Cooperative Learning

I attempt to add a new, proven feature to my teaching each year. This semester, I am concentrating on adding true cooperative learning to my classes.

Any sort of learning can be categorized into one of three categories: “Individual learning,” “competitive learning,” and “cooperative learning.” An individual learning environment is where one student’s learning is not affected by any other student’s learning; every school where I have worked has had predominantly (solely?) a focus on individual learning (my courses included). A competitive learning environment occurs where one student succeeds at the expense of the other. An example of a policy that encourages competitive learning is the true grading curve, where only 10% of the class could earn an A. A cooperative learning environment occurs when students succeed or fail together.

Cooperative learning is more than simply using group work. Two aspects of cooperative learning that I have usually not included with run-of-the-mill group work are positive interdependence and individual accountability. Positive interdependence means that the group succeeds and fails together—there is no room for some of the group members to succeed while others fail. Individual accountability means that I have developed policies so that students cannot just let others do all of the work.

I am implementing cooperative learning policies in my course because the psychology research overwhelmingly shows that students learn more in cooperative environments than individual and competitive environments (individual environments tend to improve learning more than competitive). This is really the only reason I need, but the research also shows that students who have experienced true cooperative environments strongly prefer cooperative learning environments to individual or competitive environments.

I am going to introduce cooperation into my classroom through three policies:

  1. Students will work cooperatively on homework. I will assign them to groups of 3-4, collect all assignments from the group, randomly select one of the papers, and give the grade of that one randomly selected paper to the entire group. Of course, the students will be instructed to meet to make sure that all of their papers are correct.

    This policy promotes a positive interdependence by giving everyone in the group the same grade. This encourages students to teach each other to make sure that they all understand the material. There is individual accountability because any one of the group members’ papers could be selected for grading; a slacker will cause the entire group to do poorly.

    (Note: There will also be individual, rather than cooperative, homework. There is definitely a place for individualism).

  2. Students will have a similar experience for each midterm. I will again assign groups (likely the same groups from the previous homework assignment), give them an exam problem in advance, and then ask the students that question on the in-class portion of the midterm. Each group will get a grade based on how the entire group does. I have not yet decided on the method for determine which one grade all group members receive (feedback would be appreciated), but options are: randomly selected a question to grade, averaging the group members’ scores, using the lowest grade, or using the second lowest grade.
  3. Students will be creating a textbook for the class. This idea is from Patrick Bahls. This will be a lower stakes cooperative task, since I will not be giving the entire class a grade depending on how the students do. Rather, it will be a (hopefully) enjoyable task that promotes learning.

I welcome comments, particularly on the following two issues:

  1. How should I grade the cooperative homework? I strongly favor de-emphasizing grades, and I have previously been give an “All or nothing” grade with re-writes. However, I am afraid that I will not be able to grade everything if this happens (I am allowing unlimited re-writes on the individual homework assignments). I have considered a 0-3 scale for each problem, but that does not give them the feedback I would like. I really have not thought of a solution that I am happy with—please help.
  2. How should I score the cooperative question on the midterms? Average? Randomly selected? Lowest score?

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6 Responses to “Cooperative Learning”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Bureaucracy creep
    Brett: this all looks great, and a fantastic model to strive for! I don’t have any pat tips for grading collaborative efforts (this is one of the thorniest issues an instructor can deal with, especially since students, trained by years of largely individual and competitive learning environments, are apt to feel that any sort of grading system is going to be “unfair”), but I’ll definitely give the matter some thought.
    A few quick ideas: on most collaborative projects in my classes, the group produces a single submission copy which is then graded, and every student receives the single common grade. For more robust, high-stakes projects I give the students the chance to inform me of how well the group functioned as a team, asking them “if you had 100 points to divvy up amongst your team members, how would you split them?” Well-functioning groups (probably about 80-90% of them, fortunately) generally go either for an even split or recognize a single “leader” who in turn acknowledges the others’ honest effort (splits like this would look something like 30-30-40 from the two “followers” in the group, and 33-33-33 from the leader); in the former case, I’ll give everyone the same grade, and in the latter I’ll give the “followers” the base grade and include a small “cherry” (3-5%) for the “leader.” The only problems arise either when there’s massive discrepancy in the reporting of effort between various team members, or when one person’s clearly slacking. The latter issue is easier to deal with (I generally dock the “slacker” a little bit); the former requires that I talk briefly with the team members to try to suss out what went on.
    One thing I would warn you about regarding the grading system you’ve devised, as positive as it is: beware of “bureaucracy creep,” the tendency for somewhat complicated grading systems to confuse and confound the students. This is an issue I ran into with my Proofs course last semester, wherein the assignment structure got a little hectic. As you know, I’m addressing it this semester by instituting unlimited revision and resubmission.
    I’m curious to find out how your midterm exam collaborations go!

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Re: Bureaucracy creep
      Thanks, Patrick. I have been concerned about this, which is why I am not including any sort of project this semester (saving me some work, too).
      Because of your comment, I am leaning toward making the homework and midterm grading as similar as possible. Perhaps I will grade both out of 10 points.
      I will definitely—for my sanity—randomly grade only one homework per group. I think I still might do something different on the exam, but I am not sure.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Re: Bureaucracy creep
      One more thing: you make a very good point that there needs to be some sort of reflection on the students’ part. I will incorporate that.
      Thanks again!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    grading cooperative learning tasks
    Grade with a RUBRIC! You mentioned it in a similar post. I use it with the 6th graders all the time – when they have a rubric ahead of time, it holds them accountable for everything you expect.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Re: grading cooperative learning tasks
      Do you use a single, generic rubric, or do you have customized rubrics for each assignment? I understand how to do the former, although I do not understand how to do the latter with more creative assignments.
      For example, I could imagine telling students that they will receive five points for setting up a u-substitution and one point if they write “+C” while antidifferentiating a problem. I cannot imagine setting up a rubric for writing a specific paper, though. I imagine that I could have something like “one point for writing a thesis statement,” but it seems to me like good writing is not the sum of its components.
      One the other hand, I can understand a rubric that would apply to all papers: “all statements should be supported by evidence,” “the paper should be complete yet concise,” etc.
      Do you have any advice for me?

  3. How much homework is enough? « Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] and I have been improving on this by leaps and bounds over the past eight years. My latest tool is cooperative learning, which has been considered a group success by my students. A second success is giving my students […]

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