Better cooperative learning Educational

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As an English teacher at a middle school, I have integrated a lot of group work into my lessons. I did it for several reasons. Sometimes it was because a task seemed like a natural complement to collaborative learning, like days when I wanted students to develop ideas together. Another time it was just about messing things up and doing something different. And then there was the principle of “fewer grades”: if I had 120 students and assigned groups of four students, I would only have to grade 30 end products and not 120.

However, it did not always go well.

The student contributions were uneven. Some groups were better at staying at work than others. A lot of time was wasted. Personalities contradicted. Absences caused logistical headaches. Not only have I observed these problems as a teacher, I have often experienced them as a participant in group projects. I was a classic among the “just let me do everything” people: in most situations where other group members didn’t see much added value, I did most of the work myself.

Despite everything, I never completely gave up cooperative learning as a teacher. Not only did I believe in its inherent value – that we humans need regular practice to work together on things – but I knew that research said it was a good thing. At least I was pretty sure it was.

As I talk to teachers about it, I find that my experience is fairly typical: many of us want to use collaborative learning in our classrooms, but we want it to work better. So I started looking for answers by looking at the research and asking for help this tweet and this,

And now I have the answers to two questions.

First, Is cooperative learning worthwhile? What does research say? Are there any philosophical, “human” reasons beyond academic research why we should continue to take care of it?

Second, How do we solve some of the most common problems in collaborative learning? After contacting a variety of teachers and gaining my own experience, I have looked at a list of four of the most pressing questions about collaborative learning. For everyone, I’ll present some of the most effective solutions that come from practicing class teachers and organizations that have developed formal collaboration systems.

Let’s start.

Is cooperative learning worthwhile?

If the majority of the collaborative learning we implement only delivers lukewarm results, it makes sense to ask if we should even bother about it. Why not just let yourself work all the time?

What research says

I will be brief: Instead of going through many studies on cooperative learning, I found one big overview decades of research on the subject (Gillies, 2016).

The most important thing to take away: When students work together, they generally achieve greater academic and social benefits than when they compete against each other or when they work individually. However, it is not enough to group the students in order to achieve these profits. To be effective, the collaborative work must be structured to include five key components:

  • positive interdependence: Group members must work together to achieve a common goal.
  • Individual accountability: Each member is responsible for making their contribution.
  • promoting interaction: Group members help, support and encourage each other.
  • effective interpersonal skills: Students learn how to communicate, solve problems, and effectively resolve conflicts.
  • Group work: Groups are given time to think about how well their group is working and to make plans for improvement.

Beyond Research: Why Cooperative Learning Is Important in the 21st Century

Aside from the academic and social benefits that collaborative learning has provided for generations, we are now in an era where it may be more important than ever.

On the one hand, students are trained in the kind of skills that are becoming increasingly desirable in the workplace. P21 Framework for learning in the 21st century includes collaboration as one of its essential skills. Because manufacturing is automated and information can be accessed with just a few clicks, higher skills such as communication, creativity and collaboration are valued more – skills that computers cannot really replicate. People’s work will increasingly include such skills in the areas of work, higher education and community life.

At a deeper level, we need collaborative learning as technology is slowly beginning to limit our personal communication. Even when we’re at school together, we’re on devices most of the time. This can be wonderful and efficient and offers so many opportunities to expose yourself to new ideas, but it inhibits our ability to have regular conversations and rob us of all the gifts that come with these interactions. Giving students the opportunity to share physical space and solve complex problems is a gift that they may not get anywhere else. So it’s worth it.

Four common problems in collaborative learning

Problem 1: Student contributions are uneven. sometimes very unevenly.

It came as no surprise to me that this was the most frequently mentioned disadvantage that teachers experienced in collaborative learning. This problem manifests itself in different ways: the academically strong students do all the work, while others relax or give up because they cannot find a way. Or the students may make the same contribution, but they actually do not work together; Instead, they just split up the work and then copy each other’s papers.

Unfortunately, many teachers assume that this problem is not caused by the students want work together, but I think there are often two major issues at stake: first, the students were not taught collaborative skills. Second, the task was not structured for real collaboration.

The solution to this problem is not easy or one-dimensional. Different approaches will most likely be required: explicitly teaching collaboration skills, using a specific structure to define roles and procedures more clearly, and setting standards and expectations in advance.

Explicitly impart collaborative skills.
If students want to do good collaborative work, they must be expressly trained in collaborative skills.

