Cooperative Learning


Innovative teaching isn’t always informed by new developments. Sometimes it’s situated in the past, drawing from established methods proven to enhance student learning. Cooperative learning is one such strategy that has been revitalized in recent years by college faculty who want to engage students by involving them directly in the learning process.

Cooperative learning techniques demonstrate that working together as a group cultivates learning, surpassing the achievements realized under the competitive model of individual learning. In practice for centuries, cooperative learning’s application has grown to encompass modern-day college classrooms. Numerous researchers have documented its benefits. Researchers and brothers David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson at the University of Minnesota have championed the strategy for more than 20 years, producing significant contributions to the research used to justify its use and laying the groundwork for its successful implementation.

With cooperative learning, small groups work together in the classroom, assuming assigned roles and taking on individual responsibility for their contributions in solving a problem or tackling an assignment, using one of the established activities discussed in more detail in the Instructional Practice section. Often, the group’s work is subsequently shared with the entire class.

The reasons behind the strategy’s success can be found in its theoretical base (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). Under social interdependence theory, members of a group will cooperate if their affiliation is positive. If they are interdependently connected, their success as a whole is directly impacted by individual contributions. The framework for cooperative learning requires the presence of five factors to be productive: positive interdependence (group dependence upon one another), individual accountability (responsible for individual work), promotive interaction (supportive behavior), social skills (leadership and communication), and group processing (feedback on group efforts).

UDL Alignment

Each College STAR module will explain how a particular instructional practice described within the module aligns with one or more of the principles of UDL. For this module, the focus will be on Provide Multiple Means of Representation, Principle I; Provide Multiple Means of Action or Expression, Principle II; and Provide Multiple Means of Engagement, Principle III.

Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Various tools can be used in cooperative learning techniques, allowing for presentation in a variety of formats. Faculty may rely on information taken from the lecture or readings when assigning a problem or task. Students also could be required to use the Internet or other resources to work on problems. Working in cooperative groups is itself a different representation from the traditional lecture format.

Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Cooperative learning activities generally require groups or individuals to give oral responses to questions or assignments, but activities can be modified so that students can respond either with a drawing, in writing, or via some other method. These modifications provide alternative modes of expression, appealing to students who have learning differences or who may prefer a different learning style.

Module Alignment with Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Researchers have found that cooperative learning engages and motivates most students. Through group discussion they learn about concepts and tackle problems together, exchanging ideas on the best approaches to take. They teach each other the material. Students also are assigned and reassigned roles within groups, providing opportunities for them to interact in different ways. In addition, various activities promote alternate ways to engage. Students may work in pairs to address problems, or they may learn material as part of an “expert” group, before returning to share this knowledge with their “home” group. At other times, students solve problems jointly within their assigned groups, but only one of them relays their answer to the entire class.

Instructional Practice

Getting Started

Cooperative learning favors collaboration over competition. Students in small groups work toward common goals, learning to solve problems together. It’s a scenario that’s mutually dependent since each member of the group has a designated role and responsibilities that will affect the group’s success. Members can only achieve their assigned individual goals with the assistance of the group. Research suggests that cooperative methods are more efficient than competitive ones for problem-solving tasks (Qin, Johnson, & Johnson, 1995).

Cooperative learning is not a new concept. It’s been practiced for centuries. In recent decades, its effectiveness in education, including college classrooms, has been well documented. Current methods commonly used with cooperative learning were largely developed beginning in the 1960s for training teachers to use small student groups effectively (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). According to nationally known cooperative learning researchers Johnson and Johnson, it has since become one of the most practiced strategies worldwide for all levels of education, including postsecondary.

Five components must exist in order for cooperative learning to be productive (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998):

  • Positive interdependence (group dependence upon one another);
  • Individual accountability (responsibility for individual work);
  • Promotive interaction (supportive behavior);
  • Social skills (leadership and communication);
  • Group processing (feedback on group efforts).

The 2011 YouTube video shown below in Figure 1 [transcript] features David W. Johnson, Ph.D., describing the five components necessary for effective cooperative learning. He’s one of the established leaders in this research area, along with his brother, Roger.

The five components necessary for effective cooperative learning

Preparing to Use Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning techniques can be based on standard formats or variations of them. Methods can be matched to the content to be taught. Some of the more commonly used techniques include: Jigsaw, Learning Together, Numbered Heads Together, Reciprocal Teaching, STAD (Student Teams-Achievement Divisions), Talking Chips, and Think-Pair-Share.

