Getting Started

Before implementing cooperative learning groups in a course, both instructors and students need to prepare.

  • As the instructor, you should have asked yourself, and answered, the following questions. How can you structure your group work so that: Each person feels that they need, depend on, and value each other for success?
  • Group members directly engage and communicate with each other?
  • No member gets a ‘free ride’ at the expense of others?
  • Groups are reflecting on, and improving, their ability to work cooperatively?

(See here for suggestions on how to address all these issues.)

The next thing to do is to prepare your students. You have to be ready for the fact that college students often have negative perception because of their past poor experiences with cooperative learning due to poor implementation by teachers who neglected to prepare properly for it. You have to overcome that skepticism.

Students also tend to have unrealistic expectations about how well they can work with others, and hence get discouraged when problems arise, so I share with them the following information (also avaliable as a [.pdf] document):

In a survey of 1 million high school seniors about their ability to get along with others: • all thought they were above average, • 60% though they were in the top 10%, and • 25% thought they were in the top 1%.

(College Board (1976-1977) Student descriptive questionnaire. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, quoted in How We Know What Isn’t So, by Thomas Gilovich, Free Press, NY, 1991, p77)

Lest we teachers get too smug, it should also be noted that 94% of college instructors rate themselves as above average teachers, and 68% rank themselves in the top quarter of teaching performances. (Patricia Cross (1977). Not can but will college teaching be improved? New Directions for Higher Education, 17, 1–15.)

The importance of learning the skills developed in cooperative learning has to emphasized.I do this by sharing this information (also available as a [.pdf] document):

82% of companies employing over 100 people require their employees to work in TEAMS. (Gordon, J. (1992) Work Teams: How Far Have They Come, Training, 29(10), 59-65.)

In their annual survey of business schools, the Wall Street Journal (September 9, 2002) ranked the skills that recruiters deem important when hiring, along with the number of recruiters who ranked those skills as “very important”: 1. Communication and interpersonal skills (90%) 2. Ability to work well within a team (87%) 3. Analytical and problem-solving skills (86%) 4. The ability to drive results (81%)

WSJ reports that these ‘soft skills’ are hard to develop because people think they are already good at them.

Note: By working in a group one can learn how to motivate other group members and manage the group so that it produces results. Thus, the 1st, 2nd, and 4th ranked skills can all be honed through work in student work groups.

Once the groups have been formed, this can be done by providing questions to be discussed by student group members that alert them to the kinds of things that can happen and how to deal with them. These questions can be discussed in class or outside class by each group, andtheir writen responses should be handed in t the insturctor and discussed with them. Their responses can be shared with the whole class, so that a greater awareness of the issues involved in group work become manifest.

  • Based on your past experiences with group work, what do you think are the factors that lead to successful group work?
  • What do you think are the kinds of things that cause groups to fail or become non-productive? OR What are the things that other people do that really bug you when working with them on some joint project?
  • What steps will you take if one or more of those negative conditions start appearing in your group?
  • The group must agree right at the beginning as to what the project requires and how work is to be divided, performed, shared, reported, and written.

Here are some other suggestions that would help groups run better:

  • Groups should periodically have explicit discussions about these skills and how to improve them.
  • Group members should write periodic journals on their group experience.
  • Groups should periodically self-assess how well the group is functioning. (The instructor can also assess the working of the group.) This can be done by:
    • Asking each group to list at least three actions that helped the group be successful.
    • Asking each group to list one action that would make the group even more successful.
  • Groups should agree right at the beginning to working rules amongst themselves as to how work is to be divided, performed, shared, reported, and written.
  • Members should ensure that group processing times do not degenerate into gripe sessions where some members simply vent their irritations with others. This can be done by groups establishing ground rules that criticisms should not be phrased negatively but as positive suggestions. i.e., in the form of statements such as ‘Perhaps you might try doing it this way’’ instead of ‘‘I wish you’d stop doing this.’’

Also, if possible, it is advisable for the instructor to meet with each group for about 15 minutes during the first two weeks after the groups have begun working to gauge how well the group is doing and to discuss their responses to the questions. It also helps to get periodic assessments from each group about how well they are functioning.