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

Two students gathering streamflow data in the Cannon River

Original module developed by Rebecca Teed, John McDaris, and Cary Roseth

Enhanced by KimMarie McGoldrick with assistance from Jim Cooper, Dan Marburger, Jennifer Rhoads, Karl Smith

What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative Learning involves structuring classes around small groups that work together in such a way that each group member's success is dependent on the group's success. There are different kinds of groups for different situations, but they all balance some key elements that distinguish cooperative learning from competitive or individualistic learning.

Cooperative learning can also be contrasted with what it is not. Cooperation is not having students sit side-by-side at the same table to talk with each other as they do their individual assignments. Cooperation is not assigning a report to a group of students where one student does all the work and the others put their names on the product as well. Cooperation involves much more than being physically near other students, discussing material, helping, or sharing material with other students. There is a crucial difference between simply putting students into groups to learn and in structuring cooperative interdependence among students. Learn more about cooperative learning

Why Use Cooperative Learning?

Extensive research has compared cooperative learning with traditional classroom instruction using the same teachers, curriculum, and assessments. On the average:
  • Students who engage in cooperative learning learn significantly more, remember it longer, and develop better critical-thinking skills than their counterparts in traditional lecture classes.
  • Students enjoy cooperative learning more than traditional lecture classes, so they are more likely to attend classes and finish the course.
  • Students are going to go on to jobs that require teamwork. Cooperative learning helps students develop the skills necessary to work on projects too difficult and complex for any one person to do in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Cooperative learning processes prepare students to assess outcomes linked to accreditation.
Learn more about reasons to use cooperative learning

How to Use Cooperative Learning

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.

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

Learn more about how to use cooperative learning

Cooperative Learning Techniques

Cooperative learning techniques can be loosely categorized by the skill that each enhances (Barkley, Cross and Major, 2005), although it is important to recognize that many cooperative learning exercises can be developed to fit within multiple categories. Categories include: discussion, reciprocal teaching, graphic organizers, writing and problem solving. Each category includes a number of potential structures to guide the development of a cooperative learning exercise. For example, the category of problem-solving helps to develop strategic and analytical skills and includes exercises such as the send-a-problem, three-stay one-stray, structured problem solving, and analytical teams.

Learn more about cooperative learning techniques

Testimonials and Videos

Testimonials about successful cooperative learning exercises and videos that demonstrate key aspects of cooperative learning exercises are available.


  • Bibliography of useful books and articles about cooperative learning.
  • Web Resources which provide additional information on cooperative learning.
  • Examples of ways to use cooperative learning in your classroom.

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