Developmental Education in Postsecondary in Kentucky
FYE Resources and News


Joe Cuseo

Marymount College

One variant of small-group learning that is receiving increasing attention in higher education is cooperative learning (CL). Defined succinctly, CL is a learner-centered instructional process in which small, intentionally selected groups of 3-5 students work interdependently on a well-defined learning task; students are held individually accountable for their own performance and the instructor serves as a facilitator, coach, and consultant for the learning teams (Cuseo, 1992).

The primary objective of CL is to structure and "fine tune" group work in a fashion that maximizes its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses (Cooper, et al., 1990; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1992). More specifically, CL attempts to strengthen the effectiveness of small-group work by means of the following seven procedural features, which when implemented together, distinguish it from other forms of collaborative learning in higher education.

1. Intentional Group Formation

In contrast to traditional approaches to small-group formation, in which students often select their own group members or groups are randomly formed by the instructor, CL begins with the intentional selection of group members--on the basis of predetermined criteria—in order to potentiate the positive effects of small-group learning. For instance, groups may be deliberately formed to maximize heterogeneity and diversity of perspectives by grouping students of different: (a) gender, (b) racial, ethnic, or cultural background, (c) chronological age (e.g., traditional age and re-entry students), (d) level of prior academic achievement (e.g., based on performance in high school or on early course exams), (e) learning style (e.g., based on learning-style inventories completed in class), (f) personality profile (e.g., based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), or some combination of any of the foregoing selection criteria.

The particular criterion used to form groups, and whether students are grouped heterogeneously or homogeneously with respect to this criterion, may vary depending on the instructor's objectives or the characteristics of students in the class. However, a thematic procedural principle of CL is that group formation is not left to chance; instead, careful forethought is given to the question of who comprises each learning group, attempting to create an optimal social-learning environment for the instructor’s intended educational objective.

2. Continuity of Group Interaction

In contrast to traditional small-group discussions or "buzz groups" which usually bring students together sporadically for a relatively short period of time (e.g., a single class period or portion thereof), CL groups may meet regularly over an extended period of time (e.g., every class period for five weeks or more). This allows for continuity of interaction among group members and opportunity for social cohesion and "bonding" (emotional ties) to develop among group members. In this fashion, CL groups are given the time needed to evolve into a tightly-knit social network or social-support group.

3. Interdependence Among Group Members

Rather than simply allowing students to interact in small groups, and then hoping they will do so in a collaborative manner, CL incorporates specific procedures designed to create a feeling of group identity among students and a sense of collective responsibility (positive interdependence) for one another's learning. The following CL procedures are used to increase the likelihood that a sense of positive interdependence develops within groups.

ØGroup production of a common product at the end of the cooperative learning experience.

In contrast to usual small-group discussions that typically involve informal discussion of some course-related issue, each CL group is expected to generate a formal product which represents a concrete manifestation of the group's collective effort–-for example, completion of a work sheet, a list or chart of specific ideas, or an overhead transparency which can be displayed to other groups. The objective of working toward a common, tangible outcome is essential for keeping individual students "on task" and focused on the group goal--the creation of a unified product reflecting their group’s concerted effort.

This principle of CL is well illustrated by the "Who Should Speak" exercise used in the new-student seminar at Nassau Community College (New York). The class is divided into groups of four students whose task is to select speakers for a campus lecture series. Each group is given the biographies of ten speakers in class and their task is to review their biographies and reach consensus on five which they feel would be most effective. The list of speakers they decide upon (the common product) is then presented to the whole class, accompanied by a rationale for the group's collective decision (Conway & Goldfarb, 1994).

ØAssignment of interdependent roles to different group members.

A sense of personal responsibility to the group may be increased if each member has a specific and indispensable role to play in achieving the group's final goal. For instance, individuals within the group could be assigned the following interdependent roles: (a) group manager who assures that the group stays on task and that all members actively contribute; (b) group recorder who keeps a written record of the group's ideas; (c) group spokesperson who is responsible for verbally reporting the group's ideas to the instructor or other groups; and (d) group processor who monitors the social interaction or interpersonal dynamics of the group process (e.g., whether individuals listen actively and disagree constructively).

Specialized roles can also be assigned in terms of (a) different perspectives that each group member contributes to the final product (e.g., historical, ethical, economic, and global perspectives), or (b) different higher-level thinking skills each member contributes to the final product (e.g., application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).

Role specialization assures that each individual has an explicit and well differentiated responsibility to the group throughout the learning process. A further advantage of such role specialization is that the quality of each member's contribution to the final product can be readily identified and assessed by the instructor, thus ensuring individual accountability.

ØTeam-building activities designed to produce a sense of group identity and social cohesiveness.

Such activities include (a) having groups participate in "ice breakers” or "warm-up" activities when they are first formed (e.g., name-learning, personal information-sharing, team photos, team names), and (b) providing groups with explicit suggestions and concrete recommendations for promoting cooperation and teamwork (e.g., phone-number exchange, group review of lecture notes, and study-group formation).

