Faculty Development & Learning Assessment

Cooperative Learning - The 5 Basic Elements


Cooperative learning is much more than simply having students work in groups. Professors who try group work without building in the primary elements of cooperative learning usually have experiences that range somewhere between disappointment and catastrophe.

Common complaints with group work are:

These activities do not occur during true cooperative learning. True cooperative learning has 5 elements that prevent such problems:

1. Positive Interdependence – The task must be structured so that members of the group sink or swim together; one member cannot succeed at the expense of others.

2. Face to Face Interaction – This exists when students assist and support one another’s efforts to learn. This occurs as students actively teach one another to solve problems and understand concepts.

3. Individual Accountability – This prevents a member from getting a free ride on the work of others and prevents low quality of work being accepted from an individual by peers in the group.

4. Social Skills – Groups improve as members learn to contribute positively, acquire trust and manage conflict. These skills are not innate; they must be learned by the teacher and taught to the students.

5. Group Processing – Processing time is usually the most neglected aspect of classroom teaching. In an effort to “cover the material” we forget that our objective is students’ learning, not just presenting material. Processing is essential to insure understanding. Talented students often have learned to do this effectively on their own; average students can be taught to be more effective. If questions such as, “What was the central underlying concept of today’s class?” or, “What is the step-by-step procedure through which we applied this concept to arrive at a successful solution?” are reviewed by the group as well as the aspects of how restating the concept or altering the process might lead to improved understanding, then students leave the class with more comprehension of the material than they would have without processing.

Adapted from: University of Colorado, Denver. (1993). Nutshell Notes: Newsletter for Teaching Excellence, 2(1). Denver, CO.

Tip References

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1991). Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MI: Interaction Book Company.