Using technology to revolutionize cooperative learning: an opinion
David W. Johnson* and Roger T. Johnson
Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota, Edina, MN, USA
This article was submitted to Educational Psychology, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Edited by: Nicola Pitchford, University of Nottingham, UK
Reviewed by: Melinda J. Mollette, Gwinnett County Public Schools, USA
Author information ►Article notes ►Copyright and License information ►
Received 2014 Aug 27; Accepted 2014 Sep 24.
Keywords: cooperative learning, technology, social interdependence, cooperation, promotive interaction
Copyright © 2014 Johnson and Johnson.
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Nature of cooperative learning
Cooperative learning is an application of social interdependence theory (Deutsch, 1949, 1962; Johnson and Johnson, 1989, 2005, 2009). Social interdependence theory posits that there are two types of social interdependence, positive (cooperative) and negative (competitive). Positive interdependence (i.e., cooperation) exists when individuals perceive that they can reach their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked also reach their goals. Negative interdependence (i.e., competition) exists when individuals perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are competitively linked fail to obtain their goals. No interdependence (i.e., individualistic efforts) exists when individuals perceive that they can reach their goal regardless of whether other individuals in the situation attain or do not attain their goals. The basic premise of social interdependence theory is that the way in which interdependence is structured determines how individuals interact, and the interaction pattern determines the outcomes of the situation (Deutsch, 1949, 1962; Johnson and Johnson, 1989, 2005, 2009). Positive interdependence tends to result in promotive interaction (such as mutual help and assistance), negative interdependence tends to result in oppositional interaction (such as obstruction of each other's efforts), and no interdependence tends to result in the absence of interaction. Overall, positive goal interdependence and the resulting promotive interaction tends to result in greater efforts to achieve, more positive relationships, and greater psychological health than do negative or no goal interdependence. Detailed instructions in how to conduct cooperative learning lessons may be found in Johnson et al. (2013).
There is considerable evidence that in cooperative endeavors, face-to-face interactions are more effective than are on-line interactions (Johnson and Johnson, 2013). While the relative negative aspects of electronic interaction for cooperation are often pointed out, there may be too little discussion of how technology can facilitate and enhance cooperative endeavors. It is possible that technology may revolutionize how cooperative learning will function in the classrooms of the 21st Century. Technology may enhance the learning of basic skills such as reading, writing, and engaging in discussions. It may enhance the nature of reports and allow the covering of important events. It may change the nature of multimedia projects. Technology may expand communication and the way in which group members work together. It may structure inquiry projects, lead to each group establishing its own web page, and involve students in simulations. Finally, it may enable teachers to track the work of each student and each group and to manage courses and build learning communities more efficiently.
Technology can facilitate the cooperative nature of reading the same or related material. Electronic devices such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad (i.e., the Inkling application) allow members of a cooperative group to share with each other passages out of the books they are reading, highlight passages so others can note what one thought was important in the text material, and make notes for the other members of their group to read and respond to. Members of a cooperative group can even share passages from the books on Twitter and Facebook.
Technology can facilitate learning how to write, improving the quality of one's writing, and working together in producing one document authored by the whole group. Google Docs may be used by cooperative groups to write or edit a joint document. A group of students can see and make changes to the joint document in real time, commenting on the document as a whole, or commenting on specific parts of the document. Group members can argue and disagree about the organization and wording of the document.
Reflecting on a discussion
Technology can enrich and extend a discussion. Through the use of texting, Twitter, or social media sites such as Facebook, or even through a video conference, group members can comment on a discussion they had in class. Thus, discussions can continue indefinitely as students have the ability to communicate with each other at any time as they reflect on the previous discussion.
Illustrating a report
Technology can improve a cooperative learning group's reports. Programs such as Flickr allow members of a cooperative group to upload photos and share them with the group, class, or the world. Each photo can have a comment stream to encourage discussion. If a group is preparing a presentation on Shakespeare, for example, photos can be gathered of his birthplace, houses he lived in, bars he hung out in, and so forth. Visual elements can then be added to any group report or product with the opportunity for viewers to comment on the visuals.
One of the easiest blends of cooperative learning and technology is the assignment of multimedia projects. Technology may revolutionize the way in which cooperative learning groups work on such projects. The presentation can be a video, an animation, a slide show with music and a narration, or even a play or dance to music and narration. High quality multimedia projects require an understanding of the criteria and rubrics that will be used to assess the quality of the project, careful planning, and rehearsal. If the project includes a video, the group may wish to post it on YouTube. Thus, technology allows cooperative groups to combine a variety of medias to improve the quality of the project and its presentation.
