Cooperative Learning

Two heads learn better than one

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 34
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Roger and David Johnson are brothers who are managing to work cooperatively as faculty at the College of Education, University of Minnesota (202 Pattee Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55455).

– Robert Gilman

How the students perceive and interact with one another is a neglected aspect of instruction. Much training time is devoted to helping teachers arrange appropriate interactions between students and materials (i.e., textbooks, curriculum programs, etc.), some time is spent on how teachers should interact with students, but how students should interact with one another is relatively ignored. It shouldn’t be. How teachers structure student-student interaction patterns will have a lot to say about how well the students learn, how they feel about school and the teacher or professor, how they feel about each other, and their self-esteem.

There are three basic ways students can interact with each other as they learn. They can compete to see who is "best"; they can work individualistically on their own toward a goal without paying attention to other students; or they can work cooperatively with a vested interest in each other’s learning as well as their own.

Of the three interaction patterns, competition is presently the most dominant. The research indicates that a vast majority of students in the United States view school as a competitive enterprise where you try to do better than the other students. This competitive expectation is already fairly widespread when students enter school and grows stronger as they progress through school.

In the last 15 years, the individualistic interaction pattern has been the most talked about but has never really caught on. Cooperation among students where they celebrate each other’s successes, encourage each other to do homework, and learn to work together regardless of ethnic backgrounds, male or female, bright or struggling, handicapped or not, is rare.

Even though these three interaction patterns are not equally effective in helping students learn concepts and skills, it is important that students learn to interact effectively in each of these patterns. Students will face situations where all three interaction patterns are operating, and they will need to be able to be effective in each situation. They also should be able to select an appropriate interaction pattern suited to the situation.


An interpersonal, competitive situation is characterized by negative goal interdependence, where, when one person wins, the others lose. Do you remember the Spelling Bee where you spelled each other down or raced others to get the correct answers on the blackboard for a math problem? In an individualistic learning situation, students are independent of one another and are working toward a set criteria where their success depends on their own performance in relation to an established criteria. The success or failure of other students does not affect their score. In spelling if all students are working on their own and any student who correctly spells 90% or more words passes, it would be an individualistic structure.

In a cooperative learning situation, interaction is characterized by positive goal interdependence with individual accountability. Positive goal interdependence requires acceptance by a group that they "sink or swim together." A cooperative spelling class is one where students are working together in small groups to help each other learn the words in order to take the spelling test individually on Friday. Each student’s score in the test is increased by bonus points earned by the group. In that situation a student needs to be concerned with how she or he spells and how well the other students in his or her group spell. This cooperative umbrella can also be extended over the entire class if bonus points are awarded to each student when the class can spell more words than a reasonable, but demanding, criterion set by the teacher.

There is a difference between "having students work in a group" and structuring students to work cooperatively. A group of students sitting at the same table doing their own work, but free to talk with each other as they work, is not structured to be a cooperative group as there is no positive interdependence. (Perhaps it could be called individualistic learning with talking.) There needs to be an accepted common goal on which the group will be rewarded for their efforts. In the same way, a group of students who have been assigned to do a report where only one student cares, does all the work and the others go along for a free ride, is not a cooperative group. A cooperative group has a sense of individual accountability that means that all students need to know the material or spell well for the group to be successful. Putting students into groups does not necessarily gain positive interdependence and/or individual accountability; it has to be structured and managed by the teacher or professor.


When examining the research comparing students learning cooperatively, competitively, and individualistically, a very interesting paradox develops. Common practice in schools today has teachers striving to separate students from one another and have them work on their own. Teachers continually use phrases like, "Don’t look at each other’s papers!", "I want to see what you can do, not your neighbor!" or "Work on your own!". Having students work alone, competively or individualisticly, is the dominant interaction pattern among students in classrooms today. The paradox is that the vast majority of the research comparing student-student interaction patterns indicates that students learn more effectively when they work cooperatively. The data suggest:

1) Students achieve more in cooperative interaction than in competitive or individualistic interaction. With several colleagues, we recently did a meta-analysis on all the research studies that compare cooperation, competition and individualistic learning (122 studies from 1924 to 1980). The results indicated that cooperation seems to be much more powerful in producing achievement than the other interaction patterns and the results hold for several subject areas and a range of age groups from elementary school through adult.

2) Students are more positive about school, subject areas, and teachers or professors when they are structured to work cooperatively.

3) Students are more positive about each other when they learn cooperatively than when they learn alone, competitively, or individualistically – regardless of differences in ability, ethnic background, handicapped or not.

4) Students are more effective interpersonally as a result of working cooperatively than when they work alone, competitively or individualistically. Students with cooperative experiences are more able to take the perspective of others, are more positive about taking part in controversy, have better developed interaction skills, and have a more positive expectation about working with others than students from competitive or individualistic settings.