The educational objective of these team-building activities is to create a social-emotional climate conducive to the development of an esprit de corps and sense of intimacy among group members, enabling them to feel comfortable in future group activities that may require them to express their personal viewpoints, disagree with others, and reach consensus in an open (non-defensive) fashion. Small-group learning involves cognitive and social risk-taking, and students are more likely to take such risks in an interpersonal climate characterized by group cohesiveness, mutual trust, and emotional security. Furthermore, explicit attention to the social and emotional foundations of effective small-group interaction may serve to increase students' social integration into the college community--a variable that is strongly correlated with student retention (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

ØProvision of individual rewards as an incentive for promoting group interdependence.

This has been the most hotly debated CL strategy for creating group interdependence because it involves extrinsic rewards for cooperative behavior. For example, group interdependence may be rewarded by a grading policy which grants all group members extra (bonus) points toward their course grades if (a) any individual member improves her score from one exam to the next, or (b) if each group member's performance exceeds a certain criterion (e.g., each member achieves a score of at least 90%).

Some practitioners of CL oppose this strategy because they feel it is unnecessary; they believe that students become intrinsically motivated to cooperate and take responsibility for helping others as long as they are given a well-defined task and the opportunity to work together. Other critics feel that providing extrinsic rewards for helping others tends to destroy intrinsic motivation for behaving cooperatively and altruistically.

However, those who do use these incentives feel that, if group-performance rewards are not large–-for example, if they represent only "bonus" points, rather than a significant portion of the course grade, then such incentives can significantly enhance group interdependence and promote academic achievement (Slavin, 1989).

Since the issue of whether or not to use extrinsic rewards for promoting interdependent behavior in CL groups is still unresolved, it is perhaps best to consider this strategy as an optional rather than essential procedure for promoting group interdependence.

4. Individual Accountability

Though procedures for ensuring interdependence and cooperation among group members are essential elements of CL, students receive individual grades, i.e., all group members do not receive the same "group grade" (as is often the case with group projects). Research at the K-12 level consistently supports the importance of personal accountability and individual grading for realizing the positive outcomes of CL (Slavin, 1990). These precollegiate findings are reinforced at the college level by experimental research in social psychology which documents the phenomenon of "social loafing," i.e., the effort exerted by an individual working in a group will be less than that exerted by the same individual working alone--unless the individual's particular effort or output in the group is not anonymous, but clearly identifiable (Williams, Harkins, & Latane, 1981). These experimental findings are consistent with anecdotal and survey reports from high-achieving students who often contend that they dislike group projects in which all group members receive the same, undifferentiated "group grade" because their individual effort and contribution to the group's final product often exceeds the efforts and contributions of their less motivated teammates–-the "social loafers"--all of whom inequitably receive the same grade (Fiechtner & Davis, 1991).

5. Explicit Attention to the Development of Social Skills

In contrast to the exclusively "academic" objectives of most small-group work in higher education, a major objective of CL is the intentional development of students' interpersonal communication and human relations skills. To achieve this objective, CL typically involves the following procedures.

ØExplicit instruction on effective skills for communicating and relating to others is given to students prior to, and in preparation for, their involvement in small-group learning activities.

This instruction may include explicit strategies for: (a) encouraging and supporting other group members, (b) listening actively, (c) learning to disagree constructively, (d resolving conflict, and (e) building consensus. Thus, students receive adequate preparation and guidance for handling the social and emotional demands of small-group work, rather than being left entirely to their own devices.

ØProvision of opportunities for students to reflect on, and to evaluate the social-interaction process.

Students’ "meta-social" awareness is encouraged by having them assess the group interaction with respect to already-learned principles of effective interpersonal communication. In addition, CL students are sometimes asked to reflect on how their social interaction in groups has affected their individual learning. For example, students may be asked, "Do you find that you learn more or less: (a) When you verbalize your thoughts to other group members? (b) When there is disagreement between yourself and another group member? and (c) When you question the reasoning of other group members?". Opportunities to reflect on such questions relating to the impact of the social process on individual learning may serve to promote students’ "meta-cognitive" awareness of the covert thought processes that under-gird effective learning.

The importance of such cognitive self-awareness for first-year college students is underscored by Erickson & Strommer in Teaching College Freshmen:

The distinction between learning what to think and learning how to think is a subtle one for freshmen; it takes some time to get it. Until they do, reviewing what students gain by participating in these [collaborative] exercises at least reminds them that we have a clear purpose in mind to aid and support their learning (1991, pp. 120-121).

Ø Effective interpersonal behavior displayed by students within groups is explicitly recognized and verbally reinforced by the instructor, then shared with the entire class to provide them with specific examples or models to be emulated in future group interactions.

During CL, the instructor is alert not only to the cognitive aspects of group work, but to the social aspects as well. Specific instances of effective interpersonal communication exhibited by students in their learning groups are praised by the instructor and used to reinforce and showcase concrete manifestations of important human relations’ principles.

