Richard M. Felder
Department of Chemical Engineering
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7905
School of Education
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 27858
Work Supported by National Science Foundation
Division of Undergraduate Education Grant DUE-9354379
A longitudinal study of a cohort of engineering
students has been under way at North Carolina State University
since 1990. Dr. Richard Felder taught the students five chemical
engineering courses in five consecutive semesters using several
nontraditional instructional methods, including cooperative (team-based)
learning. The performance of the students in these courses and
their responses to the instruction have been chronicled elsewhere
(Felder et al., 1993, 1994a, 1994b).
As part of the longitudinal study, Dr. Felder
and Dr. Rebecca Brent, a professor of education at East Carolina
University, adapted or devised procedures for implementing cooperative
learning in courses that stress quantitative problem solving.
These procedures are summarized in this report. The objectives
of the report are to offer some ideas for using cooperative learning
effectively in technical courses, to give advance warning of the
problems that might arise when CL is implemented, and to provide
assurances that the eventual benefits to both instructors and
students amply justify the perseverance required to confront and
overcome the problems.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Elements of Cooperative Learning
Case Study: Cooperative Learning in a Sequence of Chemical Engineering Courses
Issues and Answers
Cooperative learning (CL)
is instruction that involves students working in teams to accomplish
a common goal, under conditions that include the following elements
(Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991):
Cooperative learning is not simply a synonym
for students working in groups. A learning exercise only qualifies
as CL to the extent that the listed elements are present.
Cooperative learning may occur in or out of class. In-class exercises, which may take anywhere from 30 seconds to an entire class period, may involve answering or generating questions, explaining observations, working through derivations, solving problems, summarizing lecture material, trouble-shooting, and brainstorming. Out-of-class activities include carrying out experiments or research studies, completing problem sets or design projects, writing reports, and preparing class presentations.
A large and rapidly growing body of research confirms the effectiveness of cooperative learning in higher education (Astin, 1993; Cooper et al., 1990; Goodsell et al., 1992; Johnson et al., 1991; McKeachie, 1986). Relative to students taught traditionally - i.e., with instructor-centered lectures, individual assignments, and competitive grading - cooperatively taught students tend to exhibit higher academic achievement, greater persistence through graduation, better high-level reasoning and critical thinking skills, deeper understanding of learned material, more on-task and less disruptive behavior in class, lower levels of anxiety and stress, greater intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve, greater ability to view situations from others' perspectives, more positive and supportive relationships with peers, more positive attitudes toward subject areas, and higher self-esteem. Another nontrivial benefit for instructors is that when assignments are done cooperatively, the number of papers to grade decreases by a factor of three or four.
There are several reasons why cooperative learning works as well as it does. The idea that students learn more by doing something active than by simply watching and listening has long been known to both cognitive psychologists and effective teachers (Bonwell and Eison, 1991), and cooperative learning is by its nature an active method. Beyond that, cooperation enhances learning in several ways. Weak students working individually are likely to give up when they get stuck; working cooperatively, they keep going. Strong students faced with the task of explaining and clarifying material to weaker students often find gaps in their own understanding and fill them in. Students working alone may tend to delay completing assignments or skip them altogether, but when they know that others are counting on them, they are often driven to do the work in a timely manner. Students working competitively have incentives not to help one another; working cooperatively, they are rewarded for helping.
The proven benefits of cooperative learning notwithstanding, instructors who attempt it frequently encounter resistance and sometimes open hostility from the students. Bright students complain about begin held back by their slower teammates, weaker or less assertive students complain about being discounted or ignored in group sessions, and resentments build when some team members fail to pull their weight. Instructors with sufficient patience generally find ways to deal with these problems, but others become discouraged and revert to the traditional teacher-centered instructional paradigm, which is a loss both for them and for their students.
