Group Work VS Cooperative Learning?

I wanted to take  a little time to clear up a few we may have about having students work together to reach learning targets.  There has been a large emphasis lately on putting more of the cognitive burden onto students.  One great way of doing this is to allow students to work with their peers. As this idea grows more popular, more and more classrooms are rearranged from traditional rows to clusters of desks.  It is not uncommon to see 3 or 4 students crowded around one assignment.  But just because students are grouped together and the teacher steps off the pedestal, does that mean students are learning?

Based on the work of Dr. Spencer Kagan, (Cooperative Learning 2009) I want to take some time to distinguish between what is typically refereed to as group work with the more effective practice of cooperative learning.


1. Interdependence VS Independence:

Positive interdependence means that the contributions of all team members is necessary for success. “Your gain, is my gain.” Cooperative learning involves creating environments where group members genuinely want their partners to do better.  whereas typical group work this element is missing.  Groups are fractured and although team members are working on the same assignment, they do so interdependently.  T

To avoid this problem, a teacher should put structures in place to assure that team members want each other to succeed, because the success of each member will contribute to the success of the entire group.    Consider the difference between these to activities:


Group Work: “Okay there are 10 discussion questions to answer.  You have the rest of the class to get them answered.  You may need to divide these questions up so you have time to get to them all.”

Cooperative learning: “Okay I am going to give you a sheet with 10 discussion questions.  I want each of you to choose a different question and write your response.  Once each of you have a response, you will follow this process:”

First Group member will read their question – but not their response.

Each other group member will have 1 minute (uninterrupted)  to add answer or comment on that discussion question.

After all members have contributed, the question-asker can read their initial response plus any additional comments based on what the group members have” shared. (Repeat)


Group Work: This type of an activity would more than likely result in something like this: “Okay you do 1-5, and I’ll do 6-10.” Then when that group misses questions 1-5, the other student will probably say “well that wasn’t my fault, my partner did those questions.”  The end result being that no student had the benefit of the insights or prespectives from other group members.  Struggling students were left hanging, and worse blamed for incorrect answers – creating animosity within the group.  Good luck trying to get those students to participate in group work again.

Cooperative Learning: Every students’ contributions add to the understanding of group members.  Given the opportunity to hear the perspectives of other students, may lead to new understandings or at least validations.  Even the opinion of struggling students is heard in a low pressure setting where even if they are off base with their answer their group has no reason to blame them, but will be more than likely inclined to clear up the understanding for them.

2. Individual Accountability VS Group Accountability:

The end result of group work is often one assignment/project handed in with every members name on it (often written in the handwriting of one student) which then receives one grade. If our goal is for students to meet a certain learning target, how could I determine each students progress towards that target with a group assignment?

The challenge of cooperative learning is to design tasks that involve students to collaborate together while still holding each student accountable for their learning.  One way to do this is to add structures where each student must commit to writing or at least speaking out loud to their groups or entire class.  Consider the differences between the following activities:


Group Work: “Okay, work with your group to determine the answer to this equation…”

Cooperative Learning:  ” When I say go I want everyone to solve this equation, then take turns comparing your answers with your group members.  If you arrive at different answers, take turns walking each other through the problem until you reach consensus.”


Group Work: It is fairly obvious what will happen.  The brightest, or most motivated student, will be pressured into doing the work and struggling students will blindly accept the answer and gladly take a backseat.  It is this type of group work that contributes to the widening achievement gap – our struggling students need to held accountable just as much, if not, more so than our advanced kiddos.

Cooperative Learning: All students are asked to struggle with the problem.  If the all get it correct great! High fives all around.  But really, more learning takes place when one or more group members makes a mistake.  This gives the advanced students an opportunity to analyze the errors of others and explain the rationale for his/her own answer (which requires more complex thinking then just solving the problem in the first place).  While the students who missed the problem are given immediate feedback form their peers. Gains will more likely occur when we give low achieving students frequent opportunities to learn from mistakes, rather than allowing them to be bystanders.

