The Challenges of Cooperative Learning

Are two heads better than one? We have all heard this saying before and it describes the idea that if two individuals are working together, they have a better chance of solving a problem than if just one person was working alone. However, is this always the case? When we think of a classroom of learners working together we are reminded of the idea of cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning is when students are working together to accomplish a shared goal amongst all members. This goal should benefit not only themselves, but also the group as a whole. Often times we see cooperative learning in the instructional use of small groups or partnerships working collaboratively together to maximize their learning. In theory this sounds fantastic. What teacher wouldn’t want all of her students collaborating, interacting, sharing ideas and ultimately learning cohesively with one another? The success of cooperative learning unfortunately doesn’t come without its challenges.

This week in CEP 842 we uncovered many of the drawbacks to cooperative learning and how it is used in real world inquiry in various content areas. Many studies have shown that collaborative learning positively impacts student achievement. In a recent study 6th grade students in Istanbul were a part of a cooperative learning environment where they were studying 6th grade content for “Systems in Our Body”. This study showed the method of cooperation-based learning had favorable effects on their achievement and learning. “The cooperation based learning-teaching environment provided cooperation, supported permanent learning, provided opportunities to be successful, contributed to the development of social and personal skills, but also caused worry as it requires students to be successful at all stages.”

In order for achievement and success of the strategy to take place, what do we need to consider? Let’s look at some challenging questions that need to be addressed early on:

  • How will we create groups of students?
  • How do we teach/foster appropriate social skills to promote working together?
  • How can we assess group involvement/work?

Group Size:

Group size should be appropriate for the task and include varying abilities amongst the group. Sometime, providing each group with the appropriate additional resources is a great way for students who need additional assistance to create or participate on the same level as their peers. Each lesson or activity should be presented in a manner that shows students that they will need all members of the group in order to be successful. In other words, groups must be constructed so that everyone is encouraged to work together and no one feels left out or that someone is doing all of the work. One of the concepts I teach in my class is that there should never be a “boss” of the group, but rather “leaders” within the group. Caution: not every collaborative learning situation should have a sole “leader” because the roles and tasks should be evenly distributed.

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Social Skills:

Let’s be realistic – never assume all of your students are equipped with the same skills including social skills. Social skills and etiquette for working with one another need to be explicitly taught. Start with partnerships and role-play appropriate partner behaviors. Students need to have the ability to empathize and recognize that not everyone will have the same viewpoint or opinions. In your classrooms it is helpful to model turn taking, listening, discussing on others ideas, as well as conflict resolution. When you don’t agree with someone what should you do? In my classroom I find that the best way to promote good social skills is to start early on in the year and begin with creating opportunities for students to work together with team building activities that are not academically related. The focus should be on making working together an enjoyable and beneficial activity for all.

In one of the readings from CEP 842 this week, they presented a lesson Promoting Inclusive Practices in Inquiry-Based Science Classrooms. Within the lesson they showed the hands-on, collaborative approach to instruction used in science classrooms in order to encourage students with a range of abilities and needs to be included within the classroom. This structure focuses on UDL. Universal Design for Learning is a framework that addresses the variability of learners in the classroom by promoting multiple means of representation, actions and expression, and engagement (CAST, 2011). In the experiments students with disabilities in the groups were given roles in which they could be successful as the groups used the principles of cooperative learning with assigned roles to work as a team. The assigning of roles within a group environment can be extremely easy and effective. For instance, in my Language Arts class we use a program called Enbrighten. Although this can be used as a whole group method of delivery, you can also use this approach for students to work as partners or small groups. Enbrighten encourages the development of critical thinking, listening, metacognition, and speaking skills in the classroom. Students are given various roles including: summarizer, vocab master, connector, clarifier, visualizer, predictor and questioner. This now holds each student accountable for his or her participation and provides him or her with a meaningful purpose within the group.


When working in a collaborative learning environment it can be difficult to assess students’ individual ability. Assessing the quality and quantity of each member’s contributions and giving providing feedback to the group and individual is extremely important. If students are solely graded independently they will not work with the group. Similarly if groups only receive a group grade some students may sit back and let others do all the work. It’s possible that some students will try to control the entire project if assessment is based on a group grade. Teachers can systematically create assessment for cooperative learning by ensuring that there is an overall goal that every member is working towards as well as an individual reward or goal that each person will receive independent of the group.

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How can we apply this to content area instruction? Click here for great classroom examples!


ALTUN, S. (2014, December 10). The Effect of Cooperative Learning on Students’ Achievement and Views on the Science and Technology Course. In International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education. Retrieved from

Cooperative Learning. (2017). Context Institute. Retrieved 24 June 2017, from

Cooperative Learning: Teaching Strategy (Grades K-12). (2017). TeacherVision. Retrieved 22 June 2017, from

Johnson, D. and R. Johnson, Circles of Learning, Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1984.

Johnson, D. and R. Johnson, Learning Together and Alone, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1983.


2 thoughts on “The Challenges of Cooperative Learning

  1. stanisza says:

    Hi Keriann

    Enjoyed the article and there were a lot of great thoughts that I will be using next year in my classroom. Cooperative Learning seems like a great opportunity to have students show their learning in multiple ways. Does the research say at all how much time is needed to set procedures and teamwork for the cooperative learning? Have you used this learning before? If so how has it worked and if not how will you implement it?



  2. keriannford says:

    I appreciate your comment Alex. I haven’t seen a definitive amount of time designated however, developing a routine in the beginning of the year would probably be the best way to go. I currently teach in a co-taught math class with a variety of students where we have been able to use various activities with cooperative learning. Unfortunately, this is not as ideal in some of my smaller resource room classes when there is a limited amount of students and the varying student schedules. In our ELA/LA resource classrooms we have been using a program called Enbrighten to help with reading comprehension using various roles for each student or member of the group. Based on their responses I am able to create a “game-like” activity where the individual as well as the team/group will be awarded points. This helps with the assessment portion, to ensure that everyone is contributing to the class discussion/activity and there is some incentive for each of the students as well as the group. I chose cooperative learning as a challenge because I would like to improve this type of learning/teaching style in my own classroom. Hopefully with the help of this class I will be able to find more ideas on how to incorporate it into my classroom.


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