Cooperative Learning: Changing Paradigms of College Teaching
Anita Lie, Ed.D., Petra Christian University Surabaya, Indonesia Email:


The failure of colleges and universities to involve students actively in the learning process has been closely associated with the inability of the students to engage in a continuing acquisition of knowledge and understanding. The continuing acquisition of knowledge requires students to be active participants in a community of learners. Cooperative learning provides the opportunity for students to maximize their own and each other's learning. Carefully structured cooperative learning ensures that students are actively involved in constructing their own knowledge while at the same time encouraging each other to achieve their learning goals.

This paper presents the "why," "what," and "how" of using cooperative learning in college teaching. The benefits of the use of cooperative learning in the classroom includes higher achievement, more positive relationships, and better psychological adjustment. To reap these benefits, teachers should be able to distinguish cooperative learning groups from traditional classroom groups and capitalize on using the first one. A cooperative lesson should apply certain basic principles (cooperative management, task structure, individual and group accountability, teachers’ and students’ roles, and group processing). A wide variety of cooperative learning techniques have been developed to help improve the effectiveness of group activities.


The quality of college education largely depends on the quality of instruction in the classroom. To improve the quality of instruction, faculty need to understand the "what" as well as the "how" of the teaching-learning process. Yet, many faculty members ignore the pedagogical aspects of college teaching. Teaching is considered a routine function that anyone can do. If a faculty member has a Ph.D., it is assumed that he or she is qualified to teach. In other words, anyone who has content expertise can teach. The faculty's job is to transmit information and the student's job is to memorize and then recall it. Thus, students are passive recipients of knowledge and the faculty own the knowledge.

This assumption is based on the old paradigm popularized by John Locke. Untrained student mind is regarded as a blank sheet of paper waiting for the instructor to write on. Student minds are viewed as empty vessels into which instructors pour their knowledge and wisdom. Along the same line, the predominant atmosphere is a competitive organizational structure in which students work to outperform their classmates and faculty work to outperform their colleagues (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991).

Many faculty members consider the old paradigm the only alternative. Lecturing while requiring students to be passive, silent, isolated, and in competition with each other seems the only way to teach. However, college teaching is changing. Theory and research show that students actively construct their own knowledge (Piaget, 1960; Rogers, 1982). Students do not passively accept knowledge from the instructor or curriculum. They activate their schemata or existing cognitive structures or construct new ones to subsume the new input.

The Potential Benefits of Using Cooperative Learning in the Classroom

Many potential benefits arise when cooperative learning is used in college instruction. However, let me clarify that I am not saying that all classroom activities should be done in groups. What I am saying is that group activities should be a regular and significant part of college instruction. The following are some of the benefits of using cooperative learning in the classroom:

Students can enhance their social skills.

In real life, people need to collaborate with others. In their families, on their jobs, and in their social lives, they need to be able to work with others to everyone’s mutual benefit. Ironically, schools have not done enough to prepare students for this purpose. Oftentimes, students are discouraged from collaborating and working with others is considered cheating. Worse, they are conditioned to compete with others and view others as enemies who obstruct their own success. Other people’s failure increases one’s own chances of success. In cooperative learning groups, students can exercise their collaborative skills and practice to work with others to achieve mutual benefit for everyone.

Students have more chance to appreciate differences.

In a pluralistic society, people should work harder to overcome their prejudices against others from different backgrounds. Cooperative learning groups provide students with opportunities to enhance inter-ethnic relation and learn to appreciate differences.

There can be more individuation of instruction.

In a traditional classroom with a heavy emphasis on a lecturing method and a whole-class discussion, teachers have to cater their instruction to the average. If a few students cannot keep up with the class, the teacher cannot always stop the class to help them. On the other hand, with cooperative learning groups, there is the potential for students to receive individual assistance from teachers and from their peers (Long and Porter, 1985). Help from peers increases learning both for the students being helped as well as for those giving the help (Farivar and Webb, 1994). For the students being helped, the assistance from their peers enables them to move away from dependence on teachers and gain more opportunities to enhance their learning. For the students giving the help, the cooperative learning groups serve as opportunities to increase their own performance. They have the chance to experience and learn that "teaching is the best teacher."

Student participation can increase.

In a teacher-centered class, the teacher speaks about 80% of the time. Thus, it is estimated that in this typical classroom, with 30 students in a class—much less than in many classrooms—each student speaks less than 30 seconds each one-hour class period. That comes to a total of about one hour a year! Students are not empty vessels that need to be filled in. Instead, they are active learners who need to construct knowledge by activating their own schemata.

On the contrary, when groups are used, students receive much more chance to speak (Long and Poster, 1985). First, there is an increase in the percentage of time when students are talking, instead of the teacher. Second, during the time for students to talk, many of them are speaking at any one time (Kagan, 1994).