Covering relevant events
Technology enables members of a cooperative group to view events that relate to the material they are studying. Events relevant to a cooperative group's task or project may be covered through CoverItLive, which includes a moderated chat and live blog applications. Members of the group can publish comments, upload multimedia, embed photos, ask questions, and create newsflashes and scoreboards. Political speeches, presentations by other groups, world events, and even historical events can be covered and analyzed by a cooperative group.
Communication and collaboration software
While initially he web was basically an electronic reference book, today there is a variety of software to facilitate communication and cooperation among group members. Instant messaging may be used for quick chats, blogs may be used for discussions, Google Sites may be used for collaborating on and sharing information and schedules, and Delicious or Diigo may be used for sharing web resources. These software programs and procedures facilitate cooperative endeavors from any geographical location and at any time of day. Skype allows multiple users to engage in a computer-assisted video conference call. TypeWithMe, TitanPad, and other programs allow group members to create a joint document. Google Calendar enables group members to plan when their group will meet both face-to-face and on-line. Students can engage in multiuser games with players in many different geographic sites. There are so many tools for communicating among students and facilitating cooperation being developed that it is difficult to keep up with them. The expansion of network infrastructure and bandwidth, furthermore, have made cooperation more feasible than ever. Students can now cooperate through the web with other students in their group, school, and across the globe. The web also enables students to interact with subject experts. One of the most exciting, successful, and well-known web cooperative projects is the JASON project (www.jasonproject.org). This project focuses on engaging students in grades 4–9 in hands-on scientific discovery. With the help of multimedia tools and Internet broadcasting technology, participating students become part of a virtual research community. Among other things, they can accompany real researchers in real time as they explore polar regions, oceans, volcanoes, rainforests, and almost any other region of the world. In addition to the advances in software, tools such as the iPad are increasingly making technology-assisted cooperative learning more feasible, effective, involving, and fun.
WebQuests organize cooperative groups to complete inquiry-oriented projects among students so they can learn about a particular problem or area of interest. Students can be from the same class or from different geographic locations. Students are expected to use the information they are learning to complete a practical task while engaging in such activities as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Examples of WebQuests may be found at WebQuest Taskonomy.
Creating a website
Cooperation may be enhanced through having each cooperative group build a web page or website reflecting the nature of the group, its goals and purposes, and the progress the group is making toward achieving its goals. Webpages and websites can help create, clarify, and institutionalize the group's identity. A group portfolio may be included that contains the best work of each member relevant to the group goals. There are a number of tools to help build websites, such as Facebook, Google Sites, Blackboard Engage, or wikis.
Web-enabled multiplayer simulation games
What makes web-enabled, multiplayer, simulation games interesting is that while the interface, surroundings, characters, situations, and challenges are simulated, players actually interact with each other. They tend to facilitate cooperative endeavors to solve problems in an enjoyable, engaging way. Examples of multiplayer simulation games are Civilization (e.g., it allows players to match wits against history's greatest leaders as they strive to build and rule an empire) and The Sims (e.g., players' avatars interact as they go about daily life). Such games allow students to communicate with students in other schools and countries. Doing so may broaden their perspectives and enable them to learn about other cultures, languages, and issues. Students may supplement the game playing with emails, such as ePALS.
Computers make it increasingly easier to track the work of students and cooperative groups through social bookmarking sites. Cooperative groups can also set up their own social bookmarking sites. Google Bookmarks and Diigo are examples of social bookmarking sites.
Learning communities may be created for students through web-enabled course management systems (CMS) programs. CMS programs allow teachers securely to post information, share resources, and encourage online discussions. Moodle, Blackboard Academic Suite and Goodle Apps for Education are examples.
Summary and conclusions
Technology does not have to isolate and separate students. When used effectively, technology can bring students together in cooperative efforts and enhance student experiences. Accessing information through the internet can broaden the curriculum deepen students' learning. Instructional technology can remove geographical and communication barriers that limit learning. Technology can provide students with immediate feedback. By enabling students to cooperate in learning to read, write, and discuss, work with several medias simultaneously, illustrate reports, create multimedia projects, cover relevant events together, create websites and webpages, engage in inquiry projects that take place in any corner of the world, and play multiplayer simulation games requiring them to solve problems and live together peacefully, technology can revolutionize how members of cooperative groups interact and work other. Teachers can use technology to track the work of students and cooperative groups and create learning communities both within the classroom and the world as a whole. None of these uses of technology has to separate or isolate students, instead these technological tools can enable and enhance the cooperative learning experiences of students.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
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Articles from Frontiers in Psychology are provided here courtesy of Frontiers Media SA
Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively
by Cynthia J. Brame, CFT Assistant Director and
|Cite this guide: Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work:|
Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Retrieved [todaysdate] from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/.
