The implementation of cooperative learning does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes for students. It is the quality of interpersonal interaction during cooperative activities that influences both the academic and social outcomes for students. In a study conducted by Victor Battistich, Daniel Solomon and Kevin Delucchi, Developmental Studies enter, Oakland, California, students in 18 fourth- and sixth-grade classrooms were observed and interviewed.
Teachers in these classrooms all used cooperative learning to some extent, and although no special training was provided by these researchers, many of these teachers had received training previously. No specific attempt was made to encourage cooperative learning in these classes; investigators simply observed cooperative learning as it occurred. Observers were trained for 40 hours until they reached 80 percent agreement on their rating of classroom organization, cooperative activities and the behavior of teachers and students in group interaction.
Quality of group interaction is key
The study revealed that positive student outcomes resulted only when the quality of group interaction was rated high by observers. High-quality interaction consisted of friendliness, showing concern for and helping one another, and working collaboratively. These behaviors appeared to lead to a more positive classroom environment, to greater intrinsic motivation and to increased self-esteem. In addition, students in high-quality learning groups performed better in reading comprehension and on a standardized achievement test.
In contrast, frequent poor-quality interactions seem to inhibit the learning and achievement of some students. For example, in groups where there is pressure to conform, collaboration can be unproductive, leading to unreflective decision making and, ultimately, to poor solutions. Students are sometimes led by more assertive group members into a pecking order in which the ideas of “low-status” students are disparaged regardless of merit. Negative interaction such as this leads to resentment among those group members who feel undervalued as well as those who feel they are doing more than their share of the work.
Outcomes were also affected by the frequency of cooperative learning activities. High-quality interaction was generally not associated with positive outcomes unless students worked together often.
It should be noted that students in this study did not participate in cooperative groups exclusively. For this reason, other classroom characteristics, such as the general atmosphere created by the teacher, and the quality of instruction, contributed to performance differences. Overall ratings of teacher competence were related to the quality of group interaction, but did not account for all of the observed effects of group learning.
Two recent studies have shown that negative interactions among students are common in cooperative groups, even in classrooms with trained teachers. Developing good interaction skills requires close monitoring of the group, especially in the beginning. Wrap-up activities following group work should include discussion among group members about the behavior of the group, and whether its members worked well together. Teachers can help students to think about ways to work together effectively in order to avoid problems of group domination, stigmatizing of individuals and unequal work load.
Battistich et al. suggest that these findings have important implications for teaching. They believe that because of its reported benefits, various forms of cooperative learning are being incorporated in schools at a rapid rate without sufficient preparation and too often without a clear understanding of the vital importance of positive group interaction.
This study indicates that simply working in groups – especially if the students do not work together – will not lead to positive social or academic outcomes. The authors stress that determining specific ways to promote positive group experiences is critical to success.
Battistich et al. caution that this study is limited because it did not focus on the experiences of individual students or groups, but rather assessed the quality of interaction in each classroom over the entire year. They recommend further research that tracks the developing relationships among group members and the emerging effects of their cooperation on individual students’ achievement.
“Interaction Processes and Student Outcomes in Cooperative Groups”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 94, Number 1, pp. 19-28.
Published in ERN, November/December 1993, Volume 6, Number 5