What Is Cooperative Learning and How Does It Work?
Cooperative learning is the process of breaking a classroom of students into small groups so they can discover a new concept together and help each other learn.
While it’s debatable as to why cooperative learning flew under the radar for so long, it’s undeniably a powerful and effective teaching strategy.
But what are the details behind cooperative learning? And how does it work in the classroom? More importantly, can cooperative learning work in a career and technical education (CTE) setting?
We’ll answer all these questions – and a couple others – below!
What Is Cooperative Learning?
Cooperative learning is based on group work, but it’s also so much more than that.
The core element of cooperative learning is to showcase the positive effects of interdependence while underlining the importance of personal responsibility.
This happens naturally in cooperative learning since students work with one another, but they all have a different task to accomplish or concept to explain.
As a bonus, your students are being social while they’re working in cooperative learning. That could be an advantage or disadvantage for you, depending on the class.
Regardless, the experience of working socially can help students with soft skills, which is a nice bonus to cooperative learning in general.
What Should You Know before Starting with Cooperative Learning?
The key to cooperative learning is keeping students on task.
As the teacher, this is where you fit into the cooperative learning experience.
You’re not directly “teaching” when cooperative learning occurs. Instead, you’re ensuring groups of students stay on task.
You know first-hand just how easy it is for students to get off-topic and start socializing instead of working together in a social setting.
With that in mind, it’s crucial that you keep an ear to the ground for the entire classroom when they’re broken into groups.
Can you be everywhere at once? No.
But you can enlist the aid of another teacher, listen for the tell-tale signs of off-topic behavior (laughter, loud noises, etc.), or break students into large, easy-to-manage groups to monitor them more effectively.
You can also create a list of specific cooperative learning strategies that you want to use with your students. That way, you constantly have another strategy in the hopper for whenever your students wrap up one activity and move onto the next!
Plus, once you have those strategies in play, you can create a structured approach to cooperative learning in your classroom that makes it exceptionally hard for students to goof off, lose focus, or go off-topic.
How Do You Structure Cooperative Learning for the Classroom?
Like any learning strategy, it’s completely up to you how you want to use cooperative learning in your classroom.
However, it’s important to note that most teachers don’t start a class period with cooperative learning.
The reason is simple: Students haven’t focused on the class subject yet, so they’re not going to be focused when they break into groups.
After all, maintaining focus is one of the chief obstacles in effective cooperative learning. If your students just come from talking to their friends in the hall to talking to their friends in the classroom, they’re not going to have the required focus to learn anything.
That’s why many of the teachers in our community start class periods with bell work. It could be working through a lesson on a computer, completing a quick worksheet, setting goals for that class period, or anything else that helps a student think about the class.
After bell work, teachers go in a variety of different directions depending on what they want to teach that day.
During early days of the semester, it may make the most sense to transition into a standard lecture that introduces a topic to students.
But lectures are old-school, and they don’t always hold the attention of today’s always-connected generation.
That’s when you can jump to a cooperative learning activity. Students have heard the conceptual details of what they’re learning, and now they can apply those to a group activity.
That activity could be a discussion, project, exercise, or almost anything else. As long as your students are working together toward a goal, you’re on the right track!
To wrap things up, have student groups present their end results to one another. This is a great way to spur a class-wide discussion, allowing other groups to hear ideas that they may have never considered.
It’s also an excellent way to start an academic debate, in the event groups disagree with one another.
That may sound like a negative outcome of cooperative learning, but classroom disagreements are actually wonderful learning opportunities for both you and your students.
Students get to hear both sides of an opinion, which is always good. Understanding an opposing viewpoint helps keep students grounded in a debate and prevents them from characterizing or generalizing people who think differently from them.
You also get to hear the way your students think. This keeps you in touch with your students’ generation, and it also lets you notice trend shifts, value changes, and even maturity in the thought processes of your students.
Finally, remember that you’re in control of your classroom. The debate, if it happens, ends when you say it ends.
Once you end it, give yourself enough time to recap the day. That’ll help students keep everything they’ve learned and accomplished in context.
The next class period, you do it again!
How Can Cooperative Learning Work in CTE?
While a lot of our examples sound like they relate specifically to traditional, K-12 classrooms, cooperative learning is also a valuable teaching strategy in CTE career clusters.
At its core, CTE is all about skills-based learning.
That philosophy embraces hands-on learning, which lends itself well to cooperative learning. There’s no better example of cooperative learning than students working in groups to accomplish a physical task.
That task could be demonstrating CPR on a dummy for a health science course. It could be assembling a strut for a stress test in an architecture class. You could even go so far as to let a group of students diagnose a problem in a car engine if they’re on the automotive pathway.
If anything, CTE gives you more opportunities than a traditional classroom setting to embrace cooperative learning since you can use hands-on practice.
Still, that doesn’t mean you should design every single class period to revolve around cooperative learning.
You can still lecture and provide independent study materials for introductory concepts. Then, when it gets to the point of practice and hands-on learning, you can turn students loose into groups.
This gives your students a nice mix of learning styles that you may also find in a blended learning classroom. In that regard, cooperative learning is a great way to add some more diversity to your teaching to ensure students can learn the ways that work best for them.
Where Can You Start with Cooperative Learning?
Cooperative learning is just one part of a well-rounded and diverse classroom experience.
If you want to add cooperative learning to your curriculum – along with blended learning, differentiated instruction, and collaborative learning – you need a digital curriculum!
A digital curriculum is an entire system of teaching, grading, and assessing your students that comes packed with incredible features like automatic grading and pre-made materials.
Plus, a digital curriculum exists solely online, meaning you can access it with any Internet-connected device via your web browser. (In other words, you don’t have to install anything!)
Sound too good to be true?
Learn more about digital curriculum for yourself!