3. Equal Participation VS Unbalanced Participation:

The biggest difference between cooperative learning and group work involves the participation.  Group work activities require very little planning and are generally unstructured. “Finish the problems for chapter 6 by the end of the hour – work together if you want.” Therefore when given a task students are essentially left to their own devices on how to go about completing that task.  This may sound like providing students with autonomy which is good, but a balance of freedom and form is necessary.  Given this type of freedom, the high achieving students will be the only ones who might participate actively leaving struggling students further behind. It is easy to blame the victim and rationalize: “Well, they should have participated.” It is more difficult to reflect on what we do have control over and to design activities that don’t allow students to opt out of participation. I have written extensively about the importance of communicating high expectations for low achieving students by encouraging their participation here.

In cooperative learning we achieve equal participation by using structures that require it.  In other words, participation isn’t voluntary. Consider the following examples:


Group Work: “Turn and talk to your neighbor about the information you read.”

Cooperative Learning: “Partner A you have 1 minute summarize what you read to Partner B, When I say switch, Partner B, you will have 1 minute to paraphrase your partner’s response and correct or add any additional information. I will be calling on groups to share out after wards.”


Group Work:  In the group work example it would be difficult for a teacher to really evaluate if a group is meeting the objective or not.  It would also be very easy for our struggling learners to slip through the cracks and not participate.  Oftentimes teachers give up early on the idea of cooperative learning they try turn and talk activities like the  group work version above and experience little success. Here students are just as likely as talking about text as they are about what they are having for lunch.  There is no individual accountability built into the task.

Cooperative Learning: The cooperative learning version works better for several reasons. Students like having a voice. These types of structures help affirm that their voice is important and has value. There is a built in layer of accountability (in the form of peer pressure) that doesn’t exist in the first version.  If I am partner A, I know that I will be held accountable by my partner for the information I am reading.  I am not saying that just by changing the directions that all students will magically be on task – effective cooperative learning also involves spending a lot of time teaching and practicing students key behaviors to be successful group members.  I am saying that by adding a little more form to cooperative learning structures and being more explicit with expectations during cooperative learning, you will increase participation which will in turn increase achievement, especially for struggling students who often choose not to participate. Requiring participating through punishment or threats (“Stay on task or else…”) is not effective and makes participation seem like a negative task that must be forced (it’s not!).  We need to make participation an invitation they can’t refuse – something positive (“You will have the opportunity to share your thoughts with a partner before we discuss this as a class”).

4. Simultaneous Interaction:

Simultaneous interaction involves giving students the most repetitions as possible to develop a skill or deepen knowledge.  For example, while coaching soccer I could teach the proper dribbling technique to the entire team and have them get into one line an take turns dribbling through a cone course. Or, I could create a separate cone course for each player.  It is obvious which is the more efficient method.  In a typrical Q/A session a teacher may ask a question and one student (out of 30) provides an answer.  The even if other students are listening (probably not the case) the ratio of students actively participating is very low.  The more we can avoid “one at a time” structures where only one person is actively participating at once the better.


Sequential Structure: “Who can tell me…”

Group Work: “There are 4 discussion questions on the board.  Answer them in groups.”

Cooperative Learning: “There are four discussion questions on the board. Each group member will number off ( 1-4) or if using pairs decide on A and B.

When I say go everyone will have 1 minute to write their answers to question 1.

Then I will give you 2 minutes to compare answers as a group and make any additions or changes.

Finally, I will call out a number and that member of the group will stand up and be prepared to present your answer.


Sequential Structure: As discussed earlier, the flaw here is that only one student in the class is actively engaging the content.  Although some whole class Q&A will inevitably happen, we need to do our best to make sure that more than one person is thinking about the answer.  If our questions are important, than EVERY student needs to think about the answer to EVERY question, so replacing the traditional sequential structure with techniques like the one above or even a simple Think, Pair, Share, we assure that every student has attempted to answer the question.

Group Work:  We have discussed the flaws already with this type of group work in terms of accountability and equity.  While this may be a baby step in the right direction towards simultaneous interaction, it falls short due to the fact that there will likely not be equal participation and therefore only one student per group is likely to be actively engaged.

Cooperative Learning: Within this structure, every student initially answers the question on their own in writing.  This insures for individual accountability and paves the road for equal participation – each student now has an answer to contribute. In addition, rather than 1 or only a few students thinking about the question.  Every student has thought about the question. While sharing with group members, each student is exposed to multiple perspectives they can compare against their own.  Finally, knowing the teacher will hold one student per group accountable for reporting the answer (either through verbal explanation or with a white board) helps make sure that the time allowed for discussing answers will be used by each group member to improve their own answers in case they are the ones called on to report.

