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Cooperative Learning Techniques

Cooperative learning techniques can be loosely categorized by the skill that each enhances (Barkley, Cross and Major, 2005), although it is important to recognize that many cooperative learning exercises can be developed to fit within multiple categories. Categories include: discussion, reciprocal teaching, graphic organizers, writing and problem solving. Each category includes a number of potential structures to guide the development of a cooperative learning exercise.


Discussion: communicating
"A good give-and-take discussion can produce unmatched learning experiences as students articulate their ideas, respond to their classmates' points, and develop skills in evaluating the evidence of their own and others' positions." (Davis, 1993, p. 63)
  • Think-pair-share: As probably the best known cooperative learning exercise, the think-pair-share structure provides students with the opportunity to reflect on the question posed and then practice sharing and receiving potential solutions. Its simplicity provides instructors with an easy entry into cooperative learning and it is readily adaptable to a wide range of course constructs. (Example: Where Do I Begin? Using Think-Pair-Share to Initiate the Problem Solving Process)
  • Three-step interview: This structure can be used both as an ice-breaker which introduces students to one another and to provide students with a venue for soliciting opinions, positions, or ideas from their peers. Students are first paired and take turns interviewing each other using a series of questions provided by the instructor. Pairs then match up and students introduce their original partner. At the end of the exercise, all four students have had their position or viewpoints on an issue heard, digested, and described by their peers.

Reciprocal teaching: explaining, providing feedback, understanding alternative perspectives
Slavin (1996), in a review of hundreds of studies, concluded that "students who give each other elaborated explanations (and less consistently, those who receive such explanations) are the students who learn most in cooperative learning." (p. 53)
  • Note-taking pairs: Poor note-taking leads to poor performance. Designing an exercise which requires students to summarize their understanding of a concept based on notes taken (with directed questions such as what is the definition of a concept, how is it used, what are the three most important characteristics of a topic) and receiving reflective feedback from their partner provides students the opportunity to find critical gaps in their written records.
  • Jigsaw: For more complex problems, this structure provides students the opportunity to develop expertise in one of many components of a problem by first participating in a group solely focused on a single component. In the second stage of the exercise, groups are reformed with a representative from each expert group who together now have sufficient expertise to tackle the whole problem.

Graphic organizers: discovering patterns and relationships
"Graphic organizers are powerful tools for converting complex information in to meaningful displays...They can provide a framework for gathering and sorting ideas for discussion, writing, and research." (Barkley, Cross and Major, 2005, p.205) See also, concept mapping.
  • Group grid: Students practice organizing and classifying information in a table. A more complex version of this structure requires students to first identify the classification scheme that will be used.
  • Sequence chains: The goal of this exercise is to provide a visual representation of a series of events, actions, roles, or decisions. Students can be provided with the items to be organized or asked to first generate these based on a predetermined end goal. This structure can be made more complex by having students also identify and describe the links between each of the sequenced components.

Writing: organizing and synthesizing information
The Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse at Colorado State University encourages the use of written assignments across the campus because is teaches students to communicate information, to clarify thinking and to learn new concepts and information.
  • Dyadic essays: Students prepare for the in-class portion of this exercise by developing an essay question and model answer based on assigned reading. Students typically need to be guided to develop questions that integrate material across classes as opposed to ones that simply recite facts presented in the reading. In class, students exchange essay questions and write a spontaneous answer essay. Students then pair up, compare and contrast the model answer and the spontaneously generated answer. Subsequently, questions and answers can be shared with the larger class.
  • Peer editing: As opposed to the editing process that often appears only at the final stage of a paper, peer editing pairs up students at the idea generation stage and peers provide feedback throughout the process. For example, the relationship begins as each student in the pair describes their topic ideas and outlines the structure of their work while their partner asks questions, and develops an outline based on what is described. See also, peer review.

Problem solving: developing strategies and analysis
Research by mathematics educators Vidakovic (1997) and Vidakovic and Martin (2004) shows that groups are able to solve problems more accurately than individuals working alone.
  • Send-a-problem: Students participate in a series of problem solving rounds, contributing their independently generated solution to those that have been developed by other groups. After a number of rounds, students are asked to review the solutions developed by their peers, evaluate the answers and develop a final solution. (Example: Understanding the Impact of (Fiscal and Monetary) Policy)
  • Three-stay, one-stray: Even students working in groups can benefit from the feedback of additional peers. In this structure, students periodically take a break from their work (often at key decision making points) and send one group member to another group to describe their progress. The role of the group is to gain information and alternative perspectives by listening and sharing. The number of times the group sends a representative to another group depends on the level of complexity of the problem. This method can also be used to report out final solutions.

For additional structures associated with each of these skill categories, see Barkley, Cross and Major, 2005.