IV. Basic Elements of Cooperative Learning

A. Cooperative Learning

Teachers often equate any group activity with Cooperative Learning. This is not an accurate understanding of Cooperative Learning. Cooperative Learning is a structured, systematic, instructional strategy in which small groups work together toward a common goal. Cooperative Learning is not natural; it does not just happen. Professors using Cooperative Learning must take painstaking efforts to structure and develop the method. Professors using Cooperative Learning must more carefully structure and delineate the activity than they would for other forms of small group learning.

Small groups may exhibit several problems if not properly planned and conducted. Among the many ways small groups can be ineffective: (1) Social Loafing or The Free Rider Effects, (2)The Sucker Effect, (3) Rich-Get-Richer Effect, (4) Helplessness, (5) Ganging Up, and (6) Dysfunctional Division of Labor. Professors can avoid these problems with properly structured Cooperative Learning groups. Cooperative Learning is not putting students in groups or sitting them side-by-side at the same table to talk with each other as they work on their individual assignments. “Seating students together can result in competition at close quarters (pseudo-groups) or individualistic efforts with talking (traditional learning groups).” For Cooperative Learning to be effective, the program must assure the following components:

· Well Designed Instructional Objectives;

· Appropriate Groups;

· Clearly Perceived Positive Interdependence;

· Considerable Promotive Interaction;

· Clearly Perceived Individual Responsibility;

· Frequent Use of Interpersonal and Group Social Skills, and

· Frequent and Regular Group Processing.

B. Cooperative Learning Requires Well-Designed Instructional Objectives.

The Professor must clearly identify the objectives of the lesson or the task. The objectives can be both academic and social skills. Academic objectives must be set at the appropriate level of instruction to the conceptual or task analysis. Sequencing objectives is important for effective legal learning. The basic sequence has four steps:

1st Factual learning

2nd Conceptual learning

3rd Principle learning

4th Problem solving.

Each higher-learning level is dependent on the law student having mastered the related lower level of learning. In developing objectives, the professor must be sure to sequence the course from lower-level to higher-level objectives. Too often law professors expect students to develop higher-level thinking skills before they have learned sufficient knowledge.

Professors can handle basic knowledge in several ways. A professor could assign readings (non-cases) that clearly lay out the rules of law or basic knowledge (i.e., Hornbooks or outlines). Professors could provide students copies of class notes or other notes with the rules-of-law. Professors could start the unit with a lecture that emphasizes the rules-of-law. To the extent that the goal is improving analysis, then professors need to ensure that students understand the law so that they can focus their attention on that objective. On the other hand, if the professor's initial objective is to develop critical case reading skills, then the professor's focus should be less on analytical skills and more on case reading. Law professors can effectively help students develop either skill by using Cooperative Learning.

C. Cooperative Learning Requires the Faculty to Set Up Appropriate Groups.

After setting the instructional objective, the faculty member needs to decide group size, group membership, and method for selecting members.

Group Size. The group can range in size from two to six. Smaller groups are more effective because they take less time to get organized, they operate faster, and they allow more time for each member to participate. Furthermore, larger groups require the group members to have better developed social skills to be effective. As a person new to Cooperative Learning, a professor should probably start with smaller groups. The groups should be large enough to ensure that students can meet instructional goals and small enough to ensure that all its members can engage in mutual discussion. “Be cautious about group size!”

The group size will also depend on the Cooperative Learning strategy the professor wants to use. Each structure has at least one of the following “ domains of usefulness:” Team-Building, Class-Building, Mastery of Content, Critical Thinking Skills, Communication Skills, or Information Sharing. Table 1 identifies some structures best suited for law school.


Heterogenous vs. Homogenous Groups. Like group size, whether to use heterogenous and homogenous groupings is an issue that a professor must decide based on his or her instructional objectives. Heterogenous groups are more likely to result in increased tolerance for diversity. Further, heterogeneous groups promote the cognitive disequilibrium that the students need to stimulate learning and development. On the other hand, homogenous groups are more likely to reach higher levels of social cohesiveness and group productivity. Another alternative is to form groups in a way that is homogeneous with respect to one criterion (e.g., college major) and heterogeneous characteristic with respect to another criterion (e.g., race). To assign students to a group based on abilities, professors can use different information about the student, depending on what year the student is in. For first year students, the professor can use information about the students LSAT. For second and third year students, the professor can use the student's overall grade point average. For upper-division students, the professor could use their grade in the professor's course for the second semester of year-long courses. When assigning members based on achievement, I assure that each group has a high-achiever and a low-achiever.