In this paper we outline several cooperative
learning exercises that have worked particularly well for us in
engineering courses. We then suggest ways to maximize the benefits
of the approach and to deal with the difficulties that may arise
when CL is implemented. The primary sources for the material
to be presented are Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) and our
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Early in a class period, organize the students (or have them organize themselves) into teams of two to four students, and randomly assign one student in each group (e.g. the youngest one or the one with the darkest hair or the one whose home town is farthest away from campus, or the student to the right of the one in the selected category) to be the team recorder for that class period. Several times during the period - ideally, after no more than 15 minutes of lecturing - give the teams exercises to do, instructing the recorders to write down the team responses. In longer exercises, circulate among the teams, verifying that they are on task, everyone is participating, and that the recorders are doing their job. Stop the teams after a suitable period has elapsed (which may be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 10 minutes, depending on the exercise) and randomly call on students to present their teams' solutions. The exercises can range from short questions to extensive problem-solving activities in a variety of categories.
Asking the students to think in advance about the questions can
effectively motivate them to watch for the answers in the rest
of the class period.
This approach to classroom questioning offers several advantages over more conventional methods. Asking questions of the class as a whole usually produces either an embarrassing silence (especially in large classes) or answers volunteered by two or three students - the same students every time. Calling on students individually often creates an atmosphere of tension in the classroom, with many students worrying more about whether you will single them out than about what you are teaching. On the other hand, when students are asked to generate answers in small groups, most of them will get right to work without feeling threatened and you'll get all the responses you want.
Have the students work for several minutes
in this way, stop them, call on one or more pairs to summarize
their work, and then have the students continue with the roles
If you assign students to read complex material
on their own, many or most will not do it, and if you write it
on the board, they will copy it into their notes without necessarily
understanding or even thinking about it. If you require them
to explain it to one another, however, they will either work through
it and achieve understanding or get stuck and be primed to hear
the explanation when it is presented.
Alison King (1993) uses an exercise she calls guided reciprocal peer questioning, which consists of giving students high-level question stems and having them use these stems to construct specific questions on the course material, which they then ask their classmates. Some of these generic stems areKing finds that repeated use of these exercises leads to a noticeable improvement in the higher level thinking abilities of her students.
An effective variation of the in-class group
exercise is think-pair-share. Students first work
on a given problem individually, then compare their answers with
a partner and synthesize a joint solution. The pairs may in turn
share their solutions with other pairs or with the whole class.
Another variation that has already been described is TAPPS--thinking-aloud
pair problem-solving (Lochhead and Whimbey, 1987). Students work
on problems in pairs, with one pair member functioning as problem-solver
and the other as listener. The problem solvers verbalize everything
they are thinking as they seek a solution; the listeners encourage
their partners to keep talking and offer general suggestions or
hints if the problem solvers get stuck. The roles are reversed
for the next problem.
Still another in-class strategy, Jigsaw
(Aronson, 1978), is excellent for tasks that have several distinct
aspects or components. Home teams are formed, with each team
member taking responsibility for one aspect of the problem in
question. Expert teams are then formed of all the students responsible
for the same aspect. The teams go over the material they are
responsible for and plan how to best teach it to their home groups.
After adequate time has been given, the students return to the
home teams and bring their expertise to bear on the assigned task.
Positive interdependence is fostered because each student has
different information needed to complete the task.
Besides their pedagogical benefits, in-class cooperative exercises make classes much more enjoyable for both students and instructors. Even the most gifted lecturers have trouble sustaining attention and interest throughout a 50-minute class: after about ten minutes, the attention of the students starts to drift, and by the end of the class boredom is generally rampant. Even if the instructor asks questions in an effort to spark some interest, nothing much usually happens except silence and avoidance of eye contact. A well-known study of information retention supports this picture of what happens: immediately after a lecture, students were found to recall about 70% of the content presented during the first ten minutes and 20% of the content of the last ten minutes (Hartley and Davies, 1978).
When group exercises are interspersed throughout
a lecture, the picture changes. Once a class accustomed to group
work gets going on a problem, the classroom atmosphere changes:
the leaden silence changes to a hum, then a chatter, punctuated
by arguments and laughter. Most students - even those not
doing much talking - are engaged in thinking about the question
at hand instead of just mechanically transcribing notes from the
chalkboard. Even if some students refuse to participate, as they
might, an active involvement of 90-95% is clearly superior to
the 5-10% or less that characterizes most lectures.
