Cooperative learning is the pedagogical practice of structuring learning activities so that dyads or small groups of students work together in order to achieve the stated goal of the activity (Johnson & Johnson, 1999a; Slavin, 1980, 2011). Slavin (1980) contrasts cooperative activities with competitive and individualistic learning activities. Competitive activities are structured in such a way that the success of one student necessitates the relative failure of another student, whereas individual activities are those structured so that the achievement of one student has no effect on the achievement of other students. In comparison, cooperative activities are structured so that the success of one student is dependent upon and promotes the success of others. While some faculty may contend that they encourage or require students to work with partners and groups on a regular basis, a review of the literature on cooperative learning shows that unstructured group work is not as effective at improving achievement when compared to well-structured cooperative learning activities, the characteristics of which are described below (Johnson et al., 1994; Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000; Johnson & Johnson, 1999b).
Researchers (Johnson et al., 1994; Johnson & Johnson, 1999b) have identified five key characteristics of well-structured cooperative learning activities: positive interdependence, group and individual accountability, promotive interaction, appropriate social skills, and group processing. Positive interdependence is the result of each student’s individual success being dependent upon the success of the group. To structure positive interdependence, it is essential that each student have a unique and necessary role in the group. Group accountability exists when the teacher assesses the performance of the entire group, and individual accountability is the characteristic that prevents some group members from benefiting from the work of others without offering any contributions. Structuring activities with individual accountability in mind requires the assessment of the activity to be dependent upon the assessment of individual contributions. For example, the group score on an assessment should be based on what each member scores on the assessment individually. If the group were to be assessed on a single submission, then it would be much easier for one or several of the group members to relax while one or a few do the majority of the work. Johnson and Johnson include the idea of promotive interaction as also being critical to the success of cooperative learning groups. By promotive, the Johnsons mean that the interactions between group members must support the learning activities of each group member. There must be an ethos of support and encouragement between group members. They argue that the interaction must be face-to-face, but as previously noted, technological advances in the years since Johnson and Johnson originally published their recommendations now allow remote students and teachers to interact in virtual face-to-face settings. The final two essential characteristics of well-structured cooperative learning activities are that the teacher provides sufficient training in the social and interpersonal skills necessary for effective group work and that the group be required to evaluate or process their effectiveness as a group.
Related to the need for group members to be trained in appropriate interpersonal and social skills is the notion of “shared regulation” in learning (Järvelä, Järvenoja, Malmberg, & Hadwin, 2013, p. 269). Shared regulation occurs when group members create and monitor plans for learning and monitor their progress as a group, and involves the group sharing specific metacognitive strategies such as “controlling motivation, cognition, and behavior” (Järvelä et al., 2013, p. 270).
Slavin (2011) identifies four possible mechanisms by which well-structured cooperative learning activities might affect student achievement and then suggests a model integrating the key ideas from each of the mechanisms. The first two processes that seem to be at work are related to student motivation. It is possible that working cooperatively provides motivational incentive for students to learn the material carefully because they want to get good grades, or that cooperative learning activities promote social cohesion, leading to positive social pressure from peers. Both of these mechanisms rely on the presence of positive interdependence in the activity. Two other possibilities are based more on the cognitive changes that are enabled by cooperative activity. The first is the suggestion that working with peers is developmentally advantageous as there are many opportunities for students to be challenged within their zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) by their peers who are just slightly more capable. The other is based on the long-held notion from cognitive psychology that in order for students to retain new information, they must restructure or elaborate on their previous understandings. One effective method of promoting that cognitive elaboration is to have a student explain a concept to a peer.
Slavin (2011) proposes that each of these processes can be integrated into a single model showing how cooperative learning activities might affect student achievement (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Integrated theoretical model of cooperative learning processes
In Slavin’s model, the learning activity must be designed primarily to promote positive interdependence, where the achievement of the group depends upon the learning of all group members. When positive interdependence is a characteristic of the learning activity, Slavin proposes that group members are more motivated to learn for personal and social reasons and that there is a greater sense of social cohesion. Furthermore, increased motivation to learn and increased social cohesion are mutually reinforcing. These personal and social drivers then provide the conditions necessary for group members to engage in deeper approaches to learning, where they explain concepts and misconceptions, form and defend positions and debate the merits of ideas.
It might be useful to conceptualize Slavin’s model as a farm, where the farmer’s tools like tractors and ploughs are analogous to the learning activities and must be designed to suit the objectives of the task at hand. When the tools are well designed, the farmer is able to till the soil, much like a teacher uses learning activities to enhance students’ motivation to learn and help each other. The tilled soil, then, represents the ideal conditions for the seeds to grow and mature, much like students’ ideas will become more mature through the processes of peer support and cognitive restructuring.
It is also important to recognize the importance of intellectual conflict between group members. Johnson and Johnson (1999b) contend that the process of presenting and actively defending a view and developing and presenting a carefully reasoned response to legitimate criticism, in their words, intellectual conflict, is highly desirable if the goal of the learning activity is to promote critical thinking and clear communication. If such intellectual conflict is handled appropriately by group members who have been taught and have practiced the interpersonal and group skills necessary to argue constructively, then teachers can expect to see reduced levels of self-confidence in students’ views leading to a continued search for information and, consequently, further cognitive elaboration and practice of critical thinking skills. The Johnsons also note that students working alone, and this author would add, especially those working alone in online distance learning contexts, do not have the opportunity to hone their ideas against those of other students.