Many instructors from disciplines across the university use group work to enhance their students’ learning. Whether the goal is to increase student understanding of content, to build particular transferable skills, or some combination of the two, instructors often turn to small group work to capitalize on the benefits of peer-to-peer instruction. This type of group work is formally termed cooperative learning, and is defined as the instructional use of small groups to promote students working together to maximize their own and each other’s learning (Johnson, et al., 2008).
Cooperative learning is characterized by positive interdependence, where students perceive that better performance by individuals produces better performance by the entire group (Johnson, et al., 2014). It can be formal or informal, but often involves specific instructor intervention to maximize student interaction and learning. It is infinitely adaptable, working in small and large classes and across disciplines, and can be one of the most effective teaching approaches available to college instructors.
What can it look like?
Informal cooperative learning groups
In informal cooperative learning, small, temporary, ad-hoc groups of two to four students work together for brief periods in a class, typically up to one class period, to answer questions or respond to prompts posed by the instructor.
This video shows an example of informal cooperative learning in a large class taught by Tessa Andrews at the University of Georgia:
Additional examples of ways to structure informal group work are given in the table below.
Formal cooperative learning groups
In formal cooperative learning students work together for one or more class periods to complete a joint task or assignment (Johnson et al., 2014). There are several features that can help these groups work well:
- The instructor defines the learning objectives for the activity and assigns students to groups.
- The groups are typically heterogeneous, with particular attention to the skills that are needed for success in the task.
- Within the groups, students may be assigned specific roles, with the instructor communicating the criteria for success and the types of social skills that will be needed.
- Importantly, the instructor continues to play an active role during the groups’ work, monitoring the work and evaluating group and individual performance.
- Instructors also encourage groups to reflect on their interactions to identify potential improvements for future group work.
This video shows an example of formal cooperative learning groups in David Matthes’ class at the University of Minnesota:
There are many more specific types of group work that fall under the general descriptions given here, including team-based learning, problem-based learning, and process-oriented guided inquiry learning.
What’s the theoretical underpinning?
The use of cooperative learning groups in instruction is based on the principle of constructivism, with particular attention to the contribution that social interaction can make. In essence, constructivism rests on the idea that individuals learn through building their own knowledge, connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge and experiences to form new or enhanced understanding (Bransford, et al., 1999). The consideration of the role that groups can play in this process is based in social interdependence theory, which grew out of Kurt Koffka’s and Kurt Lewin’s identification of groups as dynamic entities that could exhibit varied interdependence among members, with group members motivated to achieve common goals. Morton Deutsch conceptualized varied types of interdependence, with positive correlation among group members’ goal achievements promoting cooperation.
Lev Vygotsky extended this work by examining the relationship between cognitive processes and social activities, developing the sociocultural theory of development. The sociocultural theory of development suggests that learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level with the support of their instructor or their peers. Thus both the idea of a zone of proximal development, supported by positive group interdependence, is the basis of cooperative learning (Davidson and Major, 2014; Johnson, et al., 2014).
Cooperative learning follows this idea as groups work together to learn or solve a problem, with each individual responsible for understanding all aspects. The small groups are essential to this process because students are able to both be heard and to hear their peers, while in a traditional classroom setting students may spend more time listening to what the instructor says.
Cooperative learning uses both goal interdependence and resource interdependence to ensure interaction and communication among group members. Changing the role of the instructor from lecturing to facilitating the groups helps foster this social environment for students to learn through interaction.
Is there evidence that it works?