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Research and design projects, laboratory experiments, and homework problem sets can all be effectively completed by teams of students. The teams may function as formal cooperative learning groups, remaining together until the completion of an assignment and then disbanding, or as cooperative base groups, remaining together for an entire course or even longer (Johnson et al., 1991). The periodic reforming of formal cooperative learning groups exposes the students to a larger variety of learning styles and problem-solving approaches than they would see in base groups; the base groups tend to provide more assistance and encouragement to their members. (A third category, informal cooperative learning groups, refers to teams that come together and disperse within a single class period, as in the exercises listed previously.)
Following are several suggestions for setting up CL groups and structuring assignments:
On the first day of class, we have the students fill out a questionnaire indicating their sex, ethnicity, and either overall GPA or grades in selected prerequisite courses. (Students who do not wish to provide this information are free to withhold it, but few do.) We use the collected questionnaires to form the groups, following the guidelines given above. We have also occasionally let students self-select into groups, stipulating that no group may have more than one student who earned A's in specified courses and strongly recommending that women and minority students avoid groups in which they are outnumbered. While not perfect, this system at least assures that the very best students in the class do not cluster together, leaving the weaker ones to fend for themselves.
A problem may arise if assignments require long periods of time
out of class and many students live off campus and/or have outside
jobs. Instructor-formed groups may then find it almost impossible
to agree on a suitable meeting time and place. We have shuffled
groups to allow commuters to work together to the extent that
they can, recognizing that they will lose some of the benefits
of CL by not having as much face-to-face interaction as the other
students in the class.
1. Require a single group product.
2. Assign rotating group roles.
3. Give each member different critical resources, as in Jigsaw.
4. Select one member of each group to explain (in an oral report or a written test) both the team's results and the methods used to achieve them, and give every team member the grade earned by that individual. Avoid selecting the strongest students in the groups.
5. Give bonuses on tests to groups for which the lowest team grade or the average team grade exceeds a specified minimum.
The last two strategies provide powerful
incentives for the stronger team members to make sure that the
weaker ones understand the assignment solution and the material
to be covered on the test.
Some elements of effective group functioning
are relatively self-explanatory and might be given to teams as
a check list. These elements include showing up for meetings
on time, avoiding personal criticisms, making sure everyone gets
a chance to offer ideas, and giving those ideas serious consideration.
Other recommendations we make to homework teams working on quantitative
problems are these:
We allow teams to fire noncooperative
team members if every other option has failed, and we also allow
individuals to quit if they are doing most or all of the work
and team counseling has failed to yield improvements. Fired team
members or members who quit must then find other teams willing
to accept them. In our experience, just the knowledge that this
option is available usually induces noncooperative team members
to change their ways; in chemical engineering classes containing
as many as 50 teams, rarely does more than one team dissolve in
the course of a semester.
Felder uses a grading system in engineering courses that gets away from curving but also avoids the inflexibility of strict numerical criteria (90 is an A, 89 is a B, no exceptions). Students are guaranteed A's if they get weighted average grades of 90 or higher, B's with 80 or higher, C's with 70 or higher, and D's with 60 or higher. In addition, there are "gray areas" extending several points below these criterion grades. Students whose weighted average grades fall in these ranges may get the next higher letter grade in the course if they have done satisfactory work on a specified number of extra-credit challenge problems and/or their test grades have been steadily improving. This policy is announced in writing on the first day of the course and has never led to complaints about unfairness.
CASE STUDY: COOPERATIVE LEARNING
IN A SEQUENCE OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING COURSES
presents a case history of cooperative learning in a a sequence
of chemical engineering courses that Felder taught in successive
semesters to roughly the same body of students. Five semester-long
courses constituted the experimental sequence:
First day of CHE 205. I announced that all homework must be done in fixed groups with one solution set handed in per group, gave the criteria for group formation (three or four members, no more than one of whom could have received A's in specified mathematics and physics courses), and specified individual roles within groups (coordinator, recorder, and one or two checkers, with the roles rotating on each assignment).
