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Cooperative Learning

This article defines and explains cooperative learning and provides information on how cooperative learning groups are formed, the pros and cons of cooperative learning, and tips on cooperative learning.

Cooperate comes from the Latin roots co- meaning “together” and operari meaning “to work,” so cooperate means “to work together.” Since collaborate, although it comes from the roots col- and labore, also means “to work together,” the terms cooperative learning and collaborative learning are sometimes used interchangeably. Nevertheless, cooperative learning can be understood as a particular type of collaborative learning, and it is that understanding that we will be exploring in this article. For more on collaborative learning, see the article “Collaborative Learning.”

What Is Cooperative Learning?

Although it is possible for very large numbers of people to work cooperatively, the term cooperative learning is used specifically for work by a small group of students who join together to complete a structured activity of some kind. Although the group is assessed as a whole, possibly for a paper or culminating presentation, each member is also accountable for his or her contribution to the group.

Working in a cooperative learning group adds dimensions to the learning process that are not developed when students work alone. They:

  • can receive more peer input as they plan and carry out their work
  • must be able to verbalize their thoughts and reasoning processes
  • may need to worth through differences of opinion
  • can learn how to take advantage of different group members’ strengths
  • support each other in areas in which there are weaknesses
  • bring different learning styles, prior knowledge, and abilities to bear on the task they share
  • learn skills that have important real-world applications in many family and work situations

How Cooperative Learning Groups Are Formed

There is research support both for grouping students by ability and creating heterogeneous ability groupings when planning for students to work together in collaborative groups. In addition, people have some pretty strong feelings about such groupings. Anybody who was ever placed in a group with a “slacker,” who did no work, and who suffered a poor grade as the result of someone else’s failure is likely to feel some fairly strong opposition to mixed groupings, and possibly to groupings in general.

In addition, there is research that supports that gifted students may be poorly served by being grouped with students who do not share their strengths. It may turn out to be true that this is particularly the case when the cooperative learning project is in an area in which the gifted student excels.

Part of the antidote to these issues may be in how the group is composed and how grading is handled, as well as fitting the composition of the group to the particular project at hand. It does seem objectively unfair to, say, make a nine-year-old suffer because s/he was unable to motivate another nine-year-old to contribute fairly to a project. By creating an environment in which groups are thoughtfully chosen - perhaps with certain student preferences taken into account - and, while maintaining that students must work jointly and resolve conflicts about how to work, making sure that no student will suffer because another student simply won’t participate, the atmosphere around cooperative learning groups can be lightened.

However, in order to keep things flowing smoothly, there may need to be some adult intervention if the group is firmly divided on some issue. Just as a judge does not leave a deadlocked jury to fight it out forever, so a cooperative learning group may need to be assisted or, indeed, be recomposed in order to complete their work harmoniously.

With the use of multi-age class groupings and research that supports diversity in cooperative learning groups, they are likely to continue. And with the cooperative efforts that are needed to run a business, a school, and a country, it makes sense to have cooperative learning experiences be part of a child’s education.


Educational Broadcasting Corporation: Thirteen Ed Online: Cooperative and Collaborative Learning -

Educational Technology Center at Kennesaw State University: Cooperative Learning -