Published 27th April 2017

Co-operative learning is a technique which has been around since the 1930s but has recently seen an upsurge in popularity. It came about as a response to the fact that while groupwork in the classroom is beneficial and desirable, there are numerous reasons it just sometimes doesn’t work.

In many classrooms, the differing levels of the students or different mother tongues can cause problems for students working together. In others, the dynamics of the students might mean that some students in the groups would act as hitch-hikers, letting certain students carry the burden of all the work.

How co-operative learning is different to traditional groupwork is that it is more structured to allow for more interdependence on each other. In other words, there is one main aim for the group but it is dependent on the accomplishment of smaller goals by each individual student; how they achieve the main aim is totally up to them. In other words, students are each given roles and responsibilities which need to relate to work done by other students in order to complete the task.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate what we mean.

A jigsaw reading is an exercise which requires each student in a group to read (and understand) a certain part of the text. Each student is only given a part of a whole text. Then, when the students confer with each other, they will be able to piece together the entire narrative in order to complete a certain task.

So, a reading text is divided into three parts – Part A, Part B and Part C. Students are divided into groups – Student A, Student B and Student C. All the Student As should be grouped together, the Student Bs together and the Student Cs together. Each group is given their relevant section of the text, with accompanying comprehension questions, which they complete together.

Then the groups are shuffled so that each group consists of a Student A, B and C. Each student must relay their section of the text so that the group finally has the whole story. Together they then complete another task which relies on information from all three parts of the text so that each student will need to contribute in order to complete the task.

In this way, each student is forced to do their task and contribute to the main task or else they will be letting their group down and the group won’t be able to complete the task. By putting them in groups first, weaker students will still have support if they need it but when the groups are shuffled, each student is on their own.

This is just one example of a co-operative learning situation, but you can see how it works, so the next time you are planning a groupwork exercise, think how you can make it more co-operative.