The Guide to Cooperative Learning

The Guide to Cooperative Learning: Principles and Strategies for Each Type

Finding a resource that explores cooperative learning is easy, but many ignore strategies for delivering the teaching approach.

Despite this, the pedagogy is popular in classrooms across districts and grade levels, creating a need for tips and information that teachers can act upon.

Below is a guide that covers general principles and specific strategies to use for each of the three types of cooperative learning.

General Cooperative Learning Principles

Instead of a noun, think of cooperative learning as a verb.

Sometimes called collaborative learning, it is delivering instruction through small groups, empowering students to work together to build their understanding of topics and concepts.

There are five aspects of cooperative learning that drive its success, according to a frequently-referenced review from the journal of Theory into Practice:

  • Positive Interdependence: Students must see that each group member’s efforts are important to both individual and team success.
  • Promotive Interaction: Students must empower each other by offering help, praise, feedback and resources.
  • Accountability: Each student must accept responsibility for fulfilling his or her role, helping the team reach its learning goals.
  • Soft Skills Instruction: Because students need to develop interpersonal skills to effectively work together, you should give lessons and activities about teamwork.
  • Group Processing: As a group, students should strategize how to meet their learning goals.

These aspects work slightly differently depending on which type of cooperative learning you use.

There are strategies for each of the three types, which are outlined below.

1. Formal Cooperative Learning Strategies

A teacher helps a large group of students properly use their tablet computer.

Formal cooperative learning involves grouping students for a timeframe that lasts between a single class and a few weeks.

Your role as a teacher focuses on designing the goals of the ongoing exercise, such as completing an assignment. This involves structuring groups by selecting students who work well together, yet have the range of strengths needed to reach objectives.

Here are four strategies to try:

a. Address Deviant Norms

It’s easy for unfavourable group norms — unwritten rules — to develop and spread, according to a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Specifically, group norms continuously change as team members interact with one another, potentially opening the door for bad habits. You may, for example, instruct students how to give constructive feedback. But if one student begins to criticize others, his or her group members may copy the behaviour.

To facilitate positive interdependence, you must monitor group activity. When spotting the development of harmful norms, explain why they hurt cooperative learning and demonstrate a solution.

In doing so, students will grow into supportive group members.

b. Assess Teamwork

A teacher sits at his desk, grading student work.

Because cooperative learning requires clear communication and active collaboration between group members, grading teamwork can motivate students to act properly.

When creating a product in groups, consider monitoring student activity to give marks for:

  • Openly communicating
  • Actively helping each other
  • Frequently giving constructive feedback
  • Consistently working to complete individual tasks

Placing this level of importance on proper group behaviour, your class should quickly learn the processes needed to complete team tasks.

c. Play a Trust Game

Playing trust games teaches the importance of teamwork and accountability — essential elements to the success of long-term learning groups.

For example, a variation of the trust fall activity can help each student build a connection with his or her group members. Dividing the class based on their formal cooperative learning teams, ask them to create a circle with one student standing in the middle. Once you give a signal, that student must fall towards any group member, who will then catch him or her.

You can supplement these games by explaining important elements of group work, such as active listening.

Such activities are not only fun, but allow group members to bond in a stress-free setting.

d. Use Relevant Scenarios when Applicable

Cooperative Learning Principles and Strategies - Open Projects

When students tackle real-world problems that affect them, there’s clear potential for engagement.

Classes that feature this kind of problem-based learning see higher attendance and better attitudes, according to a medical education study. Although conducted with post-secondary students, you can see similar enthusiasm from younger students as they collaboratively solve relevant issues.

Plus, this approach can:

  • Benefit students who struggle to grasp abstract concepts
  • Save your time, as you won’t have to design and present artificial scenarios
  • “Allow learning to become more profound and durable,” according to a 2015 book about the pedagogy

Used selectively, and when there’s a connection with curriculum topics, problem-based instruction elements can create a more memorable cooperative learning experience.

2. Informal Cooperative Learning Strategies

A teacher helps her young students with a writing assignment.

This style of cooperative learning involves creating groups that, between a few minutes and an entire class, work to achieve a shared and straightforward learning goal.

Due to inherent time constraints, your role is to give clear instruction and assign the completion of a product, such as a written or spoken answer. 

Here are four strategies to try:

a. Ask Divergent Questions

As students with diverse learning styles fill the classroom, you can mold cooperative learning activities to their distinct aptitudes.

An oft-cited paper from Kansas State University indicates you should ask divergent questions. These are questions with multiple answers that encourage creative responses, allowing students to learn from each other’s perspectives. For example, “what’s the best way to study for a math test?”

Based on each group’s preference, the resulting product can be a:

  • Short essay
  • Lab assignment
  • Concise slideshow or presentation
  • Series of answers to different problems

This way, informal cooperative learning becomes a differentiated instruction strategy as well as a way to build collaboration skills.

b. Use the Jigsaw Method

A student completes math equations on the whiteboard while a teacher and other students closely watch.

A favourite technique for many teachers, the jigsaw strategy encourages social interaction between groups and gives each student a defined role within his or her team.

The method consists of dividing a task into subtasks, assigning one to each group member. Students then work to become experts about the topics their subtasks cover. They can do so through guided research, or holding discussions with students from other groups handling the same subtask. They then return to their original groups to share new knowledge.