  • Teach these skills in the same way that you would teach academic material. Play role-play games, model the behavior you want to see, and demonstrate what Not do. If necessary, you can teach the skills again all year round. Do not assume that students have already been taught to work together or that they should know better. The chances are very good that neither is true.
  • Train students in collaborative skills by working on shorter, simpler projects first. Then have students think about how well they worked together. Do not let them tackle a larger project until they have mastered the collaboration skills.
  • If you want to teach collaborative skills, you need to identify the skills. A large set of resources comes from PBLWorkswhere you can download Classified to assess cooperation. Regardless of whether you use the rubrics for the actual assessment or not, you can use these rubrics to determine the skills that are required for effective collaboration.

Use cooperative structures.
In my own classroom, I’ve rarely done anything to structure group work. I was hardly aware that there were formal structures for this kind of thing. Since then, I’ve learned that some of them were designed to provide a framework for common tasks. Some training or professional development is likely to be required to successfully implement most of these measures. Some of the structures recommended by teachers are listed here:

  • Team based learning
    Learn more
    This method is popular in medical schools, but applies to K-12. She groups the students in heterogeneous teams that remain the same over a period of one semester. It includes steps to ensure that each team member has prepared for reading and other tasks before group work, and has built-in structures for individual accountability. Team-based learning seems to be best suited to courses where students are expected to learn and think critically about a variety of content.
  • Agile project management
    Learn more
    This approach to managing large, complex projects comes from the world of software development. It divides large projects into shorter cycles in which parts of the project are developed and then checked for quality so that the team can make changes. Two of Agile’s most popular formats are: Kanban and hustlewhich is now available in a version specifically for schools called eduScrum, Agile appears to be best suited to project-oriented courses where students need to develop creative problem-solving, rather than courses that depend more on knowledge acquisition.
  • POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning)
    Learn more
    This structure is most commonly used in science courses, but can also be used in other content areas. In assigned, self-managed teams, students are assigned specific roles that they must perform when performing an activity to deepen their understanding of the content. Just like team-based learning, this seems to be best suited for courses that are more content-oriented than those that focus on individual creativity or skills.
  • Kagan cooperative learning structures
    Learn more
    Dr. For decades, Spencer Kagan’s collaborative learning work was a teacher that gave us structures like Quiz-Quiz-Trade and Numbered Heads Together. The company offers professional development and many other resources, but the best (and cheapest) starting point is probably the book. Kagan cooperative learningHere you get a complete overview of the structures and how they work. These are suitable for all content areas and grades, but the artwork of the site and the book suggests that they are more geared towards grades K-8.
  • Solve in time
    Learn more
    This structure was created to help teams solve problems using a design thinking approach. Students work through the steps to clearly define, investigate, and understand a problem, find a solution, and then share it.
  • puzzle
    Learn more
    This strategy is not necessarily for projects, but for students to learn discrete information together. Each group member must learn some of the material and then teach it to the rest of the group.

Establish norms and expectations in advance.
Instead of solving problems only when they arise, many teachers let students create group contracts before starting work. The contracts were developed with the involvement of all group members in order to outline the expectations of the members and to describe how the students react when problems arise. You can use these resources to start developing contracts:


Problem 2: Interpersonal conflicts affect productivity.

Sometimes students just don’t get along well enough to work together. These conflicts sometimes exist before a group is formed. Students may have a story with one another that has nothing to do with your class. Personal problems can also arise after the start of group work, when students discover personality traits that lead to irritation or conflict.

This type of conflict should not be handled lightly. If students are not socially or emotionally comfortable with other group members, they are not willing to take the risks required for learning. In one 2 years of studyGoogle surveyed hundreds of its employees to determine what characteristics made some teams more successful than others. They identified 5 key features and the most important one was psychological security. Similarly, a 2017 University of Washington study reported that students who “felt more comfortable” in their group showed a 27% increase in content mastery over those who did not (Theobald, Eddy, Grunspan , Wiggins & Crowe, 2017).

Here are some ways teachers have optimized interpersonal dynamics in groups:

  • Start team building. For teams that stay together for more than one lesson, it is worth postponing academic work and concentrating on building the team relationship. One way to do this is through team building games and activities. The website Playmeo There are many of them you can try.
  • Consult the students in advance. Before creating groups, have students fill out a form stating which classmates they would most like to work with and whether they prefer not to. Recognize that the reasons for some students not wanting to work together can lie deep in painful memories; Don’t discard preferences as students who “only want to work with their friends”.
  • Interview students while Work in groups. Some teachers have students fill out reflection sheets daily, indicating how good they felt in their group that day. These can help you identify problems early so they can be fixed immediately.
  • Work with students to solve problems. In some cases, the most logical solution may be to rearrange groups or allow some students to work independently. At other times, the teacher can work with students who have difficulties in groups to develop better social and collaboration skills.