According to Johnson and Johnson (1999), the instructor should first identify the desired objectives for the cooperative learning activity. Next, the method of forming groups needs to be determined. Then, the roles for group members need to be assigned. Finally, decisions need to be made about the logistics, including required materials and seating arrangements.

Group Composition

It’s recommended that groups stay small with no more than four to five students. Their composition can follow different paths. Groups formed along heterogeneous lines may combine students so that a range of academic abilities is blended. They also may be blended based on a diversity formula that considers ethnicity, gender, and race. Some researchers, however, prefer homogeneous groups, considering them to be more productive. The Literature Base section addresses these divergent views.

Preparing Student


    1. Instructors introduce a planned cooperative learning activity.
      • They describe the task to students, explaining effective social skills and the concepts of positive interdependence and individual accountability.
      • They use icebreaker exercises or training in social skills to prepare students for group work.
    2. Instructors assign roles to encourage participation.
      • They help motivate students by designating duties.
      • They encourage students to cooperate by assigning roles.
      • They discourage “piggybacking” on the work of others by clearly defining students’ responsibilities.
    3. Instructors monitor student groups to ensure all students are involved in learning.
      • They supervise individual and group performance.
      • They work with students individually and as a group to verify that they’re completing the work accurately and working as a team.
    4. Instructors evaluate the effectiveness of groups at the conclusion of the activity.
      • They ask group members to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their collaboration.
      • They promote an evaluation process that identifies areas needing improvement.

    Putting Cooperative Learning into Practice

    There are a variety of ways that students can work in groups. Some of the more prevalent techniques under the cooperative learning umbrella described below in Table 1 include: Jigsaw, Learning Together, Numbered Heads Together, Reciprocal Teaching, STAD (Student Teams-Achievement Divisions), Talking Chips, and Think-Pair-Share. In-depth explanations and examples are included later in this module.

    At East Carolina University (ECU), Dr. Kristen Cuthrell, an associate professor, uses cooperative learning with her students in the College of Education’s Department of Elementary and Middle Grades Education, not only to help them learn the material but also to teach them the techniques they will be using in their own classrooms someday.

    Cooperative Learning Strategies

    There are a variety of different cooperative learning techniques and strategies that faculty can implement in their courses.  Some of the most common techniques are lsited in table 1, and discussed in further detail below.

    JigsawGroups divide-up tasks. Members leave their "home" groups, joining "expert" groups to learn a task before returning to their "home" groups to teach it.
    Learning Together Team-building exercise where students work together in designated roles to jointly complete an activity sheet.
    Numbered Heads Together Group members are assigned a number within their group, and after the group decides upon an answer to the instructor's question, the instructor calls upon students by their assigned numbers for responses.
    Reciprocal Teaching Group members read the same material and are assigned different questions or roles to aid the group's reading comprehension.
    STAD (Student Teams-Achievement Divisions) After receiving class instruction, groups answer worksheet questions together. An oral or written quiz measures comprehension.
    Talking Chips Poker chips or another type of "currency" are distributed to group members. Members toss a chip into the center of the table to "buy" entry into the discussion. The exercise ends when the chips have been exhausted.
    Think-Pair-Share Paired students discuss problems before relaying their agreed-upon answer to the rest of the class.

    During a Jigsaw activity, students are assigned a “home” group, which they then leave for a period of time to interact with an “expert” group. Afterward, they bring back the knowledge gleaned from the “expert” group, teaching it to their “home” group. The YouTube video shown below in Figure 2 [transcript] shows how the Jigsaw technique was used to teach students about modern art in 2012 at the Humber College Centre for Teaching and Learning in Ontario, Canada.

    The Jigsaw Classroom Exercise
    Numbered Heads Together

    Each student within a small group is assigned a number before a topic or problem is discussed. The students from each group who share that same number then relay their group’s answer to the entire class. Since instructors choose the numbers randomly, students don’t know when they will be asked to answer. Students are held accountable for acquiring knowledge, one of the necessary components for productive cooperative learning. The video below, from Durham College, discusses this strategy in more detail [transcript].

