October 13th, 2015

Ah-ha Moments—When Cooperative Learning in the Classroom Works


cooperative learning

Goals for my First-Year Seminar students include proficiency with a host of study skills as well as course content based on what we call “learning about learning.” To support new college students in understanding what, exactly, learning is, my colleagues and I introduce a number of themes and authors to our students over the course of the first semester. Themes can include locus of control, memory learning and the brain (including information processing models), current research on learning disabilities, theories of motivation and learning, mind-set theory, emotional intelligence theories, and research on millennial students just like them. Students read materials written by authors doing work in these areas.

Supporting students through such a demanding curriculum in only 15 weeks is challenging, especially when you really want them to grapple with the ideas in the reading and have time to internalize concepts enough to perhaps make positive, research-based choices for themselves. One hopes that after reading and thinking about Dr. Dweck’s research on fixed versus growth mind-sets in college students, for example, our students may be more willing to try new things, seek help, and see some failures as opportunities for growth. Having students read the article for homework followed by a brief class discussion and finally a written summary or opinion, while all useful in certain ways, goes only so far in terms of providing opportunities for deeper-level thinking about the complex issues raised by the author.

In searching for teaching techniques that support quality time on task during class, I hit on the pedagogical practice of cooperative learning (CL), a method in which a carefully structured class activity allows students to work together in varying-sized groups to complete a shared goal or task. Research has shown that critical-thinking skills are employed as students actively exchange ideas, allowing for movement beyond surface learning. Ideally, they will engage multidimensionally with the material, allowing for surprising connections to be made.

In my cooperative learning groups, students have defined roles and must use consensus to move forward through the process. This leaves little room for “opting out” and allows for all voices to be heard and respected. Further, a well-planned activity will not require the professor to have a role; it should run itself, thus empowering the students in their own learning process. I have had very successful and equally unsuccessful cooperative learning activities in my classroom over the years, and I have learned that not all material lends itself to this method; however, those materials that do, when recognized and implemented correctly, can create very exciting learning opportunities.

One of the most successful CL activities I now use every term asks groups of six students to transform their thinking about an article with a linear progression of six concepts into a visual diagram that shows the relationship between those concepts. The discussions that ensue as groups grapple, first, with each concept itself (each student is an “expert” in one concept) and, next, with where each of these belongs in a visual format and why are exhilarating to hear! Questions of author’s intent, semantic choices, and implied meaning rise to the surface during these roundtables. The physical creation of the actual diagram brings a renewed discussion as fresh ideas are constructed and changes are made as designs become concrete. An important shift occurs in students’ thinking as they move from thinking in words to thinking in pictures and meaningful long-lasting connections are made. Finally, each group will “name” their diagram and each student will sign it (my favorite so far is “Dagger of Destiny,” an upside-down pyramid with the point at the bottom!). When each group shares and explains its visual, further discussion is prompted as the class considers differences and similarities in models and placement of concepts. As a follow-up assignment, students write a paper that asks them to apply these six attributes for success in college to themselves. I tend to receive 100 percent of these papers from students who attended class.

Often students are surprised to discover that an hour and a half may have transpired since they last looked at the clock and class time has slipped by while they were engaged with one another. Further, on the midterm exam several weeks later, without fail, the section asking them to discuss the concepts in this particular article always earns the highest points across the board—for all types of learners; they remember each of the six concepts and can discuss them in depth and in relationship to one another. And they can apply the success attributes to themselves in the form of goals.

The planning for a CL activity is the time-consuming part, as I work to develop an effective class plan with my learning outcomes in mind. But the class time itself is a joy as I sit back, relax, and listen to student-led discussions, debate, laughter, questions, and ah-ha moments.

Sophie Lampard Dennis is an associate professor at Landmark College.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.5 (2014): 4. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.