I spent some time explaining why I was doing all this, assuring the students that it wasn't just a game I was playing with them or something I designed to make my life easier (quite the contrary). I told them that both educational research and my experience indicated that students learn better and get higher grades by teaching one another some of the time rather than listening to professors lecture all of the time. I also guaranteed them that when they went to work as engineers they would be expected to work in teams, so they might as well start learning how to do it now. During the next two days, several students expressed strong reservations about group work and requested permission to work alone. Permission was denied.
Second day of CHE 205. I interspersed small group problem-solving exercises throughout my lecture. The student response was variable - the level of interaction generally decreased with distance from the front of the room. At the end of the period, I asked students who had not yet affiliated with homework teams to get together after class with teams of three willing to pick up a fourth member and work things out, which they did.
First homework assignment. Assignments were turned in by most students working in groups as instructed, but also by several individuals and one "group" consisting of the student, Elvis Presley, and Richard M. Nixon. I applauded that student for creativity but informed all those who had not yet joined a group that the fun was over and I would accept no further assignments from individuals. By the due date of the second assignment, all students were in homework groups.
First three weeks. I continued to use in-class group exercises, generally taking about ten minutes of every 50-minute period, and occasionally beginning the period by telling the students to sit somewhere new and work with people they had not worked with before. I varied the exercises, using a mixture of problem-solving, think-pair-share, trouble-shooting, brainstorming, and question generation, so that the students never knew what was coming from one class to the next. The level of active student involvement continually increased, leveling out at 90-100%.
Occasionally in class I offered suggestions for effective homework team functioning, trying not to be too preachy about it. A recommendation I made on several occasions was for the students to set up all problem solutions individually, then work together to complete the problem set. I occasionally got complaints in my office about team members not pulling their weight or missing group sessions, or about personal conflicts between group members, and I met with several groups in my office during the semester to help them work out solutions. (In the end, only one group actually dissolved out of roughly 35 in the class.)
Dropouts during this period brought some groups down to two members. Some pairs combined, others disbanded and individually joined teams of three. (In subsequent courses, I allowed some pairs to remain intact if dropouts occurred late in the semester.)
End of four weeks. The class average on the first test was 66, brought down by some very low grades (as low as 10). Some students complained that the better members of their groups had been working out most of the homework solutions and the complaining students were consequently hurt on the test. I announced in class that students doing all the work in their teams were hurting their classmates rather than helping them, and I repeated the message about setting up problems individually and completing them in groups. The students who had complained soon afterward reported improved interactions within their groups.
End of six weeks. Midsemester evaluations were overwhelmingly positive about group work. I announced that students who wished to do so could now do homework individually. Out of roughly 115 students remaining in the course, only three elected to do so, two of whom were off-campus students who were finding it difficult to attend group work sessions. In courses I taught subsequently, I occasionally assigned individual homework but never again let the students opt out of assigned group work.
Last half of CHE 205. The student lounge began to resemble an ant colony the day before an assignment was due - small groups clustered everywhere, occasionally sending out emissaries to other groups to compare notes and exchange hints (which I permitted as long as entire solutions were not exchanged). The nature of my office hours changed considerably from the start of the semester, with fewer individual students coming in to ask "How do you do Problem 3" and more groups coming in for help in resolving debates about open-ended problems. I inferred with considerable satisfaction that the students had begun to count on one another to resolve straightforward questions instead of looking to me as the source of all wisdom.
The final grade distribution in CHE 205 was dramatically different from any I had ever seen when I taught this course before. In the previous offerings, the distribution was reasonably bell-shaped, with more students earning C's than any other grade. When the course was taught cooperatively, the number of failures was comparable to the number in previous offerings but the overall distribution was markedly skewed toward higher grades: 26 A's, 40 B's, 15 C's, 11 D's, and 26 F's. Many of those who failed had quit before the end of the course. The course evaluations were exceptionally high and most students made strong statements about how much the group work improved their understanding of the course material. My conclusion was that CL led to improved learning in all but the least qualified and most poorly motivated students.
