone close to their skill level that they can learn from. Another aspect of Kagan that I use is that students should not have group grading. Using this method, all grading based on group work should be on an individual basis, yet this can include how well they teach concepts to other group members. This grading keeps each student accountable, yet also an integral part o the group as well.

3. From my Experience, Cooperative Project Based Learning is an Effective Way of Using Cooperative Learning: As I was applying for jobs this spring, I noticed that in every interview and nearly every document that I turned in, I would emphasize my experience with project based learning. I would discuss projects that I used at IUP where students made booklets about identity in my Composition 101 course and booklets about non-western cultures in my 102 courses (I will discuss this in a future post about Project Based Learning). However, when I began teaching at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, I had scrapped that project because I could not get access to a quality print shop. Then, in the interviews, I would discuss a project that I started at Pitt-Titusville where students created an event on campus called International Coffee Hour in fall and International Women’s Day in spring.

In my interviews, I explained that students would often help with each part of the event. Each semester was a bit different, but I’ve had students write grant proposals, create advertising, contact the guest speakers, create informational pamphlets to hand out, create research posters, have dinner with the speakers, and even set up the room for the event. The students would create questions to ask the guest speaker and even create social media campaigns based on the topic. I found myself eager to share the topics discussed both in interviews and in normal conversation (from graffiti and protest in Egypt, to the rights of women in the Middle East – Bad Girls of the Arab World, Everyday life in China, the role of women in India, life in Kazakhstan, Oman, Turkey, and many other topics).

There was one semester when I invited a guest speaker from Egypt to dinner with my students before an event. The speaker’s wife came to dinner, and my students were talking to her as much, if not more, than the speaker himself. In the week after the event, my students begged me to bring his wife to speak in spring. I explained that they wouldn’t be in my class in spring, so I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. They promised that they would do everything they could to create the event even though they were not in my class! Sure enough, that spring, the speaker was the woman from Egypt and the students did amazing work creating the event.

As I shared this at my job interviews this spring, I explained that often my students would end up doing a lot more work than in other classes, but because of the project based learning approach, they would rarely complain. Through this process, it became obvious to me that I needed to focus more of my teaching on these projects. I also realized – cooperative learning strategies can and do work! So, it left me with the question: How could I translate the success of cooperative learning from these events and my booklet projects into other every day parts of my course? This is what I have been trying to reevaluate the last few years and will discuss more in future posts.

As you are waiting for part two of this blog, take some time to read the blog at Cult of Pedagogy on this topic (with many links to helpful materials!) and check out PBL works for help with Project Based Learning.

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