In “cooperative learning”, students work together in small groups to complete a project or solve a problem. Advocates of cooperative learning claim that among other benefits, it increases student achievement. One proponent, Robert Slavin, cautions, however, that not all cooperative-learning activities or cooperative-learning materials on the market produce increases in student achievement.
Group and individual accountability
Slavin maintains that two conditions are essential for student achievement: 1) students must have a group goal that is important to them and 2) each student in the group must be held accountable for his or her performance, so that the success of the group depends on the success of each group member.
A group goal gives students a vested interest in each other’s success, effectively ensuring that they work with one another. As this encourages students to articulate and explain their ideas to others, so, at the same time, it helps increase their own understanding of the subject matter. Individual accountability (in which, for example, quiz scores are averaged for a group grade), prohibits the ablest or most motivated students from simply doing all the work and ignoring the less able members of the group.
Some materials currently on the market stress group goals and individual accountability, but others do not and, in Slavin’s opinion, these may fail to produce increases in student achievement. Teachers need to assess commercial materials as well as the cooperative tasks they design themselves to be sure that both of these elements are included.
In Slavin’s opinion, research studies on cooperative learning have not always been well designed and can be misleading. As an example, he cites a form of cooperative learning which employs “task specialization” a term that refers to the responsibility a student has for only one part of a project. Slavin asserts that task specialization in and of itself, has not been shown to be educationally effective. Task specialization can be beneficial, Slavin contends, only if individual grades or evaluations are based on the total group effort. Insistence on this ensures that group members will exchange ideas and work out solutions as a group.
In summary, Slavin says that if increased student achievement is one of the goals of cooperative learning, then both group goals and individual accountability must be incorporated into the project design. Simply allowing students to work together on a task and assigning them one grade for their project may not provide the benefits intended by conscientious proponents of cooperative learning.
“Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement” Educational Leadership October 1988 pp. 31.
Published in ERN January/February 1989 Volume 2 Number 1