Final Thoughts:

I wanted to conclude with a few final thoughts about cooperative learning in general.

Cooperative learning takes practice.  In order for students to be successful in groups, they first need to know what makes a group successful.  Therefore certain social skills need to be explicitly taught and practiced often in order for cooperative learning to really be successful.  Considering the many different backgrounds our students come to us from, it is never productive to assume that they already know how to function in a group.  Our expectations should always be clear and observable and rationalized with a “Purpose over Power” mentality. In other words, “We are doing it this way because it will help you to…” Vs “Do it this way because I said to.”

 Cooperative learning does not replace direct teaching.  It works best when it supplements direction teaching. In my own practice, I have found it helpful to try to blend the two where each lesson I was not doing the same activity for more than 10 or 15 minutes (the average length of my students attention span). These small transitions between cooperative learning and direct instruction helped me to keep students engaged.

Avoid Group Grades: If we are doing true cooperative learning we have incorporated individual accountability and, therefore, shouldn’t have to rely on group grades.  A student’s grade should be the reflection of their own progress and not be impacted at all by the performance, or lack thereof from other students.

I welcome any questions, comments or feedback!Coop


Communicating High Expectations to Students; A Series of Practical Techniques (Part 5): Beyond Right Answers

The final installment of the my blog series Communicating High Expectations: a Series of Practical Techniques, has reached its conclusion.  Before I begin on the final topic I would like to summarize the 4 prior posts.

Part 1:Discusses what messages we send to students based on who we ask questions of in class.

Part 2: Deals with how to react to wrong answers while still keeping expectations high.

Part 3: Reminds us not to apologize for difficult and/or boring content.

Part 4: Explores how we can avoid letting students “off the hook” with partially correct answers.

In Part 5, I want to discuss how to build on actual correct answers to extend learning and communicate high expectations.

One often overlooked aspect of differentiation is the students who need to be pushed a little further.  Sometimes when levels of students vary wildly in a class (which they often do) teachers resort to “teaching to the middle” – an attempt to reach as many as possible. However, teaching to the middle does little to honor the learning of or more advanced students and often times doesn’t address learning needs of those who are really struggling.

In order to address these common issues, I propose that we develop some simple habits of how we deal with correct answers during class discussions.  The message that we want to send when a students gets the right answer is “Great! But the learning is not done yet.” In essence, a students “reward” for a right answer is the opportunity to go deeper by answering more demanding questions.  This idea will also help teachers to differentiate more effectively.  By pre-planning different levels of questions teachers can target specific questions to different students to meet them where they are in their learning.

Below are some habits to develop when students demonstrate understanding by providing a correct answer: (Many of these are derived from Doug Lemov’s: Teach Like a Champion)

  • Ask How or Why?
  • Ask for an alternate way to answer
  • Demand precision or more specificity “How’d you come up with that? Is there another way to get the same answer?”
  • Ask for evidence “Where in the text can you find support for that?”
  • Ask students to use a skill related to the one they used to get the correct answer. ” Okay you’ve identified the main idea, now can you locate supporting details?”
  • Apply the same skill in different contexts
  • Keep follow up questions focused on objectives
  • Verbal Prompts: “Tell me more,” Develop that,” “Keep going.”
  • Non-verbal Prompts: Head nod, circling motion with finger…
  • Invite student-to-student discussion “Good answer John! Jane can you expand on that?”
  • Be explicit about how you will deal with correct answers in class and discuss your expectations when students struggle to go deeper.

To close this idea of going beyond the correct answer, I just want to emphasize the importance of creating a classroom culture where students view a challenge as a positive thing.  This can be accomplished through creating a safe environment where all the kids feel like their teacher has high expectations for them.  Praising effort, working to make sure each student experiences success, and providing every student opportunities to shine will all help accomplish a culture where students aren’t afraid of a challenge.  Ultimately, we want students to look forward to the hard problems rather than shy away from them.

This concludes the series on practical techniques to use to communicate high expectations to students.  If you have any questions or comments or would like any follow up information on any of the topics please contact me.  Thanks!