Anxiety can decrease.

Students often feel anxious to speak in front of the whole class. In contrast, there is less anxiety connected with speaking in the smaller group (Long and Porter, 1985). In addition, when a student represents the group and reports to the whole class, he/she feels more support because the answer is not just from one student alone, but from the whole group.

Motivation and positive attitude toward class can increase.

In a traditional class, only teachers provide encouragement to students. As a matter of fact, students often wish for others’ failure because it increases their own chance of success (Kagan, 1994). This may lead to a hostile learning atmosphere in which students learn to recognize their negatively linked fate (in order for one to gain, the others must lose). In cooperative learning groups, students can encourage and help one another. The cooperative atmosphere of working in a small group may help develop "affective bonds" among students and greatly motivate them to work together (Lie, 1992).

Self-esteem and self-direction can increase.

One purpose in education is to enable students to become life-long learners, people who can think and learn without teachers telling them what to do every minute (Wenden, 1991). By shifting from dependence on teachers, cooperative group activities help students become independent learners and form a community of learners among themselves.

Academic achievement can increase.

For all the reasons cited above, cooperative group activities enable students to enhance learning (Slavin, 1990).

The Principles of Cooperative Learning

In spite of all those benefits, cooperative learning has not been widely used. Many teachers and students tried group activities and gave up for many reasons such as noisy class, students being off-task, unequal participation and unfair contribution in the group. Actually, these problems do not need to arise if teachers can distinguish cooperative learning from traditional group activities. In traditional group activities, students are given a task and asked to work on it in groups without any attention paid to group processing and task structure. Whereas, in cooperative learning, teachers carefully plan, prepare, monitor, and facilitate the activities for maximum group effectiveness (Jacobs, 1996).

To achieve the potential benefits, teachers should recognize and apply the following basic principles fundamental to cooperative learning:

Cooperative Management

In traditional group activities, students form groups with whoever they want. This may lead to the establishment of exclusive cliques and the isolation of several students. In cooperative learning, teachers (and students) consider what is best in the group formation.

Effective management of cooperative groups involves the will and skill to cooperate. An effort should be made to create and maintain the will and skill within and beyond the group. Teambuilding and classbuilding can be an important investment in creating the atmosphere necessary for teams to maximize their potentials while ways to foster the development of social skills include modeling, defining, and role-playing (Kagan, 1994).

Task Structure

In traditional group activities, students are assumed to be interested in participating and contributing to the group’s performance. This assumption may prove wrong and lead to unequal participation within the group. In cooperative learning, teachers structure the task by dividing labor, limiting resources, or explaining a rule that a group cannot proceed to the a new learning task until all the members have completed their tasks. This task structure can create positive interdependence among the group members. Students will feel their contribution is significant to the group’s performance and yet also rely on their teammates’ contribution. Thus, they will behave cooperatively toward each other.

Individual and Group Accountability

Methods which provide a group grade or product without making each member accountable for his or her contribution do not consistently produce achievement gains (Slavin, 1990). If evaluation is not based on individual contribution, it is possible for a freerider or a workhorse to develop. A freerider is a group member who accepts the group grade but does no work while a workhorse does more than his/her share.

Individual accountability can take different forms and degrees depending on the content and cooperative learning method. One way to ensure individual accountability is through a fair system of reward. Students can be made individually accountable by having each student receive a grade on his or her portion of the team project (Kagan, 1994).

In addition to the individual product, the group must somehow be held accountable for its collective activity. One way to do this is to require the group to turn out a product of its exchange, such as a presentation to the class, the creation of a physical model, the results of an experiment, or a group report (Cohen, 1994).

Teachers’ and Students’ Roles

Groups encourage students to be more independent but teachers still have important roles to play while students collaborate with one another. The following tale was adapted to show an extreme example of putting students in groups without any guidance from the teacher (Lie, 1996):


On the first day of school, the teacher Nassredin entered the classroom and asked the students, "Do you have any idea of what I am going to teach you today?" The class answered, "No." Nassredin said, "Well, since you do not know, it would be useless for me to teach you today." He then left the class.

Nassredin started the second day with the same question. This time the students replied, "Yes." To their disappointment, Nassredin responded, "Since you already know it, what’s the use of teaching it to you again?" And again, he left the bewildered class.

On the following day, the eccentric teacher repeated the same question, "Do you know what I am going to teach you today?" The students had discussed the matter and agreed on a strategy to get Nassredin to teach them. So half of the class said, "Yes," while the other half said "No." To their surprise, Nassredin calmly said, "In that case, those of you who already know please tell the other students who don’t know." Then, as before, he left the classroom.

The idea of cooperative learning is not that teachers can abandon the class and neglect their jobs. In peer teaching and other forms of cooperative learning, teachers serve as facilitators and encourage students to be interdependent. Teachers should still observe, monitor what is going on and if necessary, intervene.

