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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.
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.
- 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.
- 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 https://www.jigsaw.org.