Mathematics Topics

Cooperative Learning

There are several reasons that students are allowed and encouraged to work in groups in my class room.  First or all, my experience has been that students learn the concepts I introduce in far greater depth when they are forced to either justify their opinion (as in the case of an argument among students over the correct response to a test item) or have to explain a procedure to a classmate.  Secondly, I believe working with others to solve problems is much more closely aligned to the tasks that will face my students in their future endeavors (after they leave the school environment).  The days of independent research by individuals are not completely over, but there is far more research and practical problem solving done by groups of people now than in times passed.    It would be negligent of me, I believe, NOT to attempt to help my student improve their skills in communication, explanation, and negotiation.

The objections I have heard expressed by parents since I began using cooperative learning techniques with my students seven or eight years ago have basically fallen into two groups.  Some parents have objected because they felt the use of such techniques made the work less challenging for their own sons or daughters.  They wanted to be assured that the content work had not been "watered down" and that their own children were required to accomplish all the tasks involved, rather than contributing a given part to a group goal.  Far more often, though, parents were more concerned that their sons or daughters would be preyed upon by others in the group who did not do their part.  They were more fearful that the overall evaluation of the good students would be diminished by the lack of contribution of less talented classmates.

I think I can say without reservation that the first objection is unfounded.  As I mentioned, the quality of my students' work has only improved and become tougher as a result of my employment of cooperative learning strategies.  While I think my students enjoy taking my cooperative tests, I don't think they look forward to them.  They are designed to be challenging and to make the students work together to find solutions.  They are by no means easy.  In regard to the second objection concerning some students surviving off the efforts or others and decreasing the performance of the "good" students,  I cannot truthfully say that this never occurs.  In a well designed curriculum, using correct cooperative learning techniques, it does not happen often, but it does happen.  In the long run a good student's overall evaluation will not be diminished, however.  I have a number of safeguards and other types of assessment to make sure the good student is evaluated fairly.  Let me say two things about the other part of the objection, that some get undeserved credit.  First, it would not be accurate for me to tell my students that this very same thing does not happen in the real world.  We've all been part of groups where a few people did all the work and others took the credit.  Actually, students seem better able to handle this than adults.  Second, the students who benefit from the efforts of others become uncomfortable with it in time.  They do want to contribute.  Many times they do not feel capable of contributing.  My instruction, and the efforts of my students working in the group, many times is able to help these students to become contributors.

Key Topics

Calculator Use
Cooperative Learning
Student Progression
Assessment Practices
Higher Standards