When forming heterogenous groups, professors also need to decide how to distribute the individuals. That is, should students be distributed so that at least one student of the under-represented students is in each group to assure diversity? Or should professors distribute students to avoid isolation of students from under-represented groups (that is, at least two students in each group)?

Even as professors work to assure diverse groups, they should make sure that they do not isolate certain individuals whom the law school process has traditionally silenced. That is, the professor should consider never putting just one woman or one minority in a group of four. The professor might also want to avoid isolating Feelers or Introverts on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Avoiding isolation is especially important if the groups are to be kept together over a long period. Cooperative Learning is a very intense and personal learning situation. Isolating women in a group with three men, minorities in a group with three whites, and Feelers in a group with three Thinkers, and Introverts in a group dominated by extroverts can have a significant silencing effect on the individual.

Group Selection. Another question is whether to allow students to select their own groups. Most of the time a professor will want to select the groups, so they can assure the best mix of students. When students select group members, they generally select members that are similar to themselves. Furthermore, student-selected groups are often less able to stay on the task.

Group Form. The use of Cooperative Learning groups does not have to be a replacement for other teaching methods. Professors can use Cooperative Learning between fifteen to twenty minutes of a 50-minute class in first-year courses and between twenty to thirty minutes of a 50-minutes class in upper-division courses. Thus, a professor can use Cooperative Learning groups with lecture, case method, discussion method, or the problem method of teaching. Professors can also integrate the use of Cooperative Learning with socratic exchange. A final question is whether to use formal Cooperative Learning groups, informal Cooperative Learning groups, or base groups.

Formal Cooperative Learning groups are heterogenous groupings that last for the duration of the semester/quarter. In large, impersonal classes, with complex subject matter, formal Cooperative Learning groups provide support, encouragement and assistance in mastering the content and skills. Formal groups also provide ongoing feedback. Students gain assistance in learning to think critically. Finally, formal Cooperative Learning groups personalize the course and provide a mechanism to hold each member accountable for striving to make academic progress. Formal groups are excellent vehicles for helping students not only learn information, but also composition, concepts, problem-solving, and other critical thinking skills.

Informal Cooperative Learning groups are temporary groups that last for only one discussion or one class period. Informal groups can: help to focus the students' attention on the material or on skills development, set a mood conductive to learning, help organize in advance the materials, and ensure that all the students cognitively process the material being taught and provide closure to an instructional session. One way to use informal Cooperative Learning is to use it intermittently with other teaching methods. Thus, in a fifty-minute class utilizing the Socratic Method or Whole Class Discussion, a professor could use the following format:

· Introductory Cooperative Learning Pair Discussion 5 minutes

· Socratic Exchange or Whole Class Discussion I 20-30 minutes

· Intermediate Cooperative Learning Pair Discussion 5 minutes

· Socratic Exchange or Whole Class Discussion II 10-15 minutes

· Final Cooperative Learning Pair Discussion 5 minutes

This method is an effective way to ensure that all students are actively involved in understanding what they are learning. The method also reaches students with different learning styles and is especially helpful in longer classes to keep extroverts alert and engaged. It also provides a mechanism for the professor to “gather your wits, reorganize your notes, take a deep breath, and move around the class listening to what students are saying.” Listening to student discussion is an important teacher task. Listening to students gives the professor direction and insight into how well the students are understanding the concepts.

In a fifty minute course using the problem method, the following format is useful:

· Introduction to Lesson 5 minutes

· Informal Cooperative Learning Group Discussion of Problem(s) 20-30 minutes

· Whole Class Discussion of Problem or Socratic Exchange 10-20 minutes

· Lesson Closure 5 minutes

Base Cooperative Learning groups provide “a structure to manage course procedures, such as homework, attendance, and evaluation.” Professors use base groups for academic tasks such as completing an assignment, routine tasks such as taking attendance, and personal support tasks such as giving each other advice about relationships and nonacademic problems. During the year, the base groups