Rethinking Classroom Dynamics with Cooperative Learning

scientist in school kid image2


Author: Antik Dey.

Cooperative learning (CL) is defined as a group learning activity that relies on each member’s contribution in order to accomplish shared goals. CL increases student accountability and prevents the action of hitchhiking. (Blosser, 1993; Kluge, 1999) In this article, I will argue for the effectiveness of CL in the science classroom, while acknowledging and discussing the challenges facing this learning approach.

Advantages of CL

Positive interdependence and accountability: One of the major challenges of group work is the action of hitchhiking, whereby some students let others do most or all of the work, then copy (Blosser, 1993). This not only violates academic honesty, but also disenfranchises learning for all students. CL meets this challenge by structuring the learning in a way that holds each student accountable for their learning. Each student in their group is assigned a particular role, which could vary tremendously depending on the nature of the activity. For example, we can assign the following roles to students in a group of four: researcher, writer, presenter, and editor. One student gathers information; then, the information is synthesized into a report by another student; a third student then takes this information and makes a creative presentation; and finally, the editor checks both the report and presentation material for improvements. Although this is a hypothetical situation, we can clearly see that each student has a role, and not until they complete their individual goal, can the next phase of the activity be completed.

Positive social skills: The curriculum does not explicitly teach students social skills, so it could be easily overlooked year after year. It is an essential trait within the scientific community. If one were to look into a scientific journal, one would notice the cooperative nature of scientific inquiry, as there are multiple authors for most journal articles (Blosser, 1993). Social skills are best fostered through face-to-face interactions, where students are in very close proximity to one another (Blosser, 1993; Kluge, 1999). This is best achieved through effective seating plans. There is a variety of plans that could be implemented, for example, the horseshoe arrangement (for more ideas see, Jones and Sterling, 2011).

Challenges of CL

Accommodating students with learning disabilities (LD): In some cases, it has been shown that students with LD may not feel confident sharing their answers. Teachers are encouraged to ease their anxiety by building confidence, using icebreakers as a strategy (Jones and Sterling, 2011). On the other hand, studies have shown the opposite. Students with LD were more engaged in CL than individual activity. In this study, LD students in CL exhibited passive participation, which included listening quietly to others, voicing ideas for a project, proofreading the report, to list a few (Pohlman, 1997).

Accommodating gifted students: Parents of gifted students sometimes “object to [CL], claiming that it exploits the child’s abilities and cuts down on individual exploration.” (Blosser, 1993). It is reasonable to assume that the probability of exploitation would increase for gifted students due to their higher level of cognition. Johnson and Johnson (1991) argue however, that although the onus may reside with the gifted students to provide the leadership, it could be beneficial for them. They argue that gifted students could learn more by having to explain and teach concepts to others.

School culture: Another challenge that CL could face is from the educational philosophy adhered to by the school, parents, administration, etc. In an individualistic or competitive society where test scores are the primary (if not, the sole) determinant of learning, CL may have to take a back seat. In those situations, it is important for teachers to be knowledgeable of the culture within which they are practicing their profession (Chiappetta and Koballa, 157). Balancing the learning approaches is the key.

Future Considerations

It has been reported that girls in single-sex classrooms (SSC) have an increase in positive attitude towards math compared to girls in mixed-sex classrooms (MSC) (Jackson, 2002). How would CL play out in a MSC vs. SSC where girls may have varying levels of confidence in a particular subject, like math?


Blosser, P. (1993). Cooperative Learning in Science Education. The Science Outlook, 1-9.

Chiappetta, E., Koballa, T. (2015). Science Instruction in the Middle and Secondary Schools: Developing Fundamental Knowledge and Skills. Pearson Education Inc., 157.

Jackson, C. (2002). Can single-sex classes in co-educational schools enhance the learning experiences of girls and/or boys? An exploration of pupils’ perceptions. British Educational Research Journal, 28 (1), 37-48.

Johnson, R., Johnson, D. (1991). So what’s new about cooperative learning in science? CooperativeLearning, 11(3): 2-3.

Jones, T., Sterling, D., (2011). Cooperative learning in an inclusive science classroom. Science Scope, 35(3), 24-28. 

Kluge, D. (1999). A Brief Introduction to Cooperative Learning. Japan Association for Language Teaching. 1-22.

Pohlman, C. (1997). Participation as a Mediator for the Effect of Cooperative Learning on the Social Perceptions of Students with Academic Difficulties. Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, University of North Carolina.

Category: Teaching Strategies

Author: Antik Dey

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