Cooperative Learning in Economics

Initial Publication Date: November 13, 2009
Original module on economics developed by KimMarie McGoldrick
With assistance from Jim Cooper, Dan Marburger, Jennifer Rhoads, Karl Smith

Integrating Cooperative Learning into Economics Courses

Cooperative learning is "one of the most thoroughly researched of all instructional methods" in part because of the many forms it can take (Slavin, 1990: 52). Research suggests that cooperative learning exercises enhance both academic achievement, motivation for learning and retention. In economics, Yamarik (2007) found that students scored four to six points higher on exams compared to students enrolled in a traditional, lecture format class after controlling for classroom, demographic and academic factors. Yamarik argues that this gain in examination scores can be linked to greater instructor-student interaction, greater likelihood of group studying, and enhanced interest in economics.

Cooperative learning exercises range from quick and informal (such as the think-pair-share technique) to encompassing entire class periods with very formal components (such as the send-a-problem technique). Thus, exercises can be developed for any economics class from introductory to senior experience courses as well as survey, mathematical, and theoretically oriented courses.

The key to developing successful cooperative learning exercises is to recognize that it entails much more than putting students into groups to complete a task. Cooperative learning advocates stress a number of critical components and understanding these components will have a significant impact on the success of any planned exercise.

Choosing the Appropriate Form of Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning exercises 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, problem-solving (which is perhaps most relevant to typical exercises in economics) includes exercises such as the send-a-problem, three-stay one-stray, structured problem solving, and analytical teams. Other categories are equally rich in the number of exercise formats. However, it is important to note that more complex exercises can be developed to incorporate skills across more than one of these categories. Choosing among such a wide range of options suggests the need for a well defined set of objectives, both learning and content focused.
learn more about identifying and developing objectives

Challenges and Insights

Developing cooperative learning exercises for the economics classroom presents special challenges, but as a result also presents opportunities. Economics faculty are particularly sensitive to issues related to the balance of breadth and depth of knowledge and the free-rider problem.
learn more about content coverage and free-riders

Economics classrooms are also less diverse in student body than might be expected given the gender ratio of college attendees, for example. Personality type differences between faculty and students has been argued to be a source of disconnect between teaching and learning styles.
learn more about student diversity and learning styles

The content of much of economics also raises special challenges. It has been argued that the "rational self-interested man" assumption prevalent across fields within the discipline breeds competition among students. Additionally, economics is an "unsettled science" with political disputes underlying many core concepts.
learn more about economics assumptions and controversies

Other challenges faculty may face include evaluating output, dominant personalities/perfectionists and peer feedback issues.

For more insights from successful practitioners see Cooper, MacGregor, Smith and Robinson (2000).

Economic Examples

Economic examples can be categorized along the lines of faculty/student time investment, types of classroom settings, and content.

Faculty/student time investment:
  • Low (simple, informal, less than 15 minutes, in-class)
  • Medium (one to two meeting sessions, more formal, in or out of class)
  • High (complex, formal, across multiple class periods, in and out of class)

Classroom settings:

  • Recitation and laboratory sections
  • Small enrollment classes
  • Large enrollment classes
  • Online classes
  • Principles
  • Fields/Upper division classes


This bibliography includes references to articles cited on the Cooperative Learning in Economics site as well as articles describing cooperative learning applications in economics.