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Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy identified by Robert J. Marzano as a means to increase student learning and understanding. (Northwest Regional Eductional, 2005) Cooperative learning is much more than a teacher assigning group work, but requires planning, and monitoring to insure that the goals of student learning and understanding are achieved.

How is cooperative learning different from group work? In group work, the teacher discusses a subject, assigns a task, and allows the class to split into small groups. The groups work informally, without assigning roles, recording the progress or proceedings of the group. Some members may work. Jacobs, Lee, and Ng, in an 23 page paper, detail not only the requirements to make cooperative learning successful, but also research that compares how well cooperative learning improves student learning and understanding compared to other strategies. They discuss several psychologically-based theories on how cooperative learning works
(Jacob, Lee, & Ng, 1997), including work by Skinner and Bandura. According to Motivational Theory, students in a regular classroom setting, receive positive reinforcement only from the teacher. Because students are competing with each other for the teacher’s attention and praise, they are “negatively interdependent.” Classmates are competitors against each other for the only source of positive reinforcement, the teacher. In cooperative learning, however, students are now “positively interdependent”. Rather than being competitors, classmates can positively reinforce each other. Classmates work together so that the group will succeed in its goals of gaining understand

Jacob, Lee & Ng touch on how cooperative learning’s strong use of social interaction links with Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. Students who have strong interpersonal intelligence, but are weak on a technical intelligence can still contribute by helping the group function.
Key conditions for cooperative learning to work are:
  • Mutual responsibility that group members have for themselves and each other.
  • Face-to-face interaction with each other.
  • Self-awareness of communication with others.

Cooperative learning methods

Before the group works on the assignment, it needs to take care of some housekeeping duties: select a leader/facilitator; secretary-note taker; time-keeper; data-recorder; etc. The group also needs to assign tasks to accomplish the project.

There are many resources available to learn about cooperative learning. Titled “Cooperative Learning”, is a webpage published by The Educational Technology Training Center, Kennesaw State University. This webpage gives an overview about cooperative learning and describes nine methods. An in-depth handbook on cooperative learning is, “Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods", edited by Sholomo Sharan.

ben_Jigsaw_puzzle_2.jpgOne of the more intriguing techniques is jigsaw puzzle. A topic is subdivided into 4 to 6 sub-topics. The class is divided into home groups so that each home group has as many members as sub-topics. Each group member is assigned a sub-topic to study and becomes an expert. The experts conduct their own research, then meet with the counter-parts from the other home groups. Sharing the knowledge the experts gathered individual, they produce presentations to give to their home groups. The experts then return to their home groups to make their presentations. Each member is responsible to teach the sub-topic to the group. Because each group member has expertise in only one sub-topic, he/she is dependent on the other members to get all of the knowledge of the whole topic. In essence, the teacher has delegated teaching duties to the students. For more detailed information about this method, visit “Jigsaw Classroom”.


Research shows that cooperative learning strategies are more effective in achieving higher student understanding and learning than the traditional, teacher-centered methods. Cooperative learning employs several intelligences so that students who are weak in one intelligence may compensate by using other intelligences. In addition, student interaction, which normally becomes disruptive, is channeled to become productive. To insure these benefits, the teacher must structure and monitor the activity so that the goal of student learning is achieved.