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Let's Cooperate!
Teachers Share Tips for Cooperative Learning

Cooperation starts at the top! Teachers who use cooperative learning in their classrooms have developed techniques that make the most of this method-- and they share them. From forming groups to using rubrics, these ideas will make any lesson of a cooperative nature a little more fun! Included: Teacher tips, a rubric for grading students' cooperative efforts, and additional online resources!

"Students, like adults, are social creatures who want some choice in their lives," Gretchen Lee told Education World. "If we, as adults, got a job that worked like the typical transmission-mode classroom, we wouldn't last long-- sit down, don't talk, fill out the paper, take notes, ask to go to the bathroom, three minutes between activities, and 20 minutes for lunch. How many of us would stay?"

A teacher at Old Orchard Upper School in Campbell, California, Lee uses cooperative learning to instruct sixth- and eighth-grade students in language arts and history. She prefers this method of teaching because it promotes working together and prepares students for the real world.

In Lee's words, "Kids need to learn in a social, challenging, noncompetitive atmosphere where they feel they have both choice and responsibility. It should also be a place where different learning styles are accommodated. In my opinion, the teacher should be the coach and facilitator, not the authority around which all learning revolves."

Well-designed cooperative learning lessons accomplish Lee's objectives.

  • Students decide on goals and the means to accomplish those goals.
  • Students decide which roles to play to reach goals.
  • Students practice negotiation and social skills and evaluate both their own contributions and those of the other group members.
  • Students learn to collaborate and reinforce one another's strengths and observe that people with different strengths may accomplish goals differently or more efficiently.

Meanwhile, added Lee, the teacher is seen as a helpful source of guidance who is there to make them successful, rather than a judge who hands out grades and marks papers with red ink.

"My students love cooperative-learning activities," Lee said. "The kids bounce into my room, clamoring to know what they get to do next. The biggest excitement is when the desks are arranged in groups, and the loudest groans are when the desks are back in rows."

The reason for some of the excitement in Lee's classroom is a unit called "Mythology!" that Lee published on the Internet. She also has designed a poetry unit. These units combine group and individual work to accomplish a depth of study beyond what students easily achieve in whole-group work.


Assessing cooperative learning activities presents a challenge for this educator. For each project, Lee gives a group grade, a daily grade, and an individual grade for group work. In setting up the groups, Lee randomly shuffles the students. Because she uses group assignments often, students know they will be in a different group very shortly, which cuts down on complaints.

"Each day of the group work, I have a roster with the groups listed. I spend the entire period just watching the groups within the class," said Lee. "At each observation, I make short notations about how individuals are doing. I use a code so I can just jot numbers.

"The students have to really know what the procedure is for a project, or you repeatedly restate instructions and have no time for observation," Lee added. "Each child starts out with 10 daily points, and I add or subtract points to this total, depending on the behavior I see. After a couple of months, this is not really necessary in most classes."

A group grade depends on a finished presentation or project, according to the established objectives. Lee develops individual grades, which receive the greatest emphasis in scoring, from confidential "brag" sheets she gives out at the end of a project. Each student explains his or her role in the activity and the individual strengths he or she displayed. The students rate their work on a scale of 1 to 10 and explain what they did to merit the grade. The students also rate the others in the group on the same scale and write similar explanations.

"I find that students are incredibly honest in both the self-evaluations and the evaluations of their peers," Lee said. "In the three years I've been using this method, only one student abused it in an effort to get another in trouble. Because I had brag sheets from the entire group, it was easy to see what was going on and to adjust for it."

Lee's grading method reassures the hardworking students that their efforts will be rewarded, even if the group grade isn't what they might hope for. The less-motivated students also learn quickly that they need to contribute if they want a desirable grade. Before the implementation of this grading system, some of Lee's students treated group work as a holiday, suggesting that one of the motivated kids would do their job to make sure that the group got the A.


Aimee McCracken, who teaches in the public school system in Perry, Ohio, has a unique method of creating groups for cooperative-learning activities in her third-grade class.

"I cut apart comic strips and pass them out to my students," explained McCracken. "They must walk around the room to find the rest of their comic strips, which creates a team. This activity is an easy way to create groups. The kids think it's fun, so there are no complaints!"

According to McCracken, cooperative learning is a wonderful way for students to work together in teams. "Students see the importance of understanding one another's views and feelings," she explained. "They learn that working with others is not always easy but has numerous benefits. I work with students to help them understand that each person has his or her own way of doing things.

"When the students are part of the workforce, they will have to listen and learn from others as well as share their own opinions," added McCracken. "This is great preparation for the 'real world'!"