With all the data that is available in this area (we now have collected over 500 studies), it is surprising that practice in classrooms is not more consistent with research findings.


To help change this, one of our on-going tasks has been to translate the concept of cooperation into a set of practical strategies for use by teachers and professors. We are presently working with over twenty school districts and several colleges and universities on training staff in the strategies of structuring cooperative interactions and teaching students the skills needed to work effectively with others (communication, leadership, trust building, and conflict resolution). A basic model has developed which focuses on a set of decisions a teacher needs to make before a lesson, what is said to students at the beginning of the lesson to "set" the cooperative goal structure, and the role of the teacher as the students are working. An outline of the model includes:

Select a lesson. Although almost any learning situation can be adapted to be cooperative, competitive or individualistic, the teacher needs to select a place to start with cooperation. We encourage teachers to start with one lesson and build slowly as they and their students get accustomed to the "new" structure. Cooperative learning groups have shown to be especially effective where problem-solving, conceptual learning, or divergent thinking are required.

Make the following decisions:

1) Select the groups’ size most appropriate for the lesson. The optimal size of a cooperative group will vary according to resources needed to complete the assignment (the larger the group, the more resources available); the cooperative skills of the group members (the less skillful the members, the smaller the group should be); the amount of time available (the shorter the time, the smaller the group should be); and the nature of the task.

2) Assign the students to groups. For a variety of reasons, heterogeneous groups tend to be more powerful than extreme homogeneity. A lot of the power for learning in cooperative groups come from the need for discussion, explanation, justification, and shared resolution on the material being learned. Quick consensus without discussion does not enhance learning as effectively as having different perspectives discussed, arguing different alternatives, explaining to members who need help and thoroughly delving into the material.

3) Arrange the classroom. Group members need to be close together and facing each other, and the teacher as well as members of other groups need to have clear access to all groups. Within the groups, members need to be able to see the relevant materials, converse with each other easily, and exchange materials and ideas.

4) Provide the appropriate materials. Providing one answer sheet to be turned in by the group with everyone’s signature is one way to emphasize the positive interdependence. Another technique is to "jigsaw" the material so that each student has a part and responsibilities associated with their piece of the assignment (i.e., reading to the group, researching and reporting back for discussion, etc.).

Explain the task and cooperative goal structure to the students. A clear and specific description of the task needs to be given coupled with an explanation of the group goal. The group goal communicates that group members are in this together and need to be as concerned with other group members’ understanding of the material as they are with their own. The reward system needs to be consistent with the structure. Students will more easily understand the group goal if they are turning in a single paper that each group member is able to defend, or can receive bonus points on the basis of how well each group member does, or will be able to skip the next quiz (or get extra recess) on the basis of a group score. It is also important to establish criteria for success as a classroom in order to make intergroup cooperation possible and extend the cooperativeness across the class. It is also necessary to specify the basic behaviors you expect to see in the groups so that students have an "operational" definition of what cooperation is.

Monitor the groups as they work. The teacher needs to monitor carefully how well the groups are functioning; determine what skills are lacking, both related to the subject matter and to the interaction; set up a way for the groups to process how well they functioned and discuss how to do even better; and intervene where problems are serious to help groups work out their own problems. It is probable that some specific instruction will need to be focused on interpersonal skills as students will not have necessarily learned how to work with others effectively.

It is important to note that the cooperative group does not take the place of instruction, but instead translates it and makes it useful. The teacher will still need to introduce new material and students will need to research and study so that they have something to share with their peers within the group.

Teachers in the school districts and colleges where we have been working have mastered the strategies for structuring cooperative learning groups and the techniques for teaching interpersonal skills so that now they automatically can set up lessons cooperatively and monitor them effectively. In addition, they have learned to be more careful in setting up appropriate individualistic and competitive learning situations.


Our research and the research of many others has established that having students work together cooperatively is a powerful way for them to learn and has positive effects on the classroom climate. This has been verified by teachers in classrooms from preschool through graduate school. However, the importance of emphasizing cooperative learning groups in classrooms goes beyond achievement, acceptance of differences, and positive attitudes. The ability of all students to learn to work cooperatively with others is the keystone to building and maintaining stable marriages, families, careers, and friendships. Being able to perform technical skills such as reading, speaking, listening, writing, computing, problem-solving, etc., are valuable but of little use if the person cannot apply those skills in cooperative interaction with other people in career, family, and community settings. The most logical way to emphasize the use of student’s knowledge and skills within a cooperative framework, such as they will meet as members of society, is to spend much of the time learning those skills in cooperative relationships with each other. We need to get back to the basics, reconcile school practice with current research, and encourage a healthy portion of instruction to be cooperative.


Johnson, D. and R. Johnson, Circles of Learning, Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1984.

Johnson, D. and R. Johnson, Learning Together and Alone, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1983.