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Session 4.2: Strategies for Cooperative Learning (PM)



At approximately 1:00, participants reconvene and Karl Smith asks them to pair up with a partner they don't know and haven't yet met. He then asks the discussion pairs to: 1) introduce self to other; 2) reflect on something they found useful during the morning session; 3) identify a question they still need answered. He asks participants to use the 4-step Formulate-Share-Listen-Create system discussed in the morning.

Karl invites a couple of responses to the issue of questions remaining to be answered.

One participant wants to know what the instructor does while students are involved in paired discussion. Smith answers that the instructor shouldn't remain at the front of the room. She or he should walk among the groups, listening and occasionally joining in the conversation, but making certain that group talk doesn't cease. This helps the instructor get a better sense of the issues still facing students and suggests to students that the instructor cares about what they have to say. It also helps the instructor identify any "problem groups" that might require "engineering."

Another participant wants to know how to deal with very quiet students or those who don't want to work in a group. Smith states that in his experience, silent students represent a small minority and that cooperative learning often helps them emerge from silence. But for painfully shy students or those who refuse to participate, some social engineering again may be necessary-e.g., putting a quiet student with someone who's particularly kind and helpful. Engineering requires getting to know students and their character traits better than might normally happen in a large classroom, but the payoff is worth it. Also, Smith notes that it may not be possible to reach every single student.

Smith then asks participants to view a video titled Thinking Together (or is this Peer Instruction featuring Mazur?), which features a classroom where cooperative techniques are utilized. Smith asks half of the workshop participants to pay close attention to the student perspective in the video and the other half to attend to the faculty perspective.

After participants view and discuss the video, Smith offers a number of resources (websites, journals, videos, books) potentially useful in implementing cooperative learning: Also see two issues of New Directions for Teaching and Learning: A useful film is A Private Universe, which examines the nature of learning and how people organize knowledge.


Several recent books that might be useful: Seymour, Elaine and Nancy M. Hewitt (1997) Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Westview. Sandler, Bernice Resnick et al. (1996) The chilly classroom climate: A guide to improve the education of women. National Association for Women in Education. Schrage, Michael (1990) Shared minds: The new technologies of collaboration. Random House. Katzenbach, Jon and Douglas Smith (1994) The wisdom of teams: Creating the high- performance organization. Harvard Business School Press. Bennis, Warren and Patricia Ward Biederman (1997) Organizing genius: The secrets of creative collaboration. Addison Wesley. The Team Handbook and The Team Memory Jogger (doesn't provide full references)


Smith then turns to empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of cooperative learning. He cites the findings of a recent (1997) and reputable meta-analysis of the effects of cooperative learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology performed by Leonard Springer et al. The meta-analysis (of 39 studies) suggests that students who learn cooperatively or collaboratively in small groups demonstrate greater academic achievement, express more favorable attitudes toward learning, and persist through SMET courses or programs (i.e., experience lower attrition rates) to a greater extent than their more traditionally taught counterparts. In addition, small-group learning has particularly large effects on the academic achievement of members of underrepresented groups and the learning-related attitudes of women and preservice teachers.

These findings are seconded by Alexander Astin's recent (1993) report, What matters in college?: Four critical years revisited (Jossey-Bass). In a multiple regression analysis, Astin finds that the top two factors in students' academic and personal development, as well as their overall satisfaction with the college experience, are student-student interaction and student-faculty interaction.

And Richard Light, in his The Harvard assessment seminars: Second report (1992, Harvard University Press) asks of more qualitative data collected from undergraduates: "Is there any common theme that faculty members can use to help students, and indeed that students can use to help themselves? The answer is a strong yes. All the specific findings point to, and illustrate, one main idea. It is that students who get the most out of college, who grow the most academically, and who are the happiest, organize their time to include interpersonal activities with faculty members, or with fellow students, built around substantive, academic work."

The ability to work in groups is also highly valued by employers, according to Smith. While studies show that employers in science-related fields want employees to have a good grasp of math and science fundamentals, they also value the ability to continue learning; listening and oral communication skills; competence in reading and writing; adaptability (creative thinking); personal management (the ability to set goals and develop a career); group effectiveness (interpersonal skills, negotiation, and teamwork); and organizational effectiveness and leadership.

At approximately 2:45, the group takes a 15-minute break. When participants return, Smith turns the discussion to the structure and functioning of formal groups.

Formal groups can be structured in a number of ways depending on the task assigned to them. Some groups are what Smith calls "jigsaw groups," which aid comprehension by assigning different parts of course material to different group members for summary and analysis. Writing groups (aimed at peer composition and/or editing), problem solving groups, homework groups, "debate" groups (aimed at constructive academic controversy), and study (for exam) groups are all examples of ongoing groups that can be structured in a variety of ways.

The professor's role in formal cooperative learning involves five tasks: 1) specifying group objectives; 2) making decisions about group size, composition, roles, etc.; 3) clearly explaining group tasks, and making certain that positive interdependence and individual accountability can occur; 4) monitoring group work and intervening when modeling skills is needed; and 5) evaluating students' achievement and group effectiveness.

For groups to be truly effective, they must become teams according to Smith.

Smith asks participants to divide into groups of 3-4 and discuss groups they have belonged to which they believe constitute teams (highly effective groups).

After approximately 10 minutes, Smith calls participants back together and asks various members to share characteristics of the highly effective groups they've been part of. Characteristics cited include small size, complementary skills, a common purpose and performance goals, a common approach, and mutual accountability. Karl Smith adds one more, commitment, which he says distinguishes high-performing teams.

Smith cites Katzenbach and Smith (1993) who distinguish working groups from teams. A working group has a strong, clearly focused leader; embraces individual accountability; shares the same purpose as the broader organization of which it is part; produces individual products; runs efficient meetings; measures effectiveness indirectly by influence on others; and discusses, decides, and then delegates tasks. A team, on the other hand, shares leadership roles; embraces mutual as well as individual accountability; itself identifies its purpose in the organization; produces a collective product; encourages open-ended discussion and active problem-solving meetings; measures performance directly by assessing collective work products; and discusses, decides, and then mutually performs tasks.

Smith then organizes participants into small formal groups of 3 people each and each member is assigned a particular group role: task recorder (insuring that the group understands its task), process recorder (writing down the methods by which the group completes its task), and solution recorder (making certain that a collective answer is ultimately reached). All members of the group are responsible for being able to explain the group's answer if called on by Smith.

The group task assigned by Smith is to count how many triangles exist in a diagram handed out by him (see Attachment C) and to describe the method established by the group to determine the number of triangles.

After approximately 20 minutes of group work, Smith asks groups to quit their work and attend to him. He asks for the maximum number of triangles identified by the various groups (n's ranged) and some of the steps the groups went through to ascertain a mutually acceptable answer. He then asks if and how the assignment achieved positive interdependence and individual/group accountability within groups. Participants cited shared resources, the assignment of a single task, the request for a single answer, and designated roles with each group as conducive to positive interdependence. Individual and group accountability was elicited by giving group members a few minutes at the beginning of the task to formulate some ideas individually; by requiring all members to be ready to talk about the group's process and solution; and by asking each member of the group to sign off on the collective answer.

Because the time is now 5:00 p.m., the session on cooperative learning comes to a close.

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