Potential Challenges with Cooperative Learning

Initial Publication Date: December 11, 2006
foreground student is resting while background student uses GPS receiver


In traditional lecture classes, many instructors see success as covering as much material related to the class topic as possible. From this perspective, cooperative learning could be seen as grossly inefficient, since many instructors see about a 50% reduction in the ground they can cover (McManus, 1996 (more info) ). This is, however, comparing apples to oranges.

The goals for courses which employ cooperative learning are not the same as those for a straight lecture class. It is no longer all about "telling them as much as possible about X." The goals now necessarily include complementing the development of students' analytical skills and critical thinking with social and cooperative skills in order to enhance their ability to work well together. It is reasonable to expect that students will become more efficient as they gain experience in a cooperative setting but given the additional emphases when using cooperative learning, instructors should adjust their expectations for breadth or depth of coverage.

Evaluating Output

Evaluating group work can be challenging in the face of student preferences for full control over their individual grade and faculty's historical reliance on individual grading procedures. Pantiz (2003) provides a list of techniques that to some extent address both issues:

  • "teacher observations during group work,
  • group grading for projects,
  • students grading each other or evaluating the level of contribution made by each member to a team project,
  • extra credit given when groups exceed their previous average or when individuals within a group exceed their previous performance by a specified amount,
  • use of a mastery approach whereby students may retake tests after receiving extra help from their groups or the teacher, and
  • the use of quizzes, exams, or assignments graded to ensure individual accountability." (p. 195-6)
Learn more about assessment of cooperative learning

Problem Personalities

As you observe students engaged in group work, something to watch for is a student on the sidelines or dominating the conversation. In most cases, it doesn't last. The student may be taking a break or have some particular expertise on the subject. If, however, other students complain or the issue seems protracted, you may have to intervene.


This behavior is rare, with only about 7% of students riding the group coattail according to Kaufman et al., 1999 . It may be a problem of motivation or immaturity or it may simply be the case that the student is too shy or too passive to get involved with the group.

Shy or unconfident students may be able to get involved with help from the rest of the group, so the first attempt to deal with the problem, if you wish to give the student the benefit of a doubt, would be an informal request to the group to make an effort to involve the shy student.

  • One way to do this would be to suggest that the group assign roles. Not only would the passive student have a responsibility, but it would be the responsibility of certain other group members to involve him or her.
  • Incorporating the use of talking chips also promotes contributions by all group members. Students are provided with the same number of chips at the start of the exercise. Each time they contribute to the discussion they must forfeit a chip. A student cannot contribute again until each group member contributes in turn. Different color chips can be used to integrate different types of contributions (brainstorming, critical reflection, etc) throughout the exercise.
  • Some students may not encourage participation by passive students if they believe it will negatively impact the group grade. Building in positive interdependence and individual accountability (which is one of the five key elements of cooperative learning) can help overcome this behavior.

If in-group efforts don't work, you can put the non-participator on probation, working on a project alone, for the next unit.

  • If you have some way of determining what each student did during the last project, you can split up any group grades and give the student now on probation a separate grade.
  • If the solo project doesn't get finished or isn't done well, the nonparticipator should probably continue to work alone for the rest of the term. You'll want to make sure his or her former team is not excessively handicapped by having one fewer member.

Dominant Personalities/Perfectionists

Sometimes, it's the other way around. One student (occasionally two) will have high standards or intense involvement with a project to such a degree that they (often unintentionally) exclude their teammates.

  • Sometimes, the student with the problem will be the one to complain to the instructor (that his or her teammates are not pulling their weight).
  • Careful monitoring is necessary to distinguish a group with hitchhikers from a group with one or more extreme achievers.
  • Another possibility is that certain members of the group are good friends, and find it so much easier to communicate with one another that they simply fail to involve shy students.
  • Often a perfectionist student may warn an instructor early on that he or she really cannot deal with group work.

Without assigning blame, it is possible to treat this problem just like hitchhiking; help the group to restructure their group dynamics by increasing interdependence, social skills procedures, processing, individual accountability, etc. If this fails, once again, it may be best to break up the group and let some people work on their own. Perfectionist students may prefer working alone.

Giving and Receiving Peer Review

Group processing and sometimes the work of the group itself may depend on the ability of the members to give constructive criticism and their perception that it is "safe" to do so in their group. Many students have had little experience or bad experience with criticizing peers or are unwilling to receive criticism in return. Under these conditions, group members may simply each turn in their share of the project, not necessarily even looking at their partners' work, and move on to the next task.

This can be a serious problem in pairs that have to work together throughout an entire term. A larger group (3 or 4) reduces the pressure to get along a little, especially if they are assigned to critically read a different person's work each time. It may also be necessary to teach students about how to give and receive constructive criticism. (See How to Teach Cooperative Skills.)

Another way to facilitate peer review early on would be to make it double-blind; all products are turned in to the instructor with a student number, known to the instructor. The instructor then hands them out to group members to review anonymously, then returns them to the original author for revision before grading.

Learn more about group processing