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Cooperative learning is a teaching method that brings students together to learn in highly structured small groups. In these groups, students must work together to accomplish goals, solve problems, or complete tasks, and learn interdependently without constant and direct supervision from the teacher (Kaufman, Sutow, & Dunn, 1997). Cooperative learning has consistently demonstrated gains in increased academic achievement, cognitive growth, motivation, and positive attitudes towards learning, social competence, and interpersonal relationships (Jones & Jones, 2008).
There are five key elements of any cooperative learning structure as described by Johnson and Johnson (1984; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991a; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991b; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998): positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face promotive learning, collaborative/social skills, and group processing.
The first thing a teacher needs to do when implementing a cooperative learning approach is ensure that each student has a sense of positive interdependence ( (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). Positive interdependence is when students understand that no group member can be successful unless all of the group members are successful (Jones & Jones, 2008; Kirk, 2001). Tasks should be structured so that students understand their responsibility for learning assigned material and making sure that all the members in their group master the material as well (Millis, 1991). In order to foster positive interdependence teachers may add group rewards (if the group as a whole completes a task), divided resources (giving each group member a part of the total information needed to complete a task), or specific roles for group members (reader, checker, facilitator). For a learning situation to be cooperative, students must believe that "group members sink or swim together" (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991a; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991b).
Second, a teacher needs to structure individual accountability so that each students individual performance is assessed either by formal testing or by having each student explain what they have learned or what they have taught to another student (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). One of the main purposes of cooperative learning is to help each group member become a stronger individual academically. Students learn together so that they can in turn perform better as individuals (Foundation Coalition, 2008).
Third, a teacher needs to ensure that students provide face-to-face support for their team members', either by helping, assisting, encouraging, or praising their team members (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). Doing this requires cognitive processes, such as group members verbally discussing problem solving techniques, imparting their knowledge to their group members, and connecting past with present learning (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991). It can also lead to interpersonal processes, such as promoting frequent exchange of perspective and explanations in discussions and becoming more tolerant of diverse viewpoints (Williams, 2007). In doing this, student also get to know each other on a person level and previously contrived stereotypes may be destroyed.
In order to obtain meaningful face-to-face interaction, careful structuring of learning groups is required. Although the size of a group will vary depending on the activity, it has been discussed that the best size for a cooperative learning setting is a group comprised of three or four students (Johnson & Johnson, 1984; Kagan, 1989-1990). It is recommended that students be mixed as heterogeneously as possible, according to academic abilities, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic background. Students should not be allowed to form groups based on friendship in order to avoid cliques, which can disrupt (Millis, 1991).
The fourth thing a teacher must do in order to facilitate cooperative learning is ensure that their students will be able to work effectively as a group (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). Groups are unable to function if students do not have or use collaborative and social skills. Teachers need to explicitly teach what social interactions and behaviors are expected of students, such as leadership, decision-making, trust building, communication, and conflict-management skills, so that they can use the necessary skills appropriately (Jones & Jones, 2008; Kirk, 2001).
The fifth and final thing a teacher must do to promote cooperative learning is engaging their students' in-group processing (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). It is important that a teacher have their students reflect on how well they worked as a team at completed a task (Williams, 2007). This helps the students understand how well they achieved their goals, how they helped each other learn the subject content, how they used positive behaviors and attitudes to enable the group to be successful, and what could be done in the future to make their group even more successful. The identification of ways to improve the processes members have been using can help maximize their own and each others learning (Jones & Jones, 2008).
There are three types of cooperative learning groups. Formal cooperative learning groups involve students working together for one period to several weeks to achieve shared learning goals or joint completion of a specific task or assignment. Informal cooperative learning groups are used primarily to enhance direct instruction and are typically temporary and only formed for a brief period of time. Cooperative base groups are longer-term groups (lasting for at least a semester) with stable membership whose primarily responsibility is to provide each member of their group with the encouragement they need to make academic progress and complete the course successfully. The three types of cooperative learning complement and support each other and can either be used in isolation or can be combined and used in a single class session. When used together, they provide a framework for effective cooperative teaching at the college or graduate level (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998).
Cooperative learning promotes higher academic achievement and greater motivation, it enables students to work together to solve problems, raises students' self-esteem, helps students become self-sufficient, self-directed learners, and stresses the importance that every student has the chance to participate and every student has a role to play (Cottelle Jr. & Millis, 1994; Kaufman, Sutow, & Dunn, 1997). It also provides an environment in which students with different abilities can work together in a positive way and helps develop important social and interpersonal skills, which will aid students in their ability to function individually, as a member of a group, which will benefit them socially and in future work opportunities (Kirk, 2001).