Planning for Cooperative Learning

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Planning for Cooperative Learning

Planning for Cooperative Learning

Picture a classroom full of voices, chairs facing not the front but one another, heads leaned close, and pens moving furiously. This image is very different from the traditional university classroom in which a gallery of students listen and watch as a professor recites information. However, an increasing amount of university instructors favor the former example for their classrooms (Smith et al. 2005). Why would undergraduate instructors turn away from tradition and toward this more cooperative learning environment?


Many studies have found there is a fundamental difference in the way students engage with material in cooperative classes. In my personal experience with cooperative learning, I have witnessed students constructing new knowledge based on previous experience, gaining a richer understanding of a concept by explaining it to a peer, and even voicing their insecurities with the material. In this post, I will discuss the benefits of cooperative learning and explore some cooperative learning approaches. I hope to persuade you that cooperative learning is an effective and feasible approach that can be incorporated into your classroom this semester and beyond.

Active Learning vs. Lecturing

Anecdotal evidence aside, the data speak for themselves. In a meta-analysis of over 200 studies, Freedman et al. (2014) found dramatic differences between lecture-based and active instructional strategies (including cooperative learning) in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classrooms. Students in active learning classrooms are 1.5 times less likely to fail than students in lecture-based classrooms and outperform their counterparts on exams by an average of 6%. These results point to increased retention and higher GPAs of students within the discipline when active learning strategies are implemented.


What drives these increased learning gains? In the transition between lecturing and active learning, the instructor shifts the learning environment from being teacher-centered to student-centered. This shift in focus promotes greater accountability, ownership of ideas, a sense of belonging amongst students, and a more cooperative classroom.

The Cooperative Classroom

Cooperative learning is one active learning approach documented as effective in achieving student learning goals. With a cooperative learning approach, students work together in small groups to accomplish tasks that promote positive interdependence. In other words, learning activities are structured so that achievement is both beneficial to individual students and also to the group as a whole. These activities can last anywhere from five minutes to an entire semester. Successful cooperative learning strategies promote student engagement with the material, individual accountability, and teamwork-building skills. Cooperative learning also promotes regular, formative assessment of student learning, higher order thinking, and builds classroom community (see Smith et al. 2005),

Cooperative Learning in Action

The key to successfully implementing cooperative learning is aligning it with learning objectives. Cooperative learning activities aren’t extras, but essential steps toward optimal learning. Some topics could include concepts that will be emphasized on the exam, big ideas for the day, and items that are difficult  for students to master. The better integrated these activities are, the easier it will be to select approaches that meet your overall course objectives.


It may seem like an intimidating task to implement cooperative learning in a lecture-based course. Completely redesigning a course involves significant time and effort, and graduate student assistants often don’t have the freedom to dictate the classroom structure. The good news is that cooperative learning can be incorporated into courses in small, low-stakes ways. The following are three strategies that can be integrated into your curriculum next semester and accomplished within 5-15 minutes. I would suggest starting here:


Instructors pose a question or discussion topic (e.g., “Based on what you know about global wind and ocean currents, describe why the wave height in the Southern Ocean is an average of two meters higher than in the Equatorial Pacific”). Instructors then give students individual reflection time to process the question and to think about their answer. Following this silent period, students are then asked to pair up with another student to discuss their answer and to resolve any differences (if there is a correct answer to the question). The class can then come together as a large group once again, and the instructor can call on individual groups to share their discussions. This approach encourages students to explore and demonstrate their understanding of key concepts prior to a high-stakes exam in a way that is not possible in a lecture format.


Bonus: The pair step is a great opportunity for the instructor to walk throughout the room to monitor the discussion groups and connect with students on a more individual basis. The share step can be used to assess the distribution of ideas among students and identify sticky points that may require additional attention. This approach also allows students to speak up in class after vetting their thoughts with another student, which helps to decrease public speaking anxiety.

Minute Paper

Similarly to the think-pair-share activity, instructors pose a question or discussion topic. Instructors then provide time (typically under three minutes) for students to write down their ideas . This could be specified as anything from a “brain dump” (e.g., “Discuss the  factors that dictate the growth of algae in the Arctic Ocean”) to a more structured form (“e.g., How would you design an experiment to measure the effect of temperature and light on algal growth in the Arctic Ocean?”). Students can then team up into small groups to discuss their answers and come to a consensus or perspective on the major ideas from the question. Following small group time, a few groups can be asked to report out to the whole class about their discussion. The minute paper approach allows instructors and students to move beyond memorization and into higher order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation.


Bonus: Positive interdependence can be achieved by assigning group members specific roles (e.g., recorder, checker, task manager, and spokesperson). These roles can be rotated each time the activity is used to allow students to practice each communication skill.


This learning strategy works well for course concepts that can be split up into separate yet interconnected parts. Each part thus represents a piece of the puzzle, and the complete puzzle requires each individual piece to be complete. The jigsaw approach is split into two steps: the expert group meeting and the jigsaw group meeting. In the expert group meeting, instructors  split students into small groups that are each assigned one part of the relevant content. Expert groups are assigned to discuss their “puzzle piece” and to achieve a consensus or mastery of their component. Expert groups are then dissolved and new jigsaw groups are formed, made up of one person from each expert group. In the jigsaw group meeting, each “expert ambassador” has a chance to report to the group about his or her piece of the puzzle. Jigsaw groups are then assigned the task of connecting each component to form a complete picture of the concept. The jigsaw approach encourages students to take ownership of their component of the concept and improve their communication skills when meeting with the jigsaw group.


Bonus: Keep in mind that this method, while rich in discussion opportunities, requires the most logistical planning and organizational support of the three strategies outlined. For further reading, see

What are your favorite cooperative learning activities that you use in your own classroom? Do you have a successful strategy to encourage students to embrace cooperative learning? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or use the hashtag #ITeachMSU to further engage in the conversation on Twitter or Facebook.

Additional Reading

Angelo, T., K.P. Cross. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass. ISBN: 1555425003.

Freedman, S., S.L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M.K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M.P. Wenderoth. 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111(23): 8410-8415.

Johnson D.W., R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith. 2006. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Interaction Book Co. ISBN: 978-0939603145.

Smith, K.A., S.D. Sheppard, D.W. Johnson, and R.T. Johnson. 2005. Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom-based practices (cooperative learning and problem-based learning). Journal of Engineering Education 94: 87-101.




Originally posted at “Inside Teaching MSU” (site no longer live): Salk, K. Planning for Cooperative Learning. inside