Elementary school teacher Erin Gannon used some of the above solutions with a student whose dominant personality and poor impulse control prompted others not to be associated with her. Gannon worked one-on-one with the student to practice strategies that give others more opportunities to lead. She also spoke privately to the other group members.

“We ALL worked out a plan together of what would happen if she” felt prickly, “” says Gannon. “(The student) was not perfect, but they cheered her on sincerely when she had good days. It took a lot of work, but I would have given the same attention to an academic need. She was an excellent student, very cute, with great Leadership skills, but this effort to work with others could have really hurt them on the street. I think my other students really needed to understand the situation better and not just avoid them. When the students work in teams, they should feel that we’re all responsible for each other’s success. Giving you the opportunity to be part of the solution is pretty powerful. ”


Problem 3: Off-task behavior wastes time.

Whether it’s talking excessively, inappropriate use of equipment, or fooling around in general, a lot of time can be wasted collaborating if students don’t do the work they are supposed to do. Here are some ways to solve this problem:

  • Check in. Set specific tasks or benchmarks that groups must complete and show when they are done. If you divide the larger project into smaller tasks, not only will everyone keep moving, but you can also determine which groups are lagging behind the others. These check-ins may be required for individuals or entire groups. Some teachers give points or grades to create additional incentives.
  • Use a timer. Several teachers indicated that setting a timer to complete certain tasks helped the groups to be on the right track.
  • Look at the task. Students may have trouble concentrating on the task because they are not really concerned with it. Maybe it has no personal meaning for them, maybe it’s too easy, maybe it’s too confusing. All of these shortcomings can make it difficult for students to stay at work regardless of how many exams you have completed. If it is an uninspired or poorly designed task, you will have a tough fight.

Problem 4: Student absences can get everything out of hand.

Ideally, all group members are present for the entire duration of a project. But things do happen, and the longer the project lasts, the more likely you are to have no students. A missed day is usually not a big deal, but if a student misses several working days on which the group should actively work together, it will be much more difficult for them to make an equal contribution. Here are some ways teachers can work around this problem:

Plan ahead.

  • Design projects, in which some components require the participation of all group members, but others are carried out by individuals and may even be viewed as “wanting” and not “must”. This way, if a person is unable to do their part, this part can simply be dropped without affecting the entire project.
  • Make sure roles and responsibilities are clearly defined for each student in advance so that the “work” is not accidentally pushed around. If a student is absent for a few days, it is clear what they need to do to catch up, and if they cannot, the other group members can decide who does their job.
  • When students set goals together and include absences in a group contract, there is already an agreed plan that should be implemented.

Use technology.

  • Have students use a platform such as a shared Google Drive or HyperDoc to keep all project materials in a cloud-accessible location. As long as the absentee has internet access at home and is good enough to work, he or she can stay up to date from home.
  • Some teachers allow groups to chat with the missing group member through Skype, Facetime, or Google Hangouts during regular class time.
  • If live video chat is not possible, students can still document their meeting with a video and later share it with the absent students.

Of course correct.

  • If a student’s absence is long enough to affect the group and the above solutions don’t work, the teacher can redistribute the workload among the remaining members, remove the student from the group, and assign the student an individual task, to replace the group task. If you formulate this in advance in the contract and / or in the rubric, the process should be fairly straightforward.

A few more tips

  • Don’t send work home. Since the home environment is very different and the students have different access to materials, means of transport, etc., it is best to keep all the common work in the classroom. In addition, the expectation that students will meet outside of class, especially if they are younger and do not have their own transportation, automatically leads to problems within groups and from group to group.
  • Hold groups of 3-4 students. This seems to be the general consensus between expert readings and conversations with individual teachers. Once a group grows larger than 4, students can slip through the cracks more easily.
  • Check out Collaborative Tech. While many schools already use Google’s collaboration tools, other tools have collaboration features that you may not be familiar with. Some were developed specifically for collaboration and project management, e.g. B. Trello, Asana, Kanbanchi and Slack. Other tools, such as Wakelet for curation and Canva for graphic design, allow students to collaborate on projects from anywhere they have Internet access.

The conclusion is as follows: If cooperative learning hasn’t really worked for you in the past, don’t lose hope. There are so many people who came up with fantastic ways to get it right. So get yourself and your students back, try some of the things we’ve covered here, and see if you can do better next time.



Gillies, R. M. (2016). Cooperative learning: looking back at research and practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3). Retrieved from

Theobald, E.J., Eddy, S.L., Grunspan, D.Z., Wiggins, B.L. & Crowe, A.J. (2017). Pupils’ perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: comfort and justice are important. PLOS one, 12(7): e0181336.

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