A study of cooperative learning in elementary classrooms

A study of Cooperative Learning in elementary classrooms revealed considerable variation in the extent to which lessons incorporated the major features of Cooperative Learning. Researchers at the University of Texas/Austin studied 18 elementary teachers who were experienced users of Cooperative Learning. In total, 56 Cooperative Learning lessons were studied for their conformity to the Cooperative Learning model and for their effectiveness in the classroom. The results provide support for some, but not all of the major features of the Cooperative Learning model.

The researchers found that the use of either individual or group accountability (or both) was associated with lesson success. Interdependence among group members was present in about three-fourths of the lessons but was not associated with how successful lessons were. Several factors were found that attributed to lesson success that have not received much attention in previous studies. These include teacher monitoring of groups, feedback to students, and the use of manipulative materials that are shared by group members. Interviews with teachers of successful lessons indicated that they monitored both task progress and group processes and provided feedback to students.

The role of the teacher as facilitator or consultant is insufficient, in these researchers’ opinion, to describe the role played by teachers in successful lessons. Active monitoring and feedback by teachers increased lesson success. Teachers diagnosed problems, redirected group activities, and kept students involved in the lesson.

Experienced teachers modify approach to fit their goals

Teachers report that interdependence of group members on assignments is not always efficient or practical. Teachers did not always use commonly recommended features of Cooperative Learning such as assigned roles and group interdependence. This suggests that experienced teachers can and do modify Cooperative Learning to fit their beliefs, goals and classroom conditions. They focus more on student performance, involvement and behavior than on fidelity to the Cooperative Learning model.

It should be noted, however, that most of the lessons studied were carried out with students who had extensive experience in groups. These researchers speculate that inexperienced teachers may need additional strategies to be successful. In summary, this study indicates that cooperative lesson design ought to take into consideration provisions for accountability. Elementary-age students appear to do better if they expect their work to be examined each day. When a longer-term project is used, teachers should establish checkpoints or have some provision for daily accountability. Task interdependence may not be needed in every lesson and, in fact, such tasks are sometimes difficult to design. These researchers believe that during Cooperative Learning, teachers should actively monitor group interaction and task progress.

Teachers need to make sure groups understand their task at the beginning of the project, and they need to help with academic problems throughout the activity. Teachers should be prepared to provide feedback to help solve problems and redirect students if needed. Elementary teachers should also incorporate manipulative materials when possible because such props encourage involvement and provide a focus for group activities.

“Cooperative Learning in Elementary Classrooms: Teaching Practices and Lesson Characteristics,” The Elementary School Journal, Volume 103, Number 1, September 2002, pp. 75-91.

December 2002/January 2003 Volume 16 Number 1

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