Cooperative learning for science class

iStock_000006354717XSmallResearch has established that cooperative learning techniques can produce positive effects on achievement. In addition, these techniques can also increase students’ interest in a subject, and enhance their self-esteem and social interaction skills.

Researchers disagree, however, about the conditions under which these effects occur. Robert Slavin reports that a number of successful forms of cooperative learning have been developed. Nevertheless, he warns that like other popular educational innovations, a too hasty, widespread adoption could result in loosely applied and ineffective forms of the technique.

Good instruction still key

Poor application of a sound technique could, in turn, lead to teacher frustration and failure to show the proven positive effects in the classroom. Slavin reminds educators that successful models of cooperative learning always include “plain old good instruction” and that cooperative activities supplement, but do not replace direct instruction. What they do replace is individual seatwork.

During the school years 1986-88, the Department of Education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake trained over 50 in-service teachers at all grade levels in cooperative learning techniques for science classes.

Educators at Houston-Clear Lake report that science teaching lends itself well to cooperative learning activities because science textbooks and curriculums tend to be organized around broad concepts with each chapter consisting of several related topics. Such organization helps teachers structure cooperative learning materials in meaningful units for group study.

In a one-semester course, teachers in the Houston-Clear Lake program were trained in a cluster of cooperative learning models of particular interest to science teachers. These cooperative learning activities were developed by Robert Slavin and his associates at the Johns Hopkins University Team Learning Project. These cooperative learning models all had in common:

1. cooperation among students that prevents one student from doing most of the work

2. each student is individually accountable for his or her learning

3. recognition for individual improvement as well as group scores

4. students using the higher level reasoning strategies necessary to understand, discuss and teach each other ideas and concepts in science

Using one or more of the cooperative learning models covered in the course, teachers developed cooperative learning projects for their own classrooms. At the end of the semester, they discussed these projects in seminars and submitted written reports which included student test score data. Following their experience in the Houston-Clear Lake program, teachers were, by and large, in favor of cooperative learning techniques.

Two-level cooperative model developed

Teachers who participated in the second year of the program worked with researchers to develop a cooperative learning model which would extend the positive interdependence of previous models to include a test review process. The result of this collaboration was the development of a two-level model for group study, which used “home teams” and “expert groups” for content learning and test review.

In this model, home teams consisted of students working in small, mixed ability groups. The role of each team is to gather information from texts or other printed materials and to complete learning tasks under the direct supervision of the teacher.

The second component, the “expert group”, consisted of one student from each home team working with students from other teams in an expert group to study one topic in a chapter. Students study the topic, becoming ‘expert’ in it and return to the home team to teach that information to the other home team members. This two level model included a test review activity in which home team members worked together on focused study items designed by the teacher to cover all the material which would appear on the test.

Class organization

Teachers in the Houston-Clear Lake program followed a general sequence in developing instructional materials for their cooperative learning projects. Most of these materials were easily adapted from those available in the teacher’s edition of the science textbook or from other curricular materials being used. Teachers:

-selected a chapter or unit of study

-made reading organizers for each expert group (this indicated to students which pages in the text covered their topic and listed a series of questions for which they had to find answers

-assembled supplementary materials, when necessary, to support the work of expert groups

-located or constructed a test for the unit

-developed focused study items for each test question or task which stressed the specific knowledge or skill needed to answer each test question (these items included information about where to find answers, page numbers in the text, handouts or class notes, for example).

After these instructional materials were ready, teachers assigned students to mixed ability home teams of 3 to 5 students. Each team member was also assigned to one expert group. One or two persons assumed leadership roles on the teams. Sometimes co-experts on a team were assigned by pairing an academically low achieving and/or unmotivated student with a higher achieving student.

The educators at Houston-Clear Lake recommend either assigning chapter reading as homework or dropping reading as an assignment altogether. Valuable class time was not regarded as being effectively used for textbook reading. Teachers report that class activities are structured to ensure student participation and to provide indepth work with the text material. As a result, those students who did not read the text on their own still learned the material.

Teaching sequence

Classes generally used the following teaching sequence:

1. Teacher introduces the unit (10-30 minutes).

2. Teacher assigns topics and passes out expert sheets (5-10 minutes).

3. Students meet in expert groups and learn assigned material (30-50 minutes).

4. Student experts report to home teams and teach their topicds (30-50 minutes).

5. Teacher synthesizes the unit material for the class (15-30 minutes).

6. Home teams conduct lab activities when appropriate (30-50 minutes).

7. Home teams use focus study items to review for test (15-30 minutes).

8. Teacher conducts whole class review (15-30 minutes).

9. Students take test (15-30 minutes).

Using this sequence, each chapter unit, including the test, required approximately one week to complete.

Focused study items

Research from the Houston-Clear Lake program revealed several noteworthy projects with 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grade students in science classes. Teachers reported that adding the use of focused study items for test review to cooperative learning projects had an immediate, positive effect on student test scores. They documented not only improved test performance but improved attitudes toward science.

This two-level model significantly reduced the amount of student reading time and improved quality instructional time while conserving the teacher’s energy. The emphasis in these projects was on individual achievement within a cooperative framework (which particularly supports and helps low achieving students).

Class scores improved an average of 10 points and remained at this higher level for the entire year. As the biggest gains were made by students in the lower half of the class, failures virtually disappeared. The use of this cooperative method produced a distribution of test scores almost totally within the 70%-100% range. Also, students reported that they preferred cooperative learning over traditional approaches and like their peers better after working with them on teams. Students also perceived that their achievement had improved.

Teachers in the program recommend whole-heartedly the use of focused study items for all classrooms. They recommend the use of cooperative groups for content area study, but with some reservations. In general, these reservations center on students who do not possess the social skills necessary for positive cooperation. They report that this is usually a developmental problem which correlates with chronological age.

Therefore, the teacher must decide whether students are capable of working cooperatively in small groups, or if they need to work individually. (Some research has demonstrated that students can use cooperative group materials on an individual basis to achieve passing grades; however, other benefits of cooperative learning would obviously be lost).

Teachers in the Houston-Clear Lake program state that the use of focused study items for test review can serve as a starting point to teach students the cooperative social skills necessary for cooperative learning. They recommend developing focused study items for all paper and pencil tests and the use of mixed ability teams in science classes.

“Using Cooperative Groups in Science Teaching” School Science and Mathematics, November 1989, Volume 89, Number 7, p. 541-551; “Cooperative Learning” Educational Leadership Vol. 74, No. 4., January 1990.

Published in ERN March/April 1990 Volume 3 Number 2

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