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As a middle school English teacher, I incorporated plenty of group work into my instruction. I did it for a number of reasons. Sometimes it was because a task seemed like a natural fit for cooperative learning, like days when I wanted students to brainstorm ideas together. Other times it was just to mix things up and do something different. And then there was the “fewer grades” principle: If I had 120 students and I gave an assignment to groups of four, that meant I would only have to grade 30 final products, rather than 120.
It didn’t always go well, though.
Student contributions were uneven. Some groups were better at staying on task than others. A lot of time got wasted. Personalities conflicted. Absences created logistical headaches. Not only did I observe these problems as a teacher, I had also experienced them plenty of times as a participant in group projects. I was the classic “just let me do it all” person: Sensing early on in most situations that other group members weren’t going to add much value, I ended up taking on most of the work myself.
Despite it all, I never quite gave up on cooperative learning as a teacher. Not only did I believe in its inherent value—that as humans, we need regular practice in working together on things—but I knew that research said it was a good thing. At least, I was pretty sure it did.
As I talk with teachers about this, I’m finding that my experiences have been fairly typical: Many of us want to use cooperative learning in our classrooms, but we wish we could get it to work better. So I went in search of answers by taking a look at the research and asking for help in this tweet and this one.
And now I have the answers to two questions.
First, Is cooperative learning worth it? What does the research say? Beyond academic research, are there philosophical, “human” reasons we should keep taking it on?
Second, How do we solve some of the most common problems with cooperative learning? After seeking input from scores of teachers and mining my own experiences, I’ve settled on a list of four of the most pressing issues with cooperative learning. For each one, I’ll share some of the most effective solutions coming from practicing classroom teachers and organizations that have developed formal systems for collaborative work.
If most of the cooperative learning we implement only gives us lukewarm results, it makes sense to ask if we should even bother. Why not just have students work alone all the time?
I’m going to keep this brief: Rather than dig through piles of studies on cooperative learning, I found one big overview of decades of research that has been done on the subject (Gillies, 2016).
Here’s the big takeaway: In general, when students work together, they make greater academic and social gains than when they compete against one another or when they work individually. But merely putting students into groups is not enough to realize these gains. To be effective, cooperative work needs to be structured so that it embodies five key components:
Apart from the academic and social gains cooperative learning has offered for generations, we now find ourselves in an era where it may be more essential than ever before.
For one thing, it gives students practice in the kind of skills that are becoming more desirable in the workplace. P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning includes collaboration as one of its essential skills. As manufacturing is automated and information can be obtained with a few clicks, higher-level skills like communication, creativity, and collaboration are more valued—these are skills computers can’t really replicate. The work of human beings is going to involve more and more of those kinds of skills in professional spaces, higher education, and community life.
On a deeper level, we need cooperative learning because technology is really starting to limit our face-to-face communication. Even when we’re in school together, we are on devices so much of the time. This can be wonderful and efficient, and it offers so many more opportunities to expose ourselves to new ideas, but it is stunting our ability to have regular conversations and robbing us of all the gifts that come with those interactions. Giving students regular opportunities to share physical space and actually talk through complex problems is a gift they may not get anywhere else, so yes, it’s worth it.
It came as no surprise to me that this was the most frequently mentioned drawback teachers experience with cooperative learning. This problem shows up in different ways: The academically strong students end up doing all the work, while others slack off or give up because they can’t find a way in. Or maybe students contribute an equal amount, but they don’t actually work together; instead, they just divide up the work, then copy off each other’s papers.
Unfortunately, many teachers assume this problem is caused by students not wanting to work together, but I think it often comes down to two larger issues: First, students haven’t been taught collaborative skills. And second, the task has not been structured for true collaboration.
Solving this problem is not simple or one-dimensional. It will most likely require several different approaches: explicitly teaching collaborative skills, using some type of structure so that roles and procedures are more clearly defined, and setting norms and expectations ahead of time.
Explicitly teach collaborative skills.
If students are going to do good collaborative work, they need to be explicitly taught collaborative skills.
Use cooperative structures.
In my own classroom, I rarely did anything to actually structure group work. I was barely aware that formal structures existed for this type of thing. Since then I have learned that quite a few of these have been developed to provide a framework for collaborative tasks. To implement most of these well, some training or professional development will likely be necessary. Some of the structures that were recommended by teachers are listed here:
Establish norms and expectations ahead of time.
Rather than solve problems only when they come up, many teachers have students create group contracts before starting work. Developed with input from all group members, contracts outline members’ expectations and describe how students will respond when problems arise. These resources can help you get started with developing contracts:
Sometimes students just can’t get along well enough to work together. These conflicts sometimes exist prior to a group’s formation; students may have a history with one another that has nothing to do with your class. Personal problems can also arise after group work starts, as students discover personality traits that create irritation or conflict.
These kinds of conflicts should not be treated lightly. When students don’t feel socially or emotionally comfortable with other group members, they won’t be willing to take the kinds of risks that are necessary for learning. In a 2-year study, Google interviewed hundreds of its employees to determine what qualities made some teams more successful than others. They identified 5 key traits, and the one they said was most important was psychological safety. Similarly, a 2017 University of Washington study reported that students who “felt more comfortable” in their group showed a 27% increase in content mastery over those who did not (Theobald, Eddy, Grunspan, Wiggins, & Crowe, 2017).
Here are some ways teachers have optimized interpersonal dynamics in groups:
Elementary teacher Erin Gannon used some of the above solutions with a student whose dominant personality and poor impulse control made others ask to not be grouped with her. Gannon worked with the student one on one to practice strategies for giving others more opportunity to lead. She also talked privately with the other group members.
“We ALL came up with a plan together for what would happen if she started to ‘feel prickly,'” Gannon says. “(The student) wasn’t perfect but they genuinely cheered her on when she had good days. It took a lot of work but I would have devoted the same attention to an academic need. She was an excellent student, very sweet, with great leadership abilities, but that trouble working with others could really have hurt her down the road. I think my other students really needed to better understand the situation and not just shun her. If students are working in teams there should be a sense that we are all responsible for each other’s success. Empowering them to be part of the solution is pretty powerful.”
Whether it’s excessive talking, inappropriate device use, or general fooling around, a lot of cooperative time can be wasted when students just aren’t doing the work they’re supposed to be doing. Here are some ways to tackle this problem:
Ideally, all group members will be present for the whole lifespan of a project. But things happen, and the longer the project, the more likely you are to have absent students. One missed day is usually not a big deal, but if a student misses multiple work days when the group should be actively collaborating, it becomes much harder for that person to make an equal contribution. Here are some ways teachers have found to work around this issue:
The bottom line is this: If cooperative learning hasn’t really worked for you in the past, don’t lose hope. There are so many people out there who have come up with fantastic ways to get it right, so pick yourself and your students back up, try some of the stuff we’ve covered here, and see if you can make it better next time.
Gillies, R. M. (2016). Cooperative learning: Review of research and practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3). Retrieved from https://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2902&context=ajte
Theobald, E.J., Eddy, S.L., Grunspan, D.Z., Wiggins, B.L., & Crowe, A.J. (2017). Student perception of group dynamics predicts individual performance: Comfort and equity matter. PLOS One, 12(7): e0181336. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181336