Cooperative learning

What’s the best way to set up cooperative learning groups for labs and other activities? How often should I change the groups? I’d also like to assign roles for group members, but I need some examples.
— Doug, Henderson, Nevada

Cooperative learning is a strategy supported by a wealth of research. The term often reflects a continuum of approaches, from generic “group work” to more structured activities. (Use the phrase in an Internet search to find resources such as Why Use Cooperative Learning? and Cooperative Learning.

There is no single or “best” way to set up groups. This is a great opportunity for action research as you try different configurations and note which ones seem to work better for your students. Consider these questions:

How many should be in a group? Groups of four seem to be effective in my experience. It’s easy in a triad for one student to be ignored, more than four is a crowd at lab tables, and in a pair there is the issue of what happens when one of the students is absent.

How should the groups be structured? This is where you’ll need to do some experimentation, because each class is different.

  • You could start with a random assignment. There are websites with random number generators, and programs like Excel have them, too. Some teachers take a low-tech approach and literally draw names using craft sticks or index cards. As the students work in these initial groups, you can observe the students’ interpersonal skills, work habits, and how combinations of personalities work.
  • I hesitated to use student-selected groups. Usually, friends wanted to work with friends, and I was concerned about the students who were selected last or not at all (remembering my own experiences as a non-athlete at recess). I was also worried students wouldn’t learn how to work with a variety of people. Recognizing the need for students to have a voice in the classroom, I tried a variation in which students could give me a note with the name of one person they would like to work with. I then structured the groups to try to accommodate their choices, with no guarantees.
  • Some teachers suggest grouping by ability. I’m wasn’t sure how to determine science “ability”—I suspect teachers use factors such as reading or math ability, grades, work habits, or behavior. I found heterogeneous grouping worked best for my classes most of the time. Once I did put four slackers together. After a while they realized they had not accomplished much, and no one was going to bail them out! Sometimes if I had students with an intense interest in a topic, I had them work together.
  • There are other student variables to consider. Depending on your class, you many find single-gender groups provide more opportunities for student participation. If your class includes special education students, check with the specialist to determine their needs in terms of their IEPs.

How often should the groups change? Changing groups for each activity allows students to get to know others, but students also learn if they don’t get along, it doesn’t matter—the group will change next time and they don’t need to resolve any difficulties. I would usually try to keep the groups intact for a unit. This also saved time, because the students knew who their partners were and which lab table was theirs.

Setting roles is a key component of cooperative learning so students share the responsibility for learning. The roles may vary from task to task: group leader, presenter, data recorder, measurer, equipment manager, liaison (to ask questions of the teacher or other teams), artist, online researcher, questioner, timekeeper, notetaker. The literature on cooperative learning describes other roles. Have job descriptions for each role (as checklists or on the bulletin board), and ask students to describe how they and their teammates did their jobs (this could be a exit activity). Rotate the roles so students have a variety of experiences.

To keep the groups focused and on-task, be sure that students understand the expectations for the project or investigation. Share the rubric ahead of time. Monitor the groups as they work, eavesdropping on their discussions and observing their interactions (this can be a formative assessment). Cooperative learning models emphasize the importance of both groupwork and individual accountability. You could have the group create some parts of a report together (perhaps in their notebooks or with a class Wiki or GoogleDoc page) and then have each student write his or her own conclusion or summary. Some teachers hold each student be responsible for one part of a project, evaluating each component separately and then assigning a holistic evaluation for the entire project.

You may have students who do not have a high level of interpersonal skills. Start with brief and highly structured activities. Model cooperative behavior, and work with them on what types of language is appropriate in their groups. And remember there are times when cooperative learning is effective, times when large group instruction is appropriate, and times when you want students working independently.

For more information on how other science teachers are using this strategy, go to the NSTA Learning Center to search for articles on cooperative learning.

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