Group projects have long been a staple of classroom instruction for many reasons. They channel students’ social energy into a lesson, engage students who might be reluctant to speak up in a larger group setting, and break up the routine of the school day. There’s also a mountain of evidence that group work — or “cooperative learning” as it’s sometimes called — helps students gain valuable skills they can take with them into college and their careers. In fact, teachers and curriculum directors we work with at LanSchool are emphatic about the advantages of incorporating collaborative learning in the classroom.
What Exactly Is Cooperative Learning, and How Does It Help Students?
Some of the leading researchers in cooperative learning define it as “the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning.” This can include formal cooperative learning, which lasts from one class period to several weeks and is closely regulated by the teacher; informal cooperative learning, which typically involves frequent, quick group discussions of lecture material; and cooperative base groups, which are long-term groups the students work within throughout the semester or school year.
Multiple studies over the course of the last 50 years show that cooperative learning using these approaches typically results in “higher group and individual achievement, healthier relationships with peers, more metacognition, and greater psychological health and self-esteem.”
Those higher achievement levels are not insignificant either. According to one study, organizing students in cooperative learning groups can lead to a gain as high as 28% in student achievement. Helping students engage in thoughtful discourse can also encourage students to examine different perspectives, which has been shown to increase motivation and empathy.
As we work alongside educators, we are consistently reminded that cooperative learning is a powerful tool for driving student outcomes in terms of both social-emotional skills and academic achievement. So how do you design the perfect cooperative learning experience?
The Elements of Successful Cooperative Learning
Based on research from Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1998), TeacherVision provided the following five characteristics of a cooperative learning experience that drives positive outcomes for students:
1. Positive interdependence
Group assignments work best when every student feels responsible for contributing and ensuring the group’s success. Some students will come by this naturally, where others might need a helpful push.
One way you can get “buy-in” from students is by ensuring they each have a named role. Roles might include:
- The Assessor, who keeps on eye on the group’s project
- The Checker, who ensures all team members understand the concepts and are on board with the team’s conclusions
- The Elaborator, whose role is to relate what the group is learning to previous assignments
- The Spokesperson, who presents the group’s conclusions to the class
- The Questioner, who involves all students by asking insightful questions as they work.
Find a longer list of group roles here.
You can let students pick their own roles or assign them a role based on your knowledge of their personalities. The important thing is that everyone has a responsibility and that each role is clearly defined.
2. Face-to-face interaction
A hallmark of a successful project is that the students actively encourage and support each other as they work. Be sure to arrange their desks or seat them in a way that encourages eye contact and free-flowing discussion. As a helpful tip, you can use the group view feature in LanSchool to monitor students’ digital activity based on how you’ve arranged the groups in the classroom. This give teachers the ability to manage multiple group activities at one time while students are free to collaborate together.
3. Individual and group accountability
Assigning students a role will help with each student’s sense of responsibility toward the group, but it’s still important to hold them accountable for their contributions at the end. That’s why it’s a good idea to not only grade the group on their combined effort but also give each student an individual grade for their contribution.
One way to do this is to structure group assignments with an overall group task as well as individual subtasks, each of which is assigned to a particular student. You can then grade each student on their performance as it relates to their subtask. You may then choose to average the two grades together (group grade and individual grade) to come up with each student’s final grade.
Or, you can give students a follow-up assignment, such as a reflection piece on how the group reached its conclusions, and assess their individual grade in that way.
4. Group behaviors
It’s important to set clear expectations for how each group member should behave toward the others as they work. You can work together with students before beginning the assignment to establish agreed-upon behaviors. Create a checklist of collaboration skills that students can use to do keep themselves accountable.
After breaking students into their groups, walk them through a brainstorming session to discuss some common group situations and how their group will handle them. For example, ask them how they might respectfully solve the problem of one group member talking over the others.
Knowing that group work can get loud, you may also want to ask students to come up with a signal you can give if the noise level gets too high.
5. Group processing
Finally, it’s important to wrap up the work session with group analysis of their collaboration. Each group should present the class with their academic learnings, including the conclusions and the processes they used to reach those conclusions. They should also discuss how they worked collaboratively according to the guidelines identified at the beginning of the class. You may choose to have students do this second part within their group, if you find students feel more free to be honest within their team.
Cooperative Learning Teaches More than Academics
All of this adds up to a learning experience that’s about much more than the subject matter you’re teaching.
According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 78% of employers said they were looking for new hires who could work well on a team. This was the most commonly desired skill with verbal communication coming in second at 70.5%.
Another survey of companies hiring business school graduates showed that skills like oral communication, listening, presenting, and valuing the opinions of others were among the most highly sought-after traits.
Learning to work well with a diverse group of others can also train students to create more “open” and diverse networks within the workplace – a skill that’s been called the number one predictor of professional success.
Students who learn to approach group work mindfully and analytically will find it easy to adapt and succeed in career and college environments, where they’ll be required to problem solve with teammates on a daily basis. So as you plan your next group project, recognize it’s not only a great way to teach new concepts — it’s also a chance to develop valuable social-emotional skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
Curious about how to use classroom management software to develop a cooperative learning program in your classroom? Start a free trial of LanSchool here.