    Numbered Heads Together
    Reciprocal Teaching

    In this strategy, small groups of students work through matieral by coaching each other.  Each students takes turns as the teach or coach, and works through matieral.  This strategy is best once material has already been introduced, and is most effective for material that has one objectivly ccorrect answer, rather than questions that have multiple correct answers.  The video below goes into more detail about reciprocal learning [transcript].

    The Reciprocal Learning Strategy


    To learn more, visit the website of this National Science Foundation-funded project on the college’s Science Education Resource Center.

    Student-Teams-Achievement Divisions

    Students are placed in teams and assigned a task or learning goal to master, in addition to guidance and resources.Students perform the task, are assessed, receive feedback, and are then assessed a second time.  Pre and post feedback scores are compared, and teams are recognized based on the improvement in their scores. This technique is broken down into seven key elements:

    1. Assign heterogeneous groups – It is important that the groups be comprised of students of a variety of achievement levels.  Remeber, the goal is for all group members to achieve mastery.
    2. Introduce topic – This can be done in a variety of ways.  The traditional STAD paradigm uses lecture and class discussion to introduce the topic, but other learning strategies can be applied here.
    3. Assign taks – Students are given a task to perform and any resources they may need.
    4. Assessment – Assess students level of competence after the initial task.  Some students may have already achieved mastery, while others will require additional study. Encourage the group to work through the problem together so that students can learn from each other’s knowledge.
    5. Facilitate group discussion – Work with each group to identify key areas of focus for that group.  Each group may have a different area that they need to focus on.  Ensure that the groups are working cooperatively to complete the task.
    6. Re-assess and comapre – Once the group has had time to work through the topic together, assess students knowledge of the topic again. Compare their scores on this second assessment to the scores on the first.
    7. Recognition – Recognize groups based on the improvement in their scores between the initial and final assessment.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  Some faculty use a news letter or other announcement to recognize the most improved teams. Be creative.
    Talking Chips

    Talking chips is a technique that is used to ensure active and equal participation among the group members. Group members during a Talking Chips activity throw their poker chips into the center of the table to gain entrance into the conversation. The activity sparks discussion and has the added benefit of preventing some students from monopolizing the discussion since they can’t comment anymore once they’ve depleted their supply of chips. Meanwhile, quieter students must speak up in order to use up their chips. Once all the chips have been used, students redistribute the chips for the next round of discussion.


    For this technique, students are paired together to discuss class problems or questions before reporting their solutions or answers to the entire class. As the name implies, this technique is broken into three main segments: think, pair, and share. In the first phase, the think phase, teachers ask students high-level questions regarding the topic to drive their thinking about the consept.  Next, in the pair phase, students are partnered, and tasked with sharing their ideas, discussing those ideas, and asking question of eachother related to their understanding of the topic.  Finally, in the share portion, each group is asked to present their thoughs, ideas, and questions related to the topic with the whole class.

    In addition, there are a variety of variation to the think-pair-share paradigm that faculty can implement, including adding classroom response systems, making larger teams, or asking students to reflect on the question through writing down or drawing their thoughts. An indepth explaination of some of these variations can be found here.

    Cooperative Learning Benefits Students

    There are numerous types of techniques used in conjunction with cooperative learning. While they may differ, they share a common thread. Knowledge is shared student-to-student, instead of via direct instruction with the instructor lecturing to the class. Once the material has been mastered within the small group, it’s transferred to a larger group or to the entire class in some manner. Research has shown that students make greater strides academically when cooperative learning is put into practice. They are more motivated to gain knowledge, and the group’s interaction can produce benefits, including heightened self-confidence, independence, and autonomy (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). In addition, cooperative learning results in higher student achievement and productivity, gains in higher-level reasoning and transfer of knowledge. M. M. Cooper (1995) found that the established benefits of cooperative learning also include higher levels of student satisfaction with their learning experience.


    Cooperative Learning has a long history, and a large body of research supports its effectiveness. In recent years, the strategy has experienced a resurgence worldwide, which has incorporated higher education classrooms. Cooperative learning is more than groups working together, it follows a structure that assigns responsibility to individual students and that makes it clear that their actions impact the group’s learning. Instructors need to prepare students in advance before a cooperative learning activity is introduced. Students are assigned roles to ensure accountability, and instructors need to monitor the activity. A vital component is the feedback afterward to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the group.