Remaining courses. At my encouragement, new teams formed at the beginning of each semester, even when all members of a team from the previous semester remained in the sequence. I continued to ask the teams to assess their performance periodically and to meet with me if they had persistent problems. The students' level of comfort with cooperative learning continually increased, although there were always problems that needed attention. No more than two teams in any semester had recourse to the last resort options of firing or quitting.
I observed a greater sense of community in this cohort of students by the time they were juniors than I had seen in any other chemical engineering class. They studied together, partied together, and displayed a remarkable sense of unanimity in complaining about things in the chemical engineering program that they didn't like. One student commented, "This class is different from any I've been in before. Usually you just end up knowing a couple of people - here I know everyone in the class. Working in groups does this."
Several times during the experimental course sequence the students were asked to rate how helpful cooperative learning was to them. Their ratings of group homework were consistently and overwhelmingly positive. At the midpoints of the introductory sophomore course, the two junior courses, and the senior course, the percentages rating CL above average in helpfulness were respectively 83%, 85%, 87%, and 86%, and the percentages rating it below average were 9%, 7%, 7%, and 7%. The ratings of in-class group exercises were also positive, but it took many of the students longer to appreciate the benefits of these exercises. Above average ratings were given by 41%, 70%, and 86% of the respondents in the two junior courses and the senior course, and below average ratings were given by 24%, 12%, and 6%, respectively. (The question was unfortunately omitted in the sophomore course survey.)
In the semester following the experimental course sequence, the students were asked to evaluate the sequence retrospectively. Of 67 seniors responding, 92% rated the experimental courses more instructive than their other chemical engineering courses, 8% rated them equally instructive, and none rated them less instructive. Sixty percent considered the experimental courses very important factors in their decision to remain in chemical engineering, 28% considered them important, and 12% rated them not very important or unimportant. Ninety-eight percent rated group homework helpful and 2% rated it not helpful, and 78% rated in-class group work helpful and 22% rated it not helpful.
One episode in particular led me to believe
that group work was having the desired effect on the quality of
the students' learning. In the third semester of the study,
the class was taking fluid dynamics and heat transfer with me
and thermodynamics with a colleague. My colleague is a traditional
instructor, relying entirely on lecturing to impart the course
material, and he is known for his long and difficult tests, with
averages in the 50's or even less not unheard of. The
average on his first test that semester was 72, and that on the
second test was 78, and he ended by concluding that it was perhaps
the strongest class he had ever taught. Meanwhile, I casually
asked the students how things were going, mentioning that I heard
they were doing well in thermo. Several of them independently
told me that they had become so used to working in groups, meeting
before my tests, speculating on what I might be likely to ask,
and figuring out how they would respond, that they just kept doing
it in their other classes - and it worked! To my way of
thinking, cooperative learning had achieved its intended effect.
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ISSUES AND ANSWERS
We regularly teach about cooperative learning in faculty development workshops and find that the participants fall into two broad categories. On the one hand are the skeptics, who creatively come up with all sorts of reasons why CL could not possibly work for their subjects and their students. On the other hand are the enthusiasts, who are sold by our descriptions of the method and its benefits and set out to implement CL fully in their very next class. We know all the reservations about cooperative learning, having once had them all ourselves, and we can usually satisfy most of the skeptics that the problems they anticipate may not occur, and if they occur they are solvable. We worry more about the enthusiasts. Despite our best efforts, they often charge off and simply turn students loose in groups, imagining they will immediately see the improved performance and positive attitudes that the CL literature promises them.
The reality may be quite different. Many students - especially bright ones - begin with a strong resistance or outright hostility to working in teams, and they may be quite vocal on the subject when told they have no choice. Moreover, interpersonal conflicts - usually having to do with differences among team members in ability, work ethic, or sense of responsibility - inevitably arise in group work and can seriously interfere with the embattled group's morale and effectiveness. Instructors unexpectedly confronted by these problems might easily conclude that CL is more trouble than it is worth.
As with so much else in life, however, in cooperative learning forewarned is forearmed. The paragraphs that follow itemize common concerns about CL and our responses to them.