This approach teaches students how important individual contributions are to meeting group goals.

c. Supplement and Expand New Concepts

A teacher sits on a couch with his students, providing advice to help them finish written work.

Launch an informal learning exercise to reinforce key concepts in your lessons.

This tactic works especially well as a way of dividing long presentations, podcasts or movies.

Right after the lesson has introduced a new or interesting idea, divide students into groups. Present them with problems to explore and questions to address that explicitly relate to the idea.

After, hold a class-wide discussion to present and process findings.

d. Hold Three Discussions per Activity

Due to the sometimes-sporadic nature of informal cooperative learning activities, holding three discussions at set points can provide structure and keep students focused.

These discussions are:

  • Introductory-focused — After dividing students into groups of two, three or four, explain what questions they should answer or products they should produce. Then, state elements of collaboration they should focus on, such as frequent feedback or finding resources for each other to use.
  • Intermittent-focused — For longer activities, designate 15-minute segments for each group member to work alone. For example, they can each read a different primary source. At the end of the segment, they can share their findings with each other and work to answer guiding questions.
  • Closure-focused — Either in groups or as an entire class, give students a discussion topic that brings together seemingly-separate lesson elements. For example, students can spend five minutes discussing key takeaway points, applying them to past lessons.

Keeping students on track with these three types of discussions, they should have a clear understanding about how to achieve the activity’s learning goals.

3. Cooperative Base Group Strategies

A group of four students works on a project.

These groups last longer than formal cooperative learning teams, as members support each other while striving to reach ambitious learning goals over the academic year. 

Your role consists of creating groups of three or four, scheduling consistent meeting times and detailing specific agendas for them. Filling knowledge gaps and helping students smoothly collaborate is also involved.

Here are four strategies to try:

a. Introduce Technology that Streamlines Collaboration

Students sit in a row, each using a tablet computers.

Of the many ways to use technology in the classroom, some solutions bolster group productivity.

To help base groups make the most of their time, consider giving brief tutorials about:

  • Online brainstorming — There are websites students can use, such as MindMeister, to create clear and detailed mind maps faster than written ones.
  • Cloud-based word processing — Instead of exchanging documents for edits, students can use online word processing tools — such as Google Docs — to craft collaborative written assignments.
  • Educational games — There are many games focused on engaging students and addressing their trouble spots. For example, more than 13 million students use Prodigy — a curriculum-aligned math game.

With digitally-savvy students, introducing these technologies shouldn’t be an issue.

b. Designate Roles

Working with students to designate unique roles ensures each group member has a purpose.

Throughout the year, base groups can have members who manage certain aspects of the collaboration process. For example, one student can moderate discussions, one can collect questions to address and another can present research findings.

Similar to the Jigsaw Method, you can also designate roles based on subject matter expertise. When handling math, for example, the math expert will lead discussions and help group members by answering questions and reviewing concepts.

By doing so, you’ll ensure each student plays an important role in helping each other reach learning goals throughout the year.

c. Give a Pre- and Post-Task Test

A student sits at his desk, writing a test.

To gauge how well base groups are doing, give a each student a test before and after working together.

For example, students can complete a short quiz focusing on a specific group of math skills. They can then meet with their base groups, focusing on those skills and the overarching topic. After, give a similar quiz of equal difficulty.

Marks should improve. If not, consider spending more time with struggling base groups or rearranging groups altogether.

The quantitative evidence you find will guide your approach to working with different base groups, giving insight as to what successful and unsuccessful teams are doing differently.

d. Limit Scaffolding

Adjust the feedback and scaffolding you provide depending on where a base group is in a given project, allowing for greater student control and responsibility.

As a facilitator, closely monitor students when they start a project and:

  • Offer directions
  • Fill knowledge gaps
  • Recommend supplementary resources
  • Make yourself available to answer questions

As students become comfortable with the subject matter and are comfortably working towards their learning goals, your focus should be to:

  • Encourage them to initiate new ideas
  • Ensure they are fulfilling their role requirements
  • Allow them to take on leadership responsibilities

This approach will help you fulfill one of cooperative learning’s underlying purposes: Having students successfully take ownership of their academic development.

Final Thoughts about Using Cooperative Learning in Your Class

The principles and strategies in this guide can inform your approach to each type of cooperative learning. As a result, you should see students build collaboration skills as they work to reach learning benchmarks.

You can anticipate seeing results outside of group scenarios, too.

Refined discussions, increased accountability and improved critical thinking skills are benefits to which you can look forward.


>>Create or log into your teacher account on Prodigy — a free, adaptive math game that adjusts content to accommodate player trouble spots and learning speeds. Aligned to US and Canadian curricula, it’s loved by more than 350,000 teachers and 13 million students.

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Marcus Guido

Marcus is Prodigy's content marketing specialist. He has academic backgrounds in journalism and professional communication, and avoids semi-colons at all costs.

5 thoughts on “The Guide to Cooperative Learning: Principles and Strategies for Each Type

  1. This is a great article. I really like the 5 steps they list out. Cooperative learning is very important and requires a lot of planning and monitoring, but it is worth it!

  2. Such a powerful article showing the need for our learners to learn cooperatively. In addition, it emphasizes the need for teacher monitoring and mentoring of acceptable group norms. Often times, our students do not encounter these experiences until college or within the workforce.

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