Pedagogy in Action > Library > Cooperative Learning > How to Use Cooperative Learning > Pre-Instructional Planning

Pre-Instructional Planning


Students not yet in groups
Cooperative learning is an approach that generates results in proportion to how regular and disciplined its application is. If you wish to use cooperative learning, it is a good idea to start as early in the term as possible to give your students time to develop the interpersonal skills needed to make an effective cooperative learning group. For the same reason, you will likely want to use cooperative learning for several projects, rather than using it only once. Applying cooperative learning to your classroom effectively takes some pre-planning in the areas of setting objectives, creating positive interdependence, choosing group size and composition, identifying group decision making strategies, and choosing reporting out techniques.

Academic and Social Skills Objectives

Educators are used to developing academic goals for their students for each lesson. With cooperative learning, social skills or group processing skills are added to the mix. So you need to explicitly state these goals alongside the content goals you've set for your activity.

Cooperative learning techniques can be loosely categorized by the skill that each enhances including (Barkley, Cross and Major, 2005):
Each category includes a number of potential structures to guide the development of a cooperative learning exercise. For example, developing strategies and analytical skills associated with problem-solving includes exercises such as the send-a-problem, three-stay one-stray, structured problem solving, and analytical teams. (Read descriptions of different techniques.)

Creating Positive Interdependence

Positive interdependence can be built into the project by creating and environment in which there:

You can provide students with advice on splitting up the work, or allow them to decide. Identification of sub-tasks and strategies on accomplishing them may be an important part of the learning process for students.

Ways to promote positive interdependence include (Smith and Waller 1997, p. 202):
The setup of the classroom can also foster the positive interdependence you want.

Group Size

How involved is the project? How many students are needed to do the job? Ideally, that's how many students you want to group. For short or simple tasks, often a pair is sufficient. Groups for a big project or base groups for an entire course will usually be larger.

Smaller groups are more effective and easier to work with than large ones, as students are less likely to be able to duck their share of work. Research suggests that groups of 3 or 5 are ideal for base groups and formal cooperative groups. Informal groups are best with 2-4 students. (Read descriptions of different types of cooperative learning groups.)

Group Composition

For brief exercises, it shouldn't be a problem for students to work with their friends, but for formal cooperative learning, there are a couple of issues to consider when letting students assemble into groups of their own choosing:

Random groups, especially for one-shot projects, are easy to assemble. They can be set up:

Selection by instructor to enhance heterogeneity of groups is a more involved process.

Group Decision Making

While some group-functioning issues are taken care of when members are assigned specific roles, there remains the issue of group decision making. Once groups are formed it may be necessary to provide members with group processing techniques, especially for more complex, formal exercises. Barkeley, Cross and Major (2005: p. 73) offer a number of common approaches to group decision making:

Reporting Out

Marisa and Bess present the research poster for their group

The end of any cooperative learning exercise provides an opportunity to share with the larger group. The method by which this reporting out is done varies by objectives, time constraints, and number of groups. Common reporting out techniques include:


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