You don't have to spend that much time on in-class group work to be effective with it. Simply take some of the questions you would normally ask the whole class in your lecture and pose them to groups instead, giving them as little as 30 seconds to come up with answers. One or two such exercises that take a total of five minutes can keep a class relatively attentive for an entire 50-minute period.
On a broader note, covering the syllabus does
not mean that teaching has been successful: what matters is how
much of the material covered was actually learned. Students learn
by doing, not by watching and listening. Instead of presenting
all the course material explicitly in lectures, try putting explanatory
paragraphs, diagrams, and detailed derivations in handouts, leaving
gaps to be filled in during class or by the students on their
own time. (If you announce that some of the gaps will be the
subject of test questions and then keep your promise, the students
will read the handouts.) You can then devote the hours
of board-writing time you save to active learning exercises, your
classes will be more lively and will lead to more learning - and
you will still cover the syllabus.
That's one way to look at it. Another is
that several times during a class period your students may become
heavily involved in discussing, problem solving, and struggling
to understand what you're trying to get them to learn, and you
may have to work for a few seconds to bring their attention back
to you. There are worse problems.
This is always a danger, although students determined to get a free ride will usually find a way, whether the assignments are done individually or in groups. In fact, cooperative learning that includes provisions to assure individual accountability cuts down on hitchhiking. Students who don't actually participate in problem-solving will generally fail the individual tests, especially if the assignments are challenging (as they always should be if they are assigned to groups) and the tests truly reflect the skills involved in the assignments. If the group work only counts for a fraction of the overall course grade (say, 10-20%), hitchhikers can get high marks on the homework and still fail the course.
A technique to assure active involvement by
all team members is to call randomly on individual students to
present solutions to group problems, with everyone in the group
getting a grade based on the selected student's response.
The technique is particularly effective if the instructor tends
to avoid calling on the best students, who then make it their
business to make sure that their teammates all understand the
solutions. Another approach is to have all team members anonymously
evaluate every member's level of participation on an assignment
(e.g. as a percentage of the total team effort). These evaluations
usually reveal hitchhikers. Students want to be nice to one another
and so they may agree to put names on assignments of teammates
who barely participated, but they are less likely to credit them
with high levels of participation.
This is a legitimate problem. An effective
way to avoid it is for each group member to set up and outline
each problem solution individually, and then for the group to
work together to obtain the complete solutions. If the students
are instructed in this strategy and are periodically reminded
of it, some or all of them will discover its effectiveness and
adopt it. There is also merit in assigning some individual homework
problems to give the students practice in the problem-solving
mode they will encounter on the tests.
This often happens with group work in any academic or professional setting. When students come to you complaining about some group member dominating or never showing up or about their having to carry most of the load themselves, you might begin by welcoming them to the real world. Point out that they will probably spend a good part of their professional careers working with others, some of whom they won't care for, and suggest that this is a good time to start learning how to do it.
Then propose corrective measures. If you have not previously required team assessment of the group process as part of some or all assignments, do it now, with the groups having problems or (preferably) with all groups. Sometimes students find it easier to complain to you than to discuss problem situations frankly with one another. In the course of assessing what's not working well in the group, the students may also figure out how to correct the problems before they ever get to you. You may invite them to have an assessment session in your office, and if they do, try to steer the discussion in constructive directions.
You may allow teams the option of firing noncooperative
members after giving them at least two warnings and allow individuals
carrying most of the workload the option of joining another group
after giving their noncooperative teammates at least two warnings.
In our experience, these options will rarely be exercised: teams
almost invariably find ways of working things out before it comes
As we observed before, instructors who set out to try cooperative learning in a class for the first time are sometimes unpleasantly surprised by the students' response. Instead of plunging eagerly into group work and immediately exhibiting the promised learning gains and development of social skills, these students view the approach as some kind of game the instructor is playing with them, and some become sullen or hostile when they find they have no choice about participating. They may complain that they work better alone, or that they don't want to be held back by weaker students. Confronted with group exercises during class, some may grouse that they are paying tuition - or their parents are paying taxes - to be taught, not to teach themselves.
