Cooperative learning refers to a variety of instructional strategies in which students work in small, usually mixed-ability, groups and are expected to help one another learn academic material or complete projects together. There are many forms of cooperative learning that are often used in elementary schools. Students may simply be asked to work together, without any particular structure or goal. But cooperative learning research finds greater success when groups have reward interdependence, task interdependence, or both. Reward interdependence means that group members can achieve success only if the whole group accomplishes some objective. For example, groups may be evaluated based on the sum or average of individual quiz scores or average ratings of individual products, or based on an evaluation of a common product, such as a report, a mural, or a project to which all group members contributed. The group's success may be recognized by the teacher using praise, certificates, or other symbolic rewards, or it may count toward a portion of children's grades. Task interdependence exists when each group member is responsible for a unique portion of a group task, and the group cannot meet its goal unless all students do their parts.
Cooperative learning can be used in every subject and at every age level. Research has found that cooperative learning can increase academic achievement, especially if there are group goals or rewards and if the only way groups can achieve their goals is if all group members have learned the material being studied (as demonstrated on individual quizzes, compositions, or other products). This structure causes students to teach each other, to assess each other's understanding, and to encourage each other to excel. Peer teaching, which is beneficial both to the child who teaches and to the child being taught, and peer encouragement are the main explanations research has identified for the achievement effects of cooperative learning. Research has also identified positive effects on outcomes such as intergroup relations, attitudes toward mainstreamed classmates, self-esteem, and general attitudes toward school.
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Sharan, Yael, and Shlomo Sharan. Expanding Cooperative Learning through Group Investigation. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.
Slavin, Robert. Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2nd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
Webb, Noreen, and Annemarie Palincsar. "Group Processes in the Classroom." In David Berliner and Robert Calfee eds., Handbook of Educational Psychology. New York: Simon and Schuster-Macmillan, 1996.