However, just because teachers are paying attention to student groups does not mean that teachers should solve all their problems for them. Instead, in order for students to be independent learners and use their own resources, the group should first try on their own to solve their problems.

Group Processing

To ensure sustainable success of using cooperative learning in the classroom, teachers should invest some time and effort in group processing. The group should reflect on a group session to describe what member actions were helpful and unhelpful and make decisions about what actions to continue or change. The purpose of group processing is to clarify and improve the effectiveness of the members in contributing to the collaborative efforts to achieve the group’s goals (Johnson and Johnson, 1994).

Implementing Cooperative Learning in College Instruction

Different proponents have different definitions of cooperative learning. Each has offered approaches and methods to implement cooperative learning. Very experienced cooperative learning teachers draw from all approaches and methods, modify some, and adopt them as part of their repertoire of teaching methods and techniques. Depending on how intensively teachers plan to use cooperative learning in their classroom, they first need to be familiar with a variety of cooperative learning techniques. Below are some of the techniques proposed by different cooperative learning proponents.


Developed by Prof. Frank Lyman of University of Maryland Howard County Southern Teacher Education Center (Kagan, 1994), Think-Pair-Share serves as a simple yet powerful thinking skills structure. In this technique, a problem is posed, students think alone about the question for a specified amount of time, then form pairs to discuss the question with. During the Share time, students are called upon to share the answer with the class as a whole.

Sometimes, they are held accountable for listening to their partner because during the Share time, they are called upon to share the answer they heard from their partner.


Roundrobin is the oral counterpart of Roundtable. Students simply take turns stating answers or ideas, without recording them. Roundrobin can be used when participation rather than a product is the goal.

Three Stay, One Stay

If a product is to be shared, three members of the team rotate to the table of the next team while Student One stays to explain the product to the visiting team. After the students return, Student Two stays while the other three rotate two teams. Then Students Three and Four each stay while the teams rotate three and four teams ahead. When the tour is done, each student has seen three team products and has explained his/her own once. At that point, students discuss the differences among the products they have seen and use the information to improve their own (Kagan, 1994).

Roving Reporters

While students are working on projects, one student from each team may for a certain amount of time be a "Roving Reporter," wandering the room gathering information such as discoveries of other teams which might be useful (Kagan, 1994).

Talking Chips

Each member in the team is given two or three chips (paper clips, buttons, or pens will do). When one person talks, he/she places one chip in the center of the table. He/she cannot talk again until everyone has placed his or her chips in the center of the table. When all the chips have been used and the group still feel the need to talk, the chips can be retrieved and they can start the process all over again (Kagan, 1994).


Jigsaw was originally developed by Aronson (1978) as a means to promote positive race relations. The basic premise is that giving students the opportunity to share with others and to teach and be taught by their peers is essential in the life-long process of learning and socialization. Students are assigned in a group of four or five and read sections different from those read by their teammates. Then they share with one another about their own parts. This has the benefit of making the experts possessors of unique information, and thus makes the team value each member’s contribution more highly. They are told that after the discussion, each person will be tested on his or her understanding of the whole text. Clearly, the students have to depend on one another to learn all their material.

Group Investigation

Sharan and Sharan (1992) designed Group Investigation as a cooperative learning method to integrate interaction and communication in the classroom with the process of academic inquiry. It seeks to translate into classroom practice some of John Dewey’s educational goals and principles. There are six stages of Group Investigation. During the first stage, the class determines subtopics and organizes into research groups. In the next two stages, the groups plan and carry out their investigations. Then in Stages Four and Five, the groups plan and make their presentations. Finally, the teacher and students evaluate their projects.

Paired Storytelling

Paired Storytelling provides a purpose and helps students activate the appropriate cultural schemata in order to maximize comprehension. This technique works best with narrative texts. The text is divided into two segments. Students are paired off and assigned different segments of the text. After they read/listen to their own segments, they jot down key concepts found in the sections. Each student is to list the key words/phrases in the order in which they appear in the text. Then they exchange the list and relate the clues to the story part they have read/heard. Each student develops and writes his/her own version of the story’s missing part. When they finish, they may read/hear the original version of the whole story and conclude the session with a discussion (Lie, 1993 & 1995).

Implementing cooperative learning in the classroom starts with planning and carrying out cooperative lessons. During each lesson, the students work together to complete the assignment. Their actions can be loosely or highly prescribed. It makes sense for teachers who wish to use cooperative learning to try one of the techniques at a time. As they go along, they may improvise procedures and modify some of the techniques. Each teacher has to adapt and refine cooperative learning to fit an idiosyncratic situation. Each class may require a different adaptation in order to maximize the effectiveness of cooperative learning.


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