Instructors who don't anticipate a negative reaction from some students when they try CL for the first time can easily get discouraged when they encounter it and are likely to abandon the approach rather than trying to get past the resistance. It is not sufficient simply to put the students in groups and hope that they will immediately see the benefits; they must be persuaded that cooperative learning is not something you are doing on a whim or as an educational experiment, but a proven approach that has been repeatedly shown to work in students' interests.
Before you do in-class group work for the
first time, announce that you plan on using such exercises regularly
during the class because research shows that students learn by
doing, not by watching and listening. You can reinforce your
point by adding one or more of the following observations:
Perhaps the most effective selling point (unfortunately) involves grades. Many research studies have demonstrated that students who learn cooperatively get higher grades than students who try to learn the same material individually. Before assigning group work for the first time, Felder mentions a study by Pete Tschumi of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (Tschumi, 1991). Tschumi taught an introductory computer science course three times, once with the students working individually and twice using group work. In the first class, only 36% of the students earned grades of C or better, while in the classes taught cooperatively, 58% and 65% of the students did so. Those earning A's in the course included 6.4% (first offering) and 11.5% (second offering) of those who worked cooperatively and only 3% of those who worked individually. There was some student resentment about group work in the first cooperative offering and almost none in the second offering, presumably because Tschumi showed the students the comparison between the grades for the lecture class and the first cooperative class.
There are many other proven benefits of cooperative
learning that could be explained to the students, such as seeing
alternative methods of approaching problems, being able to parcel
out large assignments, improving social and communication skills,
and gaining self-confidence. However, we find it best not to
oversell the approach with long lists of benefits, but rather
to let the students discover most of the benefits for themselves.
The arguments given above should be sufficient to persuade most
students to approach cooperative learning with an open mind.
After a while, their own positive experiences provide all the
In fact, the greatest cooperative learning success story comes
from the minority education literature. Beginning in the mid-1970's,
Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor then at the University of
California-Berkeley, began to seek reasons for chronically poor
performance in calculus by some minority students. He eliminated
explanations based on lack of motivation, lack of family emphasis
on education, poor academic preparation, and socioeconomic factors,
and finally concluded that African-American students, many of
whom were failing, studied alone and were reluctant to seek help,
while Asian students, who did well, worked in groups. He established
a group-based calculus honors program, reserving two-thirds of
the places for minority students. The students who participated
in this program ended with a higher retention rate after three
years than the overall average for all university students, while
minority students in a control population were mostly gone after
three years. Treisman's model has been used at many institutions
with comparable success (Conciatore, 1990).
They could be right. Students have a variety of learning styles (see, for example, Felder and Silverman, 1988), and no instructional approach can be optimal for everyone. Moreover, every instructional method - including straight lecturing - displeases some students, so that consistently making all students happy is an unattainable (and in many ways, undesirable) objective for an instructor. The goal should rather be to optimize the learning experience for the greatest possible number of students, and extensive research has demonstrated that when properly implemented, cooperative learning does that.
The research and anecdotal evidence confirming the effectiveness of cooperative learning is at this point overwhelming. Regardless of the objective specified, cooperative learning has repeatedly been shown to be more effective than the traditional individual/competitive approach to education.
Obstacles to the widespread implementation of cooperative learning at the college level are not insignificant, however. The approach requires faculty members to move away from the safe, teacher-centered methods that keep them in full control of their classes to methods that deliberately turn some control over to students. They have to deal with the fact that while they are learning to implement CL they will make mistakes and may for a time be less effective than they were using the old methods. They may also have to confront and overcome substantial student opposition and resistance, which can be a most unpleasant experience, especially for teachers who are good lecturers and may have been popular with students for many years.
The message of this report, if there is a
single message, is that the benefits of cooperative learning more
than compensate for the difficulties that must be overcome to
implement it. Instructors who pay attention to CL principles
when designing their courses, who are prepared for initially negative
student reactions, and who have the patience and the confidence
to wait out these reactions, will reap their rewards in more and
deeper student learning and more positive student attitudes toward
their subjects and toward themselves. It may take an effort to
get there, but it is an effort well worth making.
(Return to table of contents)
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