How to Use Cooperative Learning

This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: December 11, 2006

A large 7 group of students out in the field

Cooperative learning exercises can be as simple as a five minute in class exercise or as complex as a project which crosses class periods. These can be described more generally in terms of low, medium, and high 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)

Cooperative learning can be used across a wide range of classroom settings ranging from small to large lecture, as well as in online classes.

  • Recitation and laboratory sections
  • Small enrollment classes
  • Large enrollment classes (by using personal response devices, Smith et al, 2009)
  • Online classes (Roberts, 2004)
No matter what the setting is, properly designing and implementing cooperative learning involves five key steps. Following these steps is critical to ensuring that the five key elements that differentiate cooperative learning from simply putting students into groups are met. (Johnson et al., 2006, 2:30-31.)
  1. Pre-Instructional Planning
    Prior planning helps to establish the specific cooperative learning technique to be used and lays the foundation for effective group work. Plan out how groups will be formed and structure how the members will interact with each other.
  2. Introduce the Activity to the Students
    Students need to get their "marching orders." Explain the academic task to them and what the criteria are for success. Then structure the cooperative aspects of their work with special attention to the components of positive interdependence and individual accountability. Set up time limits and allow for clarifying questions.
  3. Monitor and Intervene
    This is where you let the groups run while you circulate through the room to collect observation data, see whether they understand the assignment, give immediate feedback and praise for working together. If a group is having problems, you can intervene to help them get on the right track.
  4. Assessment
    Some informal assessment is already done while you are monitoring the groups during the exercise. However, once the group finishes their project, work should be assessed by both instructor and group.
  5. Process
    Group processing involves asking the groups to rate their own performance and set goals for themselves to improve their cooperative work.