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Cooperative learning refers to work done by student teams producing a product of some sort (such as a set of problem solutions, a laboratory or project report, or the design of a product or a process), under conditions that satisfy five criteria: (1) positive interdependence, (2) individual accountability, (3) face to face interaction for at least part of the work, (4) appropriate use of interpersonal skills, and (5) regular self-assessment of team functioning. Extensive research has shown that relative to traditional individual and competitive modes of instruction, properly implemented cooperative learning leads to greater learning and superior development of communication and teamwork skills (e.g. leadership, project management, and conflict resolution skills). Gregory (2008)
The technique has been used with considerable success in all scientific disciplines, including chemistry. The benefits of cooperative learning are not automatic, however, and if imperfectly implemented, the method can create considerable difficulties for instructors, most notably dysfunctional teams and student resistance or hostility to group work. This paper offers a number of suggestions for forming teams, satisfying the five defining criteria of cooperative learning, and minimizing the problems. According to Gregory (2008) Teachers who have never used the approach are advised to move into it gradually rather than attempting a full-scale implementation on their first try, and to increase the level of implementation in subsequent course offerings. To an increasing extent, they should see the learning benefits promised by the research, and as their expertise and confidence in implementing the method continue to grow, student evaluations of the team experience should improve concurrently. Most importantly, teachers who are successful in using cooperative learning in their classes will have the satisfaction of knowing that they have significantly helped prepare their students for their professional careers.
There are several reasons why cooperative learning works as well as it does. The idea that students learn more by doing something active than by simply watching and listening has long been known to both cognitive psychologists and effective teachers and cooperative learning is by its nature an active method. Beyond that, cooperation enhances learning in several ways. Weak students working individually are likely to give up when they get stuck; working cooperatively, they keep going. Strong students faced with the task of explaining and clarifying material to weaker students often find gaps in their own understanding and fill them in. Students working alone may tend to delay completing assignments or skip them altogether, but when they know that others are counting on them, they are motivated to do the work in a timely manner.
The proven benefits of cooperative learning notwithstanding, teachers who attempt it frequently encounter resistance and sometimes open hostility from the students. Bright students complain about begin held back by their slower teammates; weak or unassertive students complain about being discounted or ignored in group sessions; and resentments build when some team members fail to pull their weight. Knowledgeable and patient instructors find ways to deal with these problems, but others become discouraged and revert to the traditional teacher-centered instructional paradigm, which is a loss both for them and for their students. Gregory (2008)
However I believe cooperative learning is more than simply asking student to get in a group and work on an assignment together. Most researchers and practitioners of cooperative learning stress that it is a formal instructional model in which teachers carefully design lessons and activities that are suitable for use by teams. These teams are small, stable, and heterogeneous, and have been adequately prepared for working together. When using teams in the classroom, I see faculty as having to direct their attention to six different areas: climate-setting; team formation; teambuilding; cooperative skills development; lesson design; and classroom management.
While many of my students are enthused about the opportunity to learn with and from their peers, it is not uncommon for me to encounter students who are reluctant to participate in any sort of group activities. So, how does one take a class of students whose feelings about cooperative learning range from love through indifference to downright hostility and turn them into a community of learners? The first (but by no means the only) step is to work on creating a class climate that encourages cooperation. My suggestions include:
â€¢ Communicate clear expectations to students about Cooperative learning on the first day of class. I recommend that you inform students that you plan to use cooperative learning, why you use it, and what it means to them. Will they be graded on class participation? What happens if they come to class unprepared? It's particularly important to let students know about your policies on group grades. It's also a good idea to acknowledge that some people would prefer to work alone, and to point out the activities and assignments they'll be working on independently.
â€¢ Problem Sets
Students complete some or most of their homework assignments in teams. The teams are encouraged to include only the names of actual participants on the solution set that they hand in. The students are initially disinclined to leave anyone's name off, but eventually they get tired of letting nonparticipants ("hitchhikers," in cooperative learning parlance) get good grades for work they didn't do and begin to omit names, at which point many hitchhikers-unhappy about getting zeroes on assignments-start cooperating.
The team gets a grade for the assignment, but eventually the performance of each team member should be assessed and the results used to adjust the average team homework grade separately for each team member.
In conclusion there are many road blocks that may occur throughout the journey to cooperative learning. Not all students take their responsibilities seriously enough. Many feel that their slack will be picked up by the others in the group. Some students may be too strong of leaders and stifle the contributions of the other members of the team. Conflict is a natural by-product of cooperation. When students are asked to work together, it is with the intent that they will each provide a differing view and or opinion. When differing opinions are joined together to create one product, conflict is sure to arise.
Conflict can be a very healthy springboard to learning. When students dialogue and debate their opinions they might reinforce their ideas or dismiss them. The ability to listen and be flexible to new views is absolutely essential to the success of a group. Assigning roles may also help to ease the imbalance of effort. The students who don't contribute enough effort should first be encouraged by their groups. If this proves unsuccessful, the instructor should step in and mediate. It is absolutely unfair to punish a group for the ineffectiveness of one member. Students should do everything possible to remain a cooperative and cohesive unit, but if all attempts fail they should be allowed a chance to rebuild a new unit.
It should also never be the responsibility of the strongest member of the team to carry the others. Teachers cannot assume that all group conflicts should be resolved alone. Classroom modeling of effective group work and role-playing of conflict situations should be directed by the teacher. However many years of research and numerous studies cannot be denied cooperative learning is an effective method for understanding and retaining information. Industry experts cannot be ignored when they state that being able to work effectively in a team is an imperative skill. Cooperative learning is not a replacement for the classroom teacher. It is intended to complement the direct instruction by causing students to be confident thinkers and active learners.