Cooperative Learning: An Oldie But a Goodie

Cooperative learning – we’ve all heard of it. Some of us even think we are doing it. But what is it really? Why should we take the time to integrate it into our bag of teaching strategies? The following article highlights the five essential components of cooperative learning, provides a quick overview of the research behind the strategy, describes three of the most common types, and offers ideas on how to get started using cooperative learning at the elementary school level.


Cooperative learning is a teaching strategy in which small groups use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of the group is responsible not only for learning what is taught but also for helping others in the group learn, creating an atmosphere of achievement. In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups on a structured activity. They are individually accountable for their work, and the work of the group as a whole is also assessed.

Cooperative groups work face-to-face and learn to work as a team. In small groups, students can share strengths and also develop their weaker skills. They develop their interpersonal skills. They learn to deal with conflict. When cooperative groups are guided by clear objectives, students engage in numerous activities that improve their understanding of subjects explored.

Five essential components must be present for small-group learning to be truly cooperative:

Positive Interdependence (sink or swim together)

  • Each group member’s efforts are required and indispensable for group success
  • Each group member has a unique contribution to make to the joint effort because of his or her resources or role and task responsibilities

Face-to-Face Interaction (promote each other’s success)

  • Orally explaining how to solve problems
  • Teaching one’s knowledge to others
  • Checking for understanding
  • Discussing concepts being learned
  • Connecting present with past learning

Individual and Group Accountability (everybody does his part)

  • Keep the size of the group small. The smaller the size of the group, the greater the individual accountability may be
  • Assess individual learning
  • Randomly examine students by calling on one student to present his or her group’s work to the teacher (in the presence of the group) or to the entire class
  • Observe each group and record the frequency with which each member contributes to the group’s work
  • Have students teach what they learned to someone else

Interpersonal and Small-Group Skills (social skills building)

  • Social skills, such as leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills, must be taught

Group Processing (reflection)

  • Group members discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective working relationships
  • Group members describe what member actions are helpful or not helpful
  • Group members make decisions about what behaviors to continue or change


Research suggests that cooperative learning brings positive results, such as deeper understanding of content, increased overall achievement in grades, improved self-esteem, and higher motivation to remain on task. Cooperative learning helps students become actively and constructively involved in content, to take ownership of their own learning, and to resolve group conflicts and improve teamwork skills. When two necessary key elements – group goals and individual accountability – are used together, the effects on achievement are consistently positive. One of the earliest and strongest findings shows that students who cooperate with each other like each other.


There are many types of cooperative learning; the differences among them include how much structure is provided, what kinds of rewards are offered, methods for holding students individually accountable, and the use of group competition. Three of the most familiar types of cooperative learning are Jigsaw, Think-Pair-Share, and Numbered Heads Together.

Students are assigned to six-member teams to work on segmented academic material. Each team member reads an assigned section, and then members from different teams who have studied the same sections meet in “expert groups” to discuss their sections. Then students return to their own teams and take turns teaching their teammates about their section.

This version involves a three-step cooperative structure. During the first step, students individually think silently about a question posed by the teacher. Students pair up during the second step and exchange thoughts. In the third step, the pairs share their responses with other pairs, other teams, or the entire group. Advantages of the think-pair-share strategy are that it is quick, does not take much time, motivates students with intrinsic rewards, can be adapted to all levels, engages whole or parts of a class, and allows teachers to circulate among the students to advise, correct, and evaluate students.

Numbered Heads Together
This strategy puts an emphasis on members of a team “putting their heads together” in answering questions or solving problems. Within teams, students number off from 1 to 4. The teacher calls out a question or a problem. After discussing and agreeing on an answer, all students must be prepared to be called on for an answer. When the teacher calls a number from 1-4, the students with that number on each team write the answer on a response board. He or she cannot receive help from other team members at this point. When all teams are ready, the designated members show their answers to the class. The teacher checks each team’s answer.


In a workshop on cooperative learning, WNET, the PBS station from New York, offers five phases in forming successful groups. They are (1) forming a question, (2) identifying goals, (3) creating a rubric, (4) assigning a specific assessment task, and (5) reflecting to adjust. In addition, the workshop provides a Step-by-Step Lesson Planning with Prompts and Tips section that builds a lesson using those phases as a framework. Also included are a rubric, an individual “exit slip,” and a group work assessment sheet.

Lessons in Cooperative Learning, an article written by an elementary methods instructor, describes how she learned from the mistakes she made as she started to integrate cooperative learning into her own elementary teaching and provides suggestions for success.

You may find that cooperative learning experiences will be a welcomed addition to your teaching. Students often enjoy working together in a structured activity and find satisfaction in being accountable for their own work. The resources listed below may be helpful to you as you explore cooperative learning even further.


Concept to Classroom: Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

Special Connections: Cooperative Learning

Cooperative Learning Strategies and Children. ERIC Digest.

This article was written by Kimberly Lightle. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright December 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license


One thought on “Cooperative Learning: An Oldie But a Goodie

  1. Liked the article. Clear and concise. Might be interested in purchasing material for next year. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *