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It’s extremely common for teachers to require students to work in groups. However, certain types of groups and activities are preferred over others.

In this lesson, we define cooperative learning and discuss its advantages in the classroom. We also define collaborative learning and explain how it is different than cooperative learning.

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Cooperative Learning

Working together in a group can be a great experience for some people and a terrible one for others. You’ve probably realized by now that working in a group is pretty common in education. However, every group is not created equal and some groups function better than others.

That’s part of the reason why many teachers promote cooperative learning, instead.In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups to complete a structured task or goal. It is more than just working in a group, as group work alone does not guarantee cooperative learning. As you may have experienced, when students are simply required to work together, they are usually rewarded based on the success of the entire group. It is all too often the case that only some members of the group do all of the work. It cannot be said that all of the members are actually learning. On the other hand, in cooperative learning, members of the group are not only rewarded based on the success of the entire group but are also individually accountable for their own work.

The task or activity is structured in a way that requires the input and participation of every group member. As a result, all of the group members learn from each other. Cooperative learning is often confused with collaborative learning, but they are not the same thing. We’ll discuss collaborative learning later in this lesson.


An example of a very popular cooperative learning activity that teachers use is jigsaw, where each student is required to research one section of the material and then teach it to the other members of the group. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece or section is put together at the end, and only then does the entire picture make sense.

For example, imagine you’ve been placed in a group that has been tasked with researching the life of Dr. Seuss. In jigsaw, you and the members of your group would each be responsible for researching certain periods of his life. Let’s say there are four members of your group. You are responsible for researching his childhood, and the other members of your group are responsible for other periods of his life. When you are finished with your individual research, you report what you’ve learned to the other members of your group.

Once everyone is finished with their reports, you have a complete picture of his entire life.In this way, jigsaw activities are specifically structured so that the only access any member has to all of the information is through the work of other members. So, if you don’t listen to someone in your group, you won’t know the information and won’t do well on the test that follows.As a cooperative learning activity, jigsaw provides a very efficient way for students to learn. Cooperative learning also has a number of other advantages.

For example, as they work together, students learn how to socialize, solve problems, and handle conflict. Additionally, learning to cooperate with others is vital for success later in life. Almost every company that a student will work for is likely to require them to work in a group at some point.

Elements of Cooperative Learning

As we discussed before, simply working in a group does not guarantee cooperative learning. There are five elements that define true cooperative learning in groups:

  1. Face-to-face interaction
  2. Positive interdependence
  3. Individual accountability
  4. Collaborative skills
  5. Group processing

Face-to-face interaction is a bit counter-intuitive because it doesn’t necessarily mean face-to-face as in ‘in-person’. It actually just refers to direct interaction. So, it can be literally face-to-face, or it could be over the phone, on chat, via Skype, through email, etc.

It’s just referring to the fact that group members have to actually interact in order to cooperate.The second element is positive interdependence, which means that the group members rely on each other and can only succeed together. This goes hand-in-hand with the third element, which is individual accountability.

As an interdependent group, each individual is responsible for his or her own work and can be held accountable for that work.The fourth element of cooperative learning is collaborative skills. The group members must be able to work together, but the ability to do so doesn’t always come naturally; sometimes these skills need to be taught. And the final element is group processing, which refers to the fact that the group needs to monitor itself to ensure that the group, as a whole, is working together effectively.

Additional Examples

We already discussed jigsaw as an example of a cooperative learning activity, but it is not the only one. You’ll want to be familiar with at least two others: jigsaw II and reciprocal teaching.As you can imagine, jigsaw II is extremely similar to the original jigsaw method.

Just like jigsaw, members of the group are assigned separate pieces of the topic. But in this second version, individuals from different groups that have the same piece then become their own temporary group, in order to help each other become experts on that particular topic. Once they have become experts, they split up and go back to their original group. For example, picture your Dr. Seuss research group.

Your group is not the only group in the class; there are two other groups that have the same assignment. If you remember, you were responsible for researching the childhood of Dr. Seuss for your group. In jigsaw II, you would temporarily join individuals from other groups who are also responsible for his childhood. You would then research it together and make sure everyone has the same information. Then, you would go back to your original group to give your report.Reciprocal teaching is different than both jigsaw and jigsaw II.

Students are placed in groups after a lesson, and they take turns asking and answering each other’s’ questions about the information they just learned. This is typically used as a method of reviewing for a test, and it’s quite effective.

Collaborative Learning

A learning construct that is extremely similar to cooperative learning is collaborative learning.

In collaborative learning, students complete a task or goal by working together as a true team. It’s easy to confuse cooperative learning and collaborative learning, and they are frequently used interchangeably. This confusion is understandable since both involve a group of students working together to complete a certain task or goal. However, the terms cooperating and collaborating represent two very different types of group interaction. When cooperating, members of a group have agreed to work together because they recognize that they must work together in order for each person to gain something (such as a good grade). As we’ve discussed, cooperative learning is structured by the teacher and he or she requires each student to participate in the group. The members are accountable because of the structure the teacher has created.

In contrast, when members of a group collaborate, they don’t do it just because it’s a requirement. They like working as a group because they value the contributions of each group member, and they truly believe that the end result will be better than if they had worked individually. Collaborative learning is not structured by the teacher; instead, the group truly functions as a team. They share authority, accept personal responsibility, and hold each other accountable for their work.

It’s also important to note that collaborative learning is not the same as collaborative instruction, which we discussed in another lesson. Collaborative instruction is when two or more teachers work together to plan, teach, and monitor a class. Collaborative learning is when students choose to work together as a team to accomplish the learning task or goal.

Lesson Summary

In summary, cooperative learning is more than simply working in a group. It involves working together towards a common goal or task in an activity that is structured so that every member of the group participates. Cooperative learning teaches students to work together and also improves social skills, problem-solving ability, and conflict resolution.

There are several learning activities that teachers use to promote cooperative learning, including jigsaw, jigsaw II, and reciprocal teaching.The elements required during any activity to qualify as true cooperative learning are face-to-face interaction, positive interdependence, individual accountability, collaborative skills, and group processing.Cooperative learning is often confused with collaborative learning, but the two represent very different types of group interaction. Members of cooperative learning groups participate because they are required to do so, and they are held individually accountable because of the teacher. On the other hand, members of collaborative learning groups enjoy working together because they value each person’s contribution.

They work together voluntarily and hold themselves individually accountable because they share authority and have a high level of respect for each other.

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