Pre-Instructional Planning

Initial Publication Date: December 11, 2006

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):
  • learning the language of the discipline
  • explaining, providing feedback, understanding alternative perspectives
  • discovering patterns and relationships
  • organizing and synthesizing information
  • developing strategies for analysis
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:

  • is just too much work for one person
  • are tasks that require more than one person to do (such as peer review)

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):
  • Output goal interdependence- a single product is produced by the group
  • Learning goal interdependence- the group ensures that every member can explain the group's product
  • Resource interdependence- members are provided parts of the assignment or relevant information or the group is only provided one copy of the assignment
  • Role interdependence- members are given distinct roles that are key to the functioning of the group. There are a variety of different student roles that may be assigned.
The setup of the classroom can also foster the positive interdependence you want.
  • "Knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye" is a good catch phrase for how students should be arranged. This close proximity enhances the collective feel among the members.

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:

  • Heterogeneous groups tend to learn better together (Wenzel, 2000 ), although students of similar backgrounds are more likely to start off as friends.
  • Close friends may fail to fully involve other students in some activities.

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

  • Outside of class using a roster
  • Having students count off (better than random, in some ways, as it rearranges students who started class sitting together into different groups)
  • Having students draw group membership from a hat (using playing cards or affiliation cards which signify group and/or roles)
  • Having groups line up and divide (based on a value line which represents a continuum of perspectives on an issue)

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

  • You will need a detailed roster before class or you can hand out a questionnaire before the first project starts
  • Students can be split up by experience: age, number of years in school (or teaching), majors, gender, race/language
  • Students can also be split up by perspectives held on a controversial issue in the discipline using likert scale rating
  • Usually a main goal will be to create groups that are as heterogeneous as possible.

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:
  • Authority: open discussions are followed by a single leader making final decisions.
  • Majority: the groups holds a vote on the issue for which there are multiple perspectives
  • Negative minority: groups eliminate the most unpopular options sequentially
  • Consensus: discussions and negotiations occur until all group members agree
  • Using criteria: groups first identify criteria for developing a solution and then evaluate options in light of these
  • Compromise: groups combine solutions or parts of solutions rather than choosing one over another

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:
  • Stand up and share: one representative from each group is asked to share output. This can be implemented in multiple round cooperative learning exercises as well as what is shared and who does the sharing changes for each round.
  • Three Stay-One Stray: one group member rotates to another group to share and receive while others remain as a member from a different group joins. After a few rounds of sharing all groups have interacted.
  • Poster session: students develop a visual representation of the group product. One group representative stays with the visual as others mill about asking questions. Changing the individual responsible for representing the group at their poster allows for greater engagement. Posters can be developed as part of the in-class group work or developed out-of-class with the sharing component commencing the following class period.
  • Gallery walk: gets students out of their chairs and actively involves them in synthesizing important concepts, in consensus building, in writing, and in public speaking. In Gallery Walk teams rotate around the classroom, composing answers to questions as well as reflecting upon the answers given by other groups. Questions are posted on charts or just pieces of paper located in different parts of the classroom. Each chart or "station" has its own question that relates to an important class concept. The technique closes with a oral presentation or "report out" in which each group synthesizes comments to a particular question.