Cooperative learning can support achievement in any classroom.
Cooperative learning can support achievement in any classroom.

When students push their desks together, they are taking part in cooperative learning, an educational method in which students collaborate to learn new information, solve complex problems and share their ideas and opinions. Research conducted over the last five decades confirms that cooperative learning can boost achievement in every subject at every grade level.


Cooperative learning has roots that go back to the late 1950s when psychologist John Coleman, who was studying adolescent behavior, concluded that competitiveness among students hindered learning in schools. Coleman believed that students would achieve more by working with -- rather than against -- each other. In the 1980s, Spencer Kagan, an education professor at the University of California Riverside, began promoting structured group activities that teachers could use in any classroom. In the early 1990s, Robert Slavin, a professor of educational psychology at Johns Hopkins University, refined cooperative learning by demonstrating that students working in cooperative groups had to be accountable for each other’s learning. Today, commonly employed cooperative learning methods include literature circles, conversation roundtables and reciprocal teaching.

Effect on Learning

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, education professors at the San Diego State University, described what happens in effective group activities in an article published in the "International Reading Association" and their book "Productive Group Work." Teachers present groups with a complex problem or a challenging learning goal. Students take part in lively discussion, or argumentation, as they try to reach a mutual understanding or find a consensus on a solution to the problem. The cooperative process results in higher-order thinking and a greater engagement in the learning process. Students retain more knowledge when they are responsible for finding meaning together rather than having information presented to them in a lecture.

Effect on Assessment

Cooperative learning is one of the nine learning strategies for increasing student achievement, according to Robert Marzano, author of "Classroom Instruction That Works." Marzano said that students who are regularly exposed to cooperative learning gained 30 percentile points on achievement tests. For example, a student ranked in the 50th percentile would move to the 80th percentile from working in a properly structured collaborative environment.

Classroom Application

Students learn best when teachers present them with tasks that they can’t complete when they are working alone. Teachers need to hold student groups accountable while ensuring that individual students contribute equally to the effort. Teachers should set clear expectations for the way students work together and allow students to reflect on and talk about their experiences.