Cooperative Learning: Theory and Research

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This volume seeks to provide a reply to the question, "What have recent theory and research to contribute to our understanding of cooperative learning and its effects on teachers and students?" As such, this volume concentrates on how that set of instructional methods generally included under the title of "cooperative learning" affects its practitioners and their clients, the students. As expected, the effects of any instructional method probably can be found over a broad range of dependent and mediating variables, and this is certainly the case for cooperative learning. Some investigators might feel that such diversity in the dependent variables discussed in a volume of this kind detracts from the theoretical unity of the book. By necessity, the theory and research related to a specific form of teaching lead in many different directions. Investigators interested, for example, in thinking patterns, inter-group relations, motivation, or teachers' verbal behavior, may find only one study or theoretical paper in this book to be of relevance to their work. Since investigators frequently focus on topics that often appear as dependent or mediating variables in educational settings rather than as part of the chief independent variable typical of schools, namely the process of instruction, some can claim that a book of this kind cannot be meaningful to the community of investigators concerned with education.

In light of this latter position, one that is often implicit in many volumes of collected papers on psycho-educational topics, it seemed desirable to make explicit the goal of this book. The goal here is to illuminate at least some of the major effects of cooperative learning methods as (part of) an independent vari
able. Clearly the concern of this book is how a set of particular instructional methods affects people in classrooms and what this form of instruction contributes to them, or fails to contribute. After all, it is the instructional process, perhaps more than any other major variable in schools, over which we exert a relatively large degree of control and which we can change more readily, despite the impediments, than many of the other personal or social variables found in classroom settings. Yet, the characteristics and procedures of teaching methods receive relatively meager attention in the research literature, compared with their role and significance in the process of schooling.
Investigators of cooperative learning methods and their effects appear to be expressing the position that significant improvement in the processes of teaching and learning in school can be achieved. In order to do so we must pay considerable attention to the manner in which instruction is conducted, no less than we attend to the contents of the curriculum. Curriculum development is traditionally considered to be a discipline in the field of education. Yet, relatively little attention is paid to methods or models of teaching beyond having prospective teachers learn the standard procedures of presenting material to students with a variety of techniques (lectures, audio-visual aids, demonstrations, etc.) and asking them questions about the material they heard or read about (which is how the teacher candidates themselves are prepared for their profession). The typical "methods" courses for teaching specific subject matter concentrate primarily on the subject matter and only very little on the "methods." Thus, course titles notwithstanding, models of teaching, in terms of the design of the process of instruction, receive only peripheral recognition in most university departments of education. This volume seeks to draw attention to cooperative learning as a model of teaching (actually a set of models) that produces a wide range of positive effects of the kind that schools claim they wish to generate. Therein lies one of its main claims on the attention of the readers of this book and to a central place in the professional skills of teachers, trainers of teachers, school administrators, and investigators of the instructional process.
It is my hope that the chapters of this volume are consistent with these goals, and I would like to express my appreciation to all of the authors who have contributed their efforts to this project.
Cooperative Learning and Achievement: Methods for Assessing Causal Mechanisms
The research on cooperative learning environments has generally focused upon several well-developed classroom structures. These environments substantially modify the nature of the classroom in an attempt to foster cooperation. Further, this research has focused upon the effects of cooperative learning on academic achievement and interpersonal relationships (cf. Sharan et al. 180, 1984; Slavin et al. 1985). In the present chapter we will be concerned only with the influence of cooperative learning environments upon academic achievement; however, much of our analysis of the research and our recommended research directions may be applied to the effects on interpersonal relationships as well. We will briefly review, first, some of the most commonly used cooperative learning environments and second, the research on the hypothesized causal mechanisms through which cooperative learning environments may influence academic achievement. We will also discuss what we believe are critical limitations of this research which seriously limit our ability to make confident inferences regarding the causal mechanisms. Finally, we will describe an example research approach that we believe will dramatically improve our ability to infer the causal mechanisms through which cooperative learning affects academic achievement.
A number of cooperative learning methods have been developed and are being used. We will focus upon those cooperative learning methods that have been most widely adopted by educators and which have stimulated considerable research. Thus, our review of cooperative learning methods will be by no means exhaustive and some well-developed methods will be omitted. However, we believe the set of issues described in subsequent sections of this chapter is applicable to all cooperative learning methods.
Circles of Learning (Learning Together)
When Johnson and Johnson ( 1975) developed their method of cooperative learning, often called Learning Together, it was quite general in terms of implementation. A cooperative goal structure was described as one in which there is a group goal, sharing of ideas and materials, a division of labor when appropriate, and group rewards. In the research reports of this method, the typical description was that students worked as a group to complete a single group product, shared ideas and helped each other with answers to questions, made sure all members were involved and understood group answers, and asked for help from each other before asking the teacher, and the teacher praised and rewarded the group on the basis of group performance ( Johnson and Johnson 1979; Johnson, Johnson, and Skon 1979; Johnson et al. 1983).Recently, Johnson et al. ( 1984) have called their method Circles of Learning and have delineated the following 18 specific steps for implementation (some of which are optional):
1. Clearly specify instructional objectives.
2. Limit group size to no more than six. (Students new to cooperative learning should be in smaller groups to help ensure that everyone will participate.)
3. Structure groups to achieve heterogeneity in terms of ability, sex, and ethnicity. (Occasionally, homogeneous groups may be used to master specific skills.)
4. Arrange groups in circles to facilitate communication.
5. Use instructional materials to promote interdependence among students. Several alternatives are suggested, such as giving only one copy of the materials to a group so that students will have to share, giving each student in the group access to only one part of the lesson, and structuring competition among groups so that students will have to depend upon each other for their group to win.
6. Assign roles to ensure interdependence. Suggested roles are summarizer-checker, to summarize the lesson and to quiz group members; encourager, to solicit and encourage contributions from each member; recorder, to write down group decisions or a group report; and observer, to check for collaboration among group members.
7. Explain the academic task.
8. Structure positive goal interdependence. This can be accomplished by having the group produce a single product or by providing group rewards based on the individual performance of each group member.
9. Structure individual accountability for learning so that all group members must

contribute. For example, the teacher may give individual tests, randomly select members to explain a group project, have members edit each other's work, or randomly select one member's work on which to base a group grade.
11. Structure inter-group cooperation.
12. 11. Explain criteria for success. Grading must be objective rather than on a curve. With heterogeneous groups, criteria for earning points for one's group may need to be individually determined.
13. 12. Specify desired behaviors. Suggested beginning behaviors are to stay with the group, use each other's names, and take turns. More advanced behaviors include making sure each group member participates in discussions and understands and agrees with group answers.
14. 13. Monitor students' behavior continually for problems with the task or with collaborative efforts.
15. 14. Provide task assistance. The teacher will need to intervene at times to clarify instructions, answer questions, encourage discussions, and to teach academic skills.
16. 15. Intervene to teach collaborative skills of effective communication, building a trusting environment, and constructive management of controversy.
17. 16. Provide closure to the lesson, with summaries by students and teacher.
18. 17. Evaluate the students' work. A variety of methods of evaluation are permitted. There may be only a cooperative incentive, with each person in a group receiving the same grade. There may be both an individualistic and a cooperative incentive, with individual grades for each student and a group reward based on the combined grades of group members, or students may receive individual grades with bonus points based on how many members of their group reached a criterion.
19. 18. Assess group functioning through ongoing observation and discussion of group process.

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