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Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

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Cooperative (and collaborative, as the terms are often used interchangeably in the literature) learning is an approach to teaching that departs from the traditional lecture-base format. Slavin (1983, p. 3) defines it as: "A set of task structures that require students to spend much of their class time working together in 4-6 member heterogeneous groups. They also use cooperative incentive structures, in which students earn recognition, rewards, or (occasionally) grades based on the academic performance of their groups."

Even though faculty may have the best of intentions when using cooperative learning to teach their course, it turns out that many students dread the idea of working with their peers on team-based projects and activities. Although students realize they will have to work in teams when "working out there in the real world" they tend to have the following real concerns/fears when working cooperatively with their classmates on team-based projects and activities:

  • Slackers or lazy team members only one or two will do the work.
  • They cannot control their grades; it depends on contribution of others.
  • Over-controlling members or perfectionists.
  • Lack of cooperation among members
  • Conflict among members.
  • Not having the time to meet with their group outside of class.
  • Members who are not punctual for meetings.

The fears and concerns of students are very real and can hamper their effectiveness as part of a team, especially when their grade depends upon it. It helps to take time early on in the course being taught to provide students with insights as to how to work effectively in a team. There are many things that educators can do to prepare students to work in teams. Students can be prepared to work in teams in some of the following ways:

  • Students can be given readings on effective teamwork then asked to discuss them in class.
  • Guest speakers can be brought in to class to share what they did to be part of a successful team (including members of the school's coaching staff).
  • Students can brainstorm a list of things they hated about working on other team-based projects or activities, then challenged to not repeat the mistakes of past teams.
  • Students can be involved in team-building activities to get them used to working together in general before working on class projects and activities.
  • Students can be shown videotapes on how to be part of an effective team.

Bear in mind that if students are to have a positive experience working on team-based projects, it is also important to monitor their feelings during the semester. This can be done in ways seen and unseen. In ways seen, students can be required to produce tangible evidence that they are supporting the efforts of their team to accomplish its objectives through means such as attendance, having assignments with them when they come to class, peer performance evaluations, etc. In ways unseen, the teacher can casually observe how well teams are working together. Those students who appear to not be engaged can be quizzed to see whether or not they are doing their part to make the team successful by accomplishing its objectives.

It is also important to evaluate students at both the team and individual level to reduce the fears and concerns they have about team-based projects. Grading students at the team level gives every member something to aspire to, be it on a team exam or project. However, it is critical that students be evaluated at the individual level, on such things as attendance or preparedness for a group exercise, to help hold students accountable to their team. When done properly, you will find that the students who work to make their team successful end up earning the "A" while those who contribute less end up with a lower grade even in the case where the majority of assignments are done using cooperative learning.

In sum, cooperative learning holds great promise for preparing students to do well in academia and the workplace. It is a way to get students to become very much involved in the learning process so that they will be accomplished students now and go on to have successful careers later. However, it is important to consider that cooperative learning is far more effective when the teacher prepares the students to work together as a team and monitors and evaluates them to ensure they work together effectively to accomplish course objectives while earning the grade desired by the majority of the team.

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