What is groupwork?

I am often surprised how often groupwork is used and how badly it tunrs out. Typicall one memebr of the group refuses or cant be bothered to pull his or her weight with the result that many students now prefer to work alone. Turns out that groupwork, while sounding like a great holiday for Teachers requires a lot, a lot of forward planning, monitoring and organization.

Cooperation is not

  • having students sit side-by-side at the same table to talk with each other as they do their individual assignments
  • assigning a report to a group of students where one student does all the work and the others put their names on the product as well.
  • having students do a task individually with instructions that the ones who finish first are to help the slower students.

Cooperation is much more than being physically near other students, discussing material with other students, helping other students, or sharing material among students, although each of these is important in cooperative learning.

Well-structure cooperative learning groups work on the basis of five essential elements. The five essential elements and suggestions for structuring them are as follows:

1. Positive Interdependence. The heart of cooperative learning is positive

interdependence. Students must believe that they are linked with others in a way that one cannot

succeed unless the other members of the group succeed (and vice versa). Students are working

together to get the job done. In other words, students must perceive that they “sink or swim

together.” In formal cooperative learning groups, positive interdependence may be structured by

asking group members to (1) agree on an answer for the group (group product–goal

interdependence), (2) making sure each member can explain the groups’ answer (learning goal

interdependence), and (3) fulfilling assigned role responsibilities (role interdependence). Other

ways of structuring positive interdependence include having common rewards such as a shared

grade (reward interdependence), shared resources (resource interdependence), or a division of

Inquiry-Based Cooperative Learning

4labor (task interdependence).

2. Face-to-Face Promotive Interaction. Once a professor establishes positive

interdependence, he or she must ensure that students interact to help each other accomplish the

task and promote each other’s success. Students are expected to explain orally to each other how

to solve problems, discuss with each other the nature of the concepts and strategies being

learned, teach their knowledge to classmates, explain to each other the connections between

present and past learning, and help, encourage, and support each other’s efforts to learn. Silent

students are uninvolved students who are not contributing to the learning of others or themselves.

3. Individual Accountability/Personal Responsibility. The purpose of cooperative

learning groups is to make each member a stronger individual in his or her own right. Students

learn together so that they can subsequently perform better as individuals. To ensure that each

member is strengthened, students are held individually accountable to do their share of the work.

The performance of each individual student is assessed and the results given back to the

individual and perhaps to the group. The group needs to know who needs more assistance in

completing the assignment, and group members need to know they cannot “hitch-hike” on the

work of others.

Common ways to structure individual accountability include:

  • giving an individual exam to each student
  • randomly calling on individual students to present their group’s answer
  • giving an individual oral exam while monitoring group work.

In the example of a formal cooperative learning lesson that follows, individual accountability is structured by requiring each person to learn and teach a small portion of conceptual material to two or three classmates.

4. Teamwork Skills. Contributing to the success of a cooperative effort requires teamwork

skills. Students must have and use the needed leadership, decision-making, trust-building,

communication, and conflict-management skills. These skills have to be taught just as

purposefully and precisely as academic skills. Many students have never worked cooperatively

in learning situations and, therefore, lack the needed teamwork skills for doing so effectively.

Faculty often introduce and emphasize teamwork skills through assigning differentiated roles to

each group member. For example, students learn about the challenge of documenting group

work by serving as the task recorder, the importance of developing strategy and talking about

how the group is working by serving as process recorder, providing direction to the group by

serving as coordinator, and the difficulty of ensuring that everyone in the group understands and

can explain by serving as the checker.

5. Group Processing. Professors need to ensure that members of each cooperative

learning group discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective

working relationships. Groups need to describe what member actions are helpful and unhelpful

and make decisions about what to continue or change. Such processing enables learning groups

to focus on group maintenance, facilitates the learning of cooperative skills, ensures that

members receive feedback on their participation, and reminds students to practice cooperative

skills consistently. Some of the keys to successful processing are allowing sufficient time for it

Inquiry-Based Cooperative Learning to take place, making it specific rather than vague, maintaining student involvement in processing, reminding students to use their teamwork skills during processing, and ensuring that clear expectations as to the purpose of processing have been communicated. A common procedure for group processing is to ask each group to list at least three things the group did well and at least one thing that could be improved.

From Inquiry-Based Cooperative Learning, Karl A. Smith


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