    Outcomes of Cooperative Learning for Students


      • higher-student achievement
      • increased productivity
      • higher-level reasoning
      • transfer of knowledge
      • heightened self-confidence
      • increased independence
      • increased autonomy

      Five elements must be present for effective cooperative learning to take place: positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, and group processing (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998).

      Learn More

      Literature base

      Researchers and brothers David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson helped create the body of research that still serves as the bedrock of support for cooperative learning. At its core, cooperative learning is about bringing students together in small groups, where they work productively together, instead of singly as competitors. The effectiveness of cooperative learning as opposed to the competitive approach is supported by a large body of research. This research suggests that students tend to respond to competitive situations with self-protective behavior, often resulting in lower achievement (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998).

      The research shows that students learn more when cooperative learning is used. It’s been shown to stimulate higher-order thinking (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). And other researchers have noted that critical thinking skills improve with its use (Cooper, J., 1995; Cooper, M., 1995; Laverie, 2006). Gains in problem-solving skills also result (Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Laverie, 2006; Qin, Johnson, & Johnson, 1995). In addition, students are reportedly more motivated when the strategy is used (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Peterson & Miller, 2004; Rand, 2000; Walker, 1996). Overall, it results in higher academic achievement (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Tsay & Brady, 2010). These benefits have been observed in a number of subject areas. For example, college students enrolled in a music appreciation class, who were in the experimental cooperative learning group, were better able to identify the musical style period, genre, and texture of compositions, demonstrating higher-level reasoning and improved knowledge transfer (Smialek & Boburka, 2006).

      In order for cooperative learning to be successful, however, instructors first need to train students in the social skills necessary for working within a group (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). This strategy is steeped in social interdependence theory, which teaches that individual actions affect the goals of each member of the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Cooperative learning relies upon five components for success: positive interdependence (group dependence upon one another), individual accountability (responsibility for individual work), promotive interaction (supportive behavior), social skills (leadership and communication), and group processing (feedback on group efforts). These components were developed by Johnson and Johnson (1999, 2009) and Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1998).

      Johnson and Johnson determined that any potential drawbacks to this strategy could be mitigated by proper instructor preparation and oversight. The instructor must bear the responsibility for preparing students ahead of time and supervising the process. Instructors can alleviate any potential problems when introducing the class to cooperative learning by making sure that groups are a manageable size, and each member has a role to fulfill (Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Laverie, 2006; Oakley, Hanna, Kuzmyn, & Felder, 2007; Shimazoe & Aldrich, 2010; Walker, 1996).

      Some studies reported experiencing problems when cooperative learning was used. One study (Hancock, 2004) found there were positive and negative consequences. While graduate students appreciated a supportive environment based on professionalism and trust, there were complaints about some students either dominating the conversation or failing to contribute. As a result, Hancock (2004) suggested taking advance stock of the peer orientation of students since students who prefer working with others are more motivated by cooperative learning than those who prefer working alone. Oakley et al. (2007) also found that students who enjoy teamwork gave higher marks to cooperative learning. The strategy promoted academic success, fostered interactions between students and faculty, and strengthened positive attitudes about college in a study of engineering and computer science students.

      Researchers differ on the optimum makeup of cooperative learning groups. Many researchers prefer forming heterogeneous groups, consisting of a range of academic abilities, cultures, or other criteria (Cooper, M., 1995; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Kocak, 2008). However, some researchers assert that it’s more effective to form homogeneous groups, consisting of students with similar abilities (Shimazoe & Aldrich, 2010). A study by Baer (2003) found that homogeneous groups based on academic ability are more productive. However, if another goal is to improve intergroup relations, Baer suggests grouping students homogeneously according to achievement, and then regrouping them heterogeneously based on gender, race, and ethnicity.

      Students aren’t the only ones to benefit from cooperative learning. Instructors may spend less time grading assignments since they may be awarding a single group grade instead of individual ones. The groups also may make it easier to observe student learning (Shimazoe & Aldrich, 2010.) Research shows there are clear advantages to its use.

      As a strategy, cooperative learning has gained ground steadily among educators becoming a commonly used instructional method found at all levels of education worldwide, including colleges and universities (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

      References & Resources

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      About the Author

      Kristen Cuthrell

      Kristen Cuthrell

      College of Education
      East Carolina University