David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith performed a meta-analysis of 168 studies comparing cooperative learning to competitive learning and individualistic learning in college students (Johnson et al., 2006). They found that cooperative learning produced greater academic achievement than both competitive learning and individualistic learning across the studies, exhibiting a mean weighted effect size of 0.54 when comparing cooperation and competition and 0.51 when comparing cooperation and individualistic learning. In essence, these results indicate that cooperative learning increases student academic performance by approximately one-half of a standard deviation when compared to non-cooperative learning models, an effect that is considered moderate. Importantly, the academic achievement measures were defined in each study, and ranged from lower-level cognitive tasks (e.g., knowledge acquisition and retention) to higher level cognitive activity (e.g., creative problem solving), and from verbal tasks to mathematical tasks to procedural tasks. The meta-analysis also showed substantial effects on other metrics, including self-esteem and positive attitudes about learning. George Kuh and colleagues also conclude that cooperative group learning promotes student engagement and academic performance (Kuh et al., 2007).
Springer, Stanne, and Donovan (1999) confirmed these results in their meta-analysis of 39 studies in university STEM classrooms. They found that students who participated in various types of small-group learning, ranging from extended formal interactions to brief informal interactions, had greater academic achievement, exhibited more favorable attitudes towards learning, and had increased persistence through STEM courses than students who did not participate in STEM small-group learning.
The box below summarizes three individual studies examining the effects of cooperative learning groups.
What are approaches that can help make group work effective?
Articulate your goals for the group work, including both the academic objectives you want the students to achieve and the social skills you want them to develop.
Determine the group conformation that will help meet your goals.
- In informal group learning, groups often form ad hoc from near neighbors in a class.
- In formal group learning, it is helpful for the instructor to form groups that are heterogeneous with regard to particular skills or abilities relevant to group tasks. For example, groups may be heterogeneous with regard to academic skill in the discipline or with regard to other skills related to the group task (e.g., design capabilities, programming skills, writing skills, organizational skills) (Johnson et al, 2006).
- Groups from 2-6 are generally recommended, with groups that consist of three members exhibiting the best performance in some problem-solving tasks (Johnson et al., 2006; Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992).
- To avoid common problems in group work, such as dominance by a single student or conflict avoidance, it can be useful to assign roles to group members (e.g., manager, skeptic, educator, conciliator) and to rotate them on a regular basis (Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992). Assigning these roles is not necessary in well-functioning groups, but can be useful for students who are unfamiliar with or unskilled at group work.
Choose an assessment method that will promote positive group interdependence as well as individual accountability.
- In team-based learning, two approaches promote positive interdependence and individual accountability. First, students take an individual readiness assessment test, and then immediately take the same test again as a group. Their grade is a composite of the two scores. Second, students complete a group project together, and receive a group score on the project. They also, however, distribute points among their group partners, allowing student assessment of members’ contributions to contribute to the final score.
- Heller and Hollabaugh (1992) describe an approach in which they incorporated group problem-solving into a class. Students regularly solved problems in small groups, turning in a single solution. In addition, tests were structured such that 25% of the points derived from a group problem, where only those individuals who attended the group problem-solving sessions could participate in the group test problem. This approach can help prevent the “free rider” problem that can plague group work.
- The University of New South Wales describes a variety of ways to assess group work, ranging from shared group grades, to grades that are averages of individual grades, to strictly individual grades, to a combination of these. They also suggest ways to assess not only the product of the group work but also the process. Again, having a portion of a grade that derives from individual contribution helps combat the free rider problem.
Helping groups get started
Explain the group’s task, including your goals for their academic achievement and social interaction.
Explain how the task involves both positive interdependence and individual accountability, and how you will be assessing each.
Assign group roles or give groups prompts to help them articulate effective ways for interaction. The University of New South Wales provides a valuable set of tools to help groups establish good practices when first meeting. The site also provides some exercises for building group dynamics; these may be particularly valuable for groups that will be working on larger projects.
Monitoring group work
Regularly observe group interactions and progress, either by circulating during group work, collecting in-process documents, or both. When you observe problems, intervene to help students move forward on the task and work together effectively. The University of New South Wales provides handouts that instructors can use to promote effective group interactions, such as a handout to help students listen reflectively or give constructive feedback, or to help groups identify particular problems that they may be encountering.
Assessing and reflecting
In addition to providing feedback on group and individual performance (link to preparation section above), it is also useful to provide a structure for groups to reflect on what worked well in their group and what could be improved. Graham Gibbs (1994) suggests using the checklists shown below.
The University of New South Wales provides other reflective activities that may help students identify effective group practices and avoid ineffective practices in future cooperative learning experiences.
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Cite this guide:
Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Retrieved [todaysdate] from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/setting-up-and-facilitating-group-work-using-cooperative-learning-groups-effectively/.