McCracken says that cooperative learning is essential in her inclusion classroom. She believes that the experience benefits all students-- not just those with special needs. Through cooperative learning activities, students become teachers and instruct one another. Children who need challenge must think of creative ways to teach other students, and those who need guidance are more comfortable because the lessons are coming from their peers. McCracken has observed that students seem to feel secure and are not reluctant to share their feelings with others in the classroom.


"My students move into their groups willingly, ready to tackle the assignment," said grade-six teacher Avis Breding, of Jeannette Myhre School in Bismarck, North Dakota. "It is interesting to listen to the groups discuss questions and see how their minds think and grow when discussing issues! You can pick out students who would be great on a debate team!"

Breding assigns roles to the members of her groups during cooperative-learning activities. The jobs are leader, recorder, encourager, and checker.

  • Leader-- The leader directs the action for the day once the teacher has given the instructions.
  • Recorder-- This group member does the writing for the entire group; he or she uses one sheet, which saves paper.
  • Encourager -- The encourager gives compliments related to how the group is working, such as "That was a great answer!"
  • Checker-- This member checks and hands in the work for the group.

Breding believes that cooperative learning makes her classroom a friendlier place and that her teaching reaches more of her students. "I have found that my students get along better because cooperative learning teaches them that everyone has a talent in an area that they might not have," she explained. "Another benefit is students learn better from one other and learn through the discussions in the group. Last, all students are working and learning in groups, whereas if you are the instructor, some are not listening."


Lenora Grade School in Lenora, Kansas, is very small. When Bonita Slipke was hired, she was told that her job would last for only one year, but after ten, she is still there. The average class size is eight students, and the entire K-12 school has an enrollment of less than 100. Slipke says that cooperative learning works for her.

A favorite cooperative-learning activity in Slipke's sixth to eighth grade classroom is the ABCs of Cooperative Learning. The project is a bulletin board that may remain on display during the entire school year. Slipke organizes students into pairs and distributes letters of the alphabet. Each pair of students develops a trait of cooperation that begins with the assigned letter, positions its letter on the bulletin board, and writes the corresponding trait next to it.

"I used the ABCs idea this year in my classroom, but I did it in a little different way," explained Slipke. "I made a 26-piece puzzle. Each piece represented a letter of the alphabet. I held a class discussion about cooperation and its importance when working on projects or anything together. I then had the students make their own ABCs of cooperation. Each student was responsible for a certain letter or letters of the alphabet. The children wrote the letters on the puzzle pieces and decorated them as they wanted.

"When all 26 pieces were done, the students worked together to assemble the puzzle," added Slipke. "I then had them glue the pieces on white paper and sign their names. After laminating the puzzle, I used it as a permanent display in my classroom. It was at the front of the room where all students could see it at all times. I completed this project on the first one or two days of school."

Another cooperative-learning activity Slipke uses is an open-ended, long-term problem. Students work in groups of four. They use a problem-solving plan and work together during class time as well as outside of class. A recent problem: Would it be cheaper to get to New York City from Lenora by car, bus, or plane? The students showed all their plans and all their work for each mode of transportation so there would be no question about their answers. The groups had a little trouble getting started, and getting all parties involved was tough, but the final projects were quite good.


"There is no one right way to do cooperative learning. It is important to try it and modify it as needed for your students. Some classes need more structure and guidance than others," stated Howard Miller, associate professor of middle school and literacy education at Lincoln University, in Jefferson City, Missouri. A former middle school language arts teacher and department chair, Miller has 20 years of middle school teaching experience.

"Teaching the students how to work successfully in groups is at least as important as what they produce in their groups," Miller continued. "It is really important to break down the tasks involved in successful group work and get the students to understand what you expect of them."

Miller feels that cooperative learning has several benefits. It teaches students how to be independent and interdependent on one another instead of just being dependent on the teacher. It also shows students how to work cooperatively with others to accomplish tasks that benefit from several brains working together. Cooperative learning provides an opportunity for more students to be directly involved, which occurs more in small-group situations than in whole-class discussions in which a few students dominate and the rest zone in and out.

Miller recommends using a rubric for grading students during cooperative-learning lessons, and he shared his own version with Education World.

Another evaluation method Miller described is called "fishbowling." "In this technique," stated Miller, "one group carries out its discussion in a circle in the center of the room. The rest of the students surround the group and take notes about what they see going on in terms of effective group practice. Afterward, the class analyzes what took place and identifies the positive characteristics."

Using groups to evaluate groups completes the circle of cooperative learning and takes even the traditional task of grading out of the teacher's hands.


  • Cooperative Learning Center The Web site of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota explains cooperative learning and offers many related essays.

Cara Bafile
Education World®
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