Highlights of the research and debate on cooperative learning

Woman with a study groupRobert E. Slavin, a leading researcher in cooperative learning, reports that, at this point, there are more than 70 well-researched studies of various cooperative learning methods, and that 67 of these have measured effects on student achievement. Summarizing these findings, he states, that “The effectiveness of cooperative learning (particularly for achievement outcomes) depends upon the particular approach used.” Slavin summarizes these research findings as follows:

1. To be effective, cooperative learning must include two elements: group goals and individual accountability. Group rewards are contingent on the individual learning of the group members.

2. Research has consistently shown positive effects when these two elements are present in a cooperative learning program. Out of 44 studies of a minimum of 4 weeks duration, 37 found significantly positive effects, while none favored traditional programs.

3. Although most research has been carried out in grades three through nine, achievement results appear to be about the same for all types of students – high, average and low achievers – at all grade levels, in urban, rural and suburban schools.

4. In addition to academic achievement, positive results have been found for self-esteem, intergroup relations, acceptance of academically handicapped students, attitudes toward school and ability to work cooperatively.

Slavin and other researchers have stressed that to achieve these positive results, cooperative learning must be carefully structured and implemented. Four models of cooperative learning that have been well researched include Student Team Learning, Jigsaw, Learning Together and Group Investigation (for an indepth description of these models, see the reference below).

Controversy concerning rewards

One controversial element of cooperative learning concerns the use of rewards. Alfie Kohn, a former teacher who writes and lectures extensively on educational issues, is an outspoken opponent of the prominent role played by grades, certificates and awards in some cooperative learning models. Kohn argues that research on motivation and creativity indicates that extrinsic rewards can undermine creativity, inhibit the development of intrinsic motivation to learn and may reduce the quality of many kinds of performance. Kohn and others suggest that working for a reward makes students feel controlled by the teacher, and thus limits their sense of self-determination. Secondly, Kohn writes, rewards encourage “ego involvement” over “task involvement”, even though task involvement is more predictive of achievement. Thirdly, for many students, the promise of a reward implies that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake.

Kohn proposes three components for successful cooperative learning:

1. an intrinsically motivating and challenging curriculum;

2. learning autonomy; and

3. the development of a caring, cooperative relationship among students.

Kohn states that there are cooperative learning programs – those developed by Schniedewin and Davidson, for example – which include these components. Kohn also recommends Group Investigation because it enables students to make decisions about their learning. Caring relationships and a sense of community in a classroom are the primary feature of the program developed by the Child Development Project (CDP) in San Ramon, CA. The CDP, Kohn says, also places emphasis on the quality of the curriculum and on enabling students to take responsibility for their learning.

Kohn concludes that a carefully structured cooperative learning program that offers intrinsically interesting and challenging academic tasks, allows students to make key decisions about how they perform these tasks and emphasizes the value (and skills) of cooperation among students, is more effective in the long term and more consistent with educational goals.

Slavin agrees that teachers should try to make their cooperative learning curriculum intrinsically motivating. However, he believes that teachers need to use rewards if they want their students to expend the effort to truly master a subject. He notes that many of the tasks we ask students to do are not those they would be motivated to do on their own. Slavin also questions Kohn’s interpretation of the research on motivation. He points out that rewards tend to have negative effects only when the activity is self-motivating or when the rewards are given on a short-term basis and are tangible rather than social. Slavin insists that no study has yet demonstrated that rewards in cooperative learning programs have had an adverse effect. The non-tangible rewards, he says, can be, in essence, a form of recognition for student efforts and achievement.

Developing intrinsic motivation

While the debate over cooperative-learning rewards continues, Ted Graves, former professor at the University of California, suggests a few guidelines that teachers can follow which may help minimize the possible negative effects of rewards and, at the same time, may help develop intrinsic motivation in students.

1. Use unanticipated social or symbolic rewards rather than tangible ones.

2. Rely on intrinsic motivation when it is likely to achieve educational goals; don’t use a reward if the task is self-motivating or it students perceive it as an attempt to control them. Avoid the appearance of control by involving students in the setting of goals.

3. Become sensitive to the conditions under which extrinsic rewards are useful in achieving academic objectives; sometimes students need a little extra incentive.

Graves reports that after students have developed the social and group skills that enable them to work successfully at cooperative learning projects, and to experience the social rewards of working toward common goals, many teachers find they no longer seem to need group incentives to work together. However, the use of unanticipated rewards in the form of teacher recognition, a class party or free time, can still be effective ways to ensure student motivation.

Graves concludes that Slavin has been successful in developing cooperative learning methods that use group rewards to motivate students to perform the kinds of tasks schools demand. Nevertheless, he shares Kohn’s concern that this success may detract from efforts to improve the curriculum by making it more challenging and interesting. Graves believes that the most important objective of cooperative learning is to teach students how to work together effectively. Not all cooperative learning methods accomplish this. Graves also states that different methods are appropriate for different academic tasks. He points out that Slavin’s Student Team Learning, for example, is an excellent strategy for basic skill acquisition, while modifications of Group Investigation and Jigsaw (developed mainly by Canadian and Australian educators) lend themselves to synthesizing and applying information in ways that encourage higher-order thinking skills and verbal fluency.

“Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning,” “Group Rewards Make Groupwork Work,” “Don’t Spoil the Promise of Cooperative Learning”, “Group Grade Grubbing Versus Cooperative Learning” Educational Leadership February 1991 Volume 48 Number 5.
“The Controversy over Group Rewards in Cooperative Classrooms” Educational Leadership April 1991 Volume 48 Number 7.

Published in ERN September/October 1991 Volume 4 Number 4

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