Confirming benefits of cooperative learning groups

iStock_000008669788XSmallTwo researchers in Israel recently reported important benefits from using cooperative groups with junior-high-school students. Hanna Shachar, Bar-Ilan University, and Shlomo Sharan, Tel-Aviv University, studied the interaction and achievement of 351 eighth grade students in a large junior high school in an urban, middle-class neighborhood. One-third of the students were from middle-eastern families and were bused in from a lower-class neighborhood. The academic performance of these students tended to be below that of the western, middle-class students who made up the majority of the school.

Students were randomly assigned to geography and history classes taught either by a traditional, whole-class lecture method, or by an experimental, group-investigation method. The four main features of the group-investigation method were:

1. A flexible system of small groups that encoruaged communication between students.

2. Tasks structured to invite participation of each group member and cooperation among members to accomplish the goals of the task.

3. The teacher acting as a facilitator and a resource person determines the general topic of study, but is not the primary dispenser of knowledge.

4. Student choice of specific topics to investigate.

Eleven teachers took part in this study. All previously used whole-class methods of instruction in their classes. Those that were randomly assigned to use the group-investigation method were given training prior to the experiment. Following training, these teachers practiced cooperative learning techniques with their classes. During practice sessions, students were allowed to choose their own friends for group members. During the actual experiment, however, heterogeneous groups were formed by the teachers.

Lower-achieving students benefit most

The same examinations in history and geography were administered to all classes before and after the 10-week experiment. As expected, western, middle-class students performed better before the experiment. On the post-test, however, both middle-class and minority, lower-class students in group-investigation classes made bigger achievement gains. On average, minority students achieved a score 20 points higher than similar students taught by the whole-class method. In fact, the minority students in group-investigation classes outperformed middle-class students taught with the whole-class method.

Both ethnic groups in the group-investigation classes gained more than twice the average gain of students taught by the whole-class method. In addition, the gap in verbal and social interaction between the two ethnic groups in the whole-class method was virtually nonexistent among members of the group-investigation classes. All students in cooperatively grouped classrooms learned to interact constructively and displayed more positive verbal and social interactions with their classmates.

These researchers conclude that in this experiment, cooperative learning fostered students’ academic, intellectual and social development. In particular, cooperative learning made significant contributions to the cognitive and social development of minority students without neglecting the educational needs of middle-class majority students.

“Talking, Relating, and Achieving: Effects of Cooperative Learning and Whole-Class Instruction”, Cognition and Instruction, Volume 12, Number 4, Winter 1994-95, pp. 313-353.

Published in ERN May/June 1995, Volume 8, Number 3

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