6. Instructor as Facilitator

In contrast to most small-group discussions and group projects, where students are left on their own to verbalize their ideas and conduct their work, CL involves the instructor as a facilitator and consultant in the group-learning process. Though the instructor does not "sit in" on individual groups (such intrusiveness might disrupt the student-centered advantage of group learning), she will circulate actively among the groups to: (a) offer encouragement, (b) reinforce positive instances of cooperative behavior, (c) clarify task expectations, (d) catalyze dialogue, or (e) issue timely questions designed to promote cognitive elaboration and higher-order thinking. As Erickson and Strommer suggest, "Students often need step-by-step prompts, hints, and feedback when they first encounter problems or situations that ask them to think. In fact, we recommend that initial practice exercises be done in small groups in class where instructors are available for such guidance" (1991, p. 76).

Being careful not to be overly directive or authoritative, the instructor functions as a learned peer or collegial coach, interacting with students in a much more personal, informal, and dialogic fashion than would be possible in the traditional lecture or whole-class discussion format. Interacting with students in this fashion not only benefits the learner, it also benefits the instructor by enabling him to know his students better (e.g., their names, their ways of thinking, their styles of communicating and relating to others).

7. Attention to inter-group dynamics by coordinating interaction between different groups and integrating their separate work products.

The issue of fostering communication between different learning groups and effectively synthesizing their separate work products is an important one because of its potential for (a) bringing a sense of closure to the group-learning experience (Millis, 1998), (b) promoting potentially powerful synergy across work generated by individual learning teams and (c) creating class community or solidarity whereby students perceive the class as an interrelated and unified "group of groups." Though there may be many occasions where small-group work is an end in itself and cross-group interaction is unnecessary, at least periodic attempts should be made to transform the separate experience of small, isolated groups into a larger, unified learning community. The following practices are offered as strategies for making this transformation.

ØAfter completing small-group work, one student from each learning group plays the role of "plenary reporter" whose job is to share the group's main ideas with the entire class. The instructor can use the blackboard to record the main ideas reported from each group, validating their contributions, and identifying important themes or variations that emerge across groups.

ØFollowing completion of the small-group task, one "roving reporter" from each team can visit other groups to share her team's ideas. Remaining members of her team stay together and play the role of "listener-synthesizers" who actively listen to the ideas presented by successive roving reporters from other groups, attempting to integrate these ideas with those generated by their own group.

ØFollowing completion of the small-group task, each learning team rotates clockwise and merges with another small group to share and synthesize their separate work. This "share-and-synthesize" process continues until each group has had a paired interaction with all other learning groups in class. The final step in the process is for each team to generate a final product which reflects an amalgamation of their own work and the best ideas gleaned from their successive interactions with other groups.

These different intergroup-interaction strategies have common objectives and advantages, namely: (a) providing meaningful synthesis and closure to the learning experience, (b) promoting class synergy by harnessing and pooling the ideas generated by separate learning groups, and (c) allowing students to meet and collaborate with other classmates beyond those who comprise their small group. In this fashion, group-building is augmented by class-building, and a classroom of students that was initially “deconstructed” into separate and isolated subgroups is subsequently “reconstructed” into a single, interdependent learning community.

The foregoing seven features of CL, taken together, distinguish this instructional technique from traditional methods of small-group instruction and student collaboration in higher education (Cuseo, 1992). Large-scale, meta-analyses of hundreds of studies at the precollege level provide overwhelming empirical documentation for the cognitive, social, and affective benefits of CL--when its implementation is consistent with the procedural elements described herein (Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Slavin, 1990)

Research on CL in higher education is much less extensive, but data collected thus far are very consistent with those gathered in precollegiate settings (Cooper & Mueck, 1990; Cuseo, 1996; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1992). Recent evidence for the positive impact of CL is provided by a meta-analysis of its effects on college students' academic performance in science, math, engineering and technology conducted by the National Institute for Science Education. (Meta-analysis can be described as a quantitative synthesis of many studies relating to a particular educational variable or instructional method.) Over 500 studies of small-group collaboration were included in this meta-analysis, and it was found that CL had a "robust" positive effect on such educational outcomes as (a) academic achievement, (b) student retention, and (c) attitude (liking) of the subject matter (Cooper, 1997).

Thus, it is reasonable to expect that faithful application of the distinctive procedural features of CL should ensure that its broad spectrum of potential positive outcomes will be realized in higher education as well.


Engaging students in collaborative learning experiences, such as those described in this document, enables the new-student seminar instructor to employ first-year students as a social learning resource in the college classroom. Capitalizing on this social resource with instructional methods that foster peer collaboration can provide beginning college students with a welcome alternative to other first-year courses that rely almost exclusively on traditional teacher-centered instructional methods, such as the lecture.

Collaborative learning is a student-centered instructional strategy that can combat higher education’s over-reliance on the lecture method--and its tendency to convert college learning into a passive, isolated, individualistic and often competitive affair–-by transforming it into an active, interactive, and interdependent experience.

Furthermore, use of collaborative learning during the first year of college may establish an initial "mental set" or mental habit among beginning students--characterized by active involvement, individual accountability, and collective responsibility--which may be maintained and applied to learning across the curriculum. Moreover, if collaborative-learning methodology is incorporated into the new-student seminar’s instructor training program, and this program is offered as a faculty development experience for all instructors on campus, then it may have a positive impact on teaching across the curriculum as well.


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