In forming cooperative groups, there are many things that need to be decided upon. The following list contains some of the issues that need to be addressed. It is important to emphasize that the questions raised do not have unique answers. How you structure your cooperative classroom will vary depending on what you are teaching, the nature of the room, the time available to you, the nature of the participants, etc. The active learning teacher must be, above all, observant, sensitive, and flexible in his or her approach, be willing to change strategy depending on the situation, and be able to learn from prior experiences.
In arriving at the guidelines given here, I have been strongly influenced by certain books that have been written on the topic, as well as my own experiences with this kind of teaching.
Like everything else, cooperative learning can be carried too far. It should not be the only mode of learning that students experience. In real life, one is most frequently working in a group mode so learning to do so successfully in the classroom is an important educational goal. But there are occasions when one needs to work independently of others and even compete against others. So the well-rounded active learning classroom should use all three modes of learning. Traditional classrooms are mostly independent or competitive, and hence this manual focuses on developing the ignored collaborative skills.
Dealing with opposition to group work What if a student is adamantly opposed to working with others in groups? This is usually because in the past they have felt exploited by others in the group who did not do their fair share of the work, or because they feel that they can do the work better by themselves.
In such cases, I talk to them and suggest that this experience might be different because of the precautionary structures in place. I suggest that they try it out for a few weeks. If at the end of that time, they still feel uncomfortable working in a group, I will let them work alone, although they are still responsible for all the assignments. I have never had a student come back after the time interval and ask to work alone.
Age appropriateness The nature of the groups and the tasks they are assigned depends on the age of the participants. Older participants tend to be more resistant to being assigned roles. While they may have more entrenched personality traits that make some of them hard to work with, you are also more likely to have people in the groups who have highly developed small group skills and who can thus resolve tensions without outside (i.e., instructor) intervention. Hence unstructured groups are more likely to be used with older persons than younger children.
Physical resources The arrangement of the room and furniture plays an important role in successful group work. Ideally, you should have tables with chairs that can be moved around and in which the students in groups can sit and face each other while working. The size of tables is important. If they are too small, students can feel a little constricted but it is worse if the tables are too large. Then the groups will subdivide with students talking only to the one next to them and not with those across the table.
Management of groups It takes a while for people to develop the skills of working together harmoniously. Inevitably there will be friction amongst group members. Since the goal of the active learning classroom is to make people independent learners, the instructor should avoid the trap of rushing in whenever there is a problem and thus over-managing the groups. As far as possible, the group members should learn how to resolve the issues amongst themselves. If the instructor has to intervene, the occasion should be used not just to solve the immediate problem that caused the conflict, but also to model to the members of the group how to resolve issues.
Frequency of group changes There is no fixed rule about the frequency of group changes. They can occur at agreed upon time intervals (every week or month or semester) or at the beginning of a new curriculum topic. Groups can also be changed because of problems within the groups but this should be used only as a last resort.
Group transitions Groups bond together and develop group loyalties surprisingly quickly! Announcing group changes without advance warning can produce unhappiness. Hence, group transitions should be notified well in advance and there should be opportunities given for the old group to make their farewells and for the new group to get to know each other, using ice-breakers if necessary.
Grading philosophy Collaborative group work succeeds only if everyone perceives a benefit in getting all group members to succeed. Hence it should be apparent that any grading scheme that assigns grades on a norm-referenced basis (i.e., 'on a curve' where the number of high grades is limited) will work against successful group work. After all, why should one student help another to learn if the latter’s success will work against the former? I strongly believe that collaborative groups will succeed only if grades are criterion-referenced (i.e., a student’s grade only depends on what he or she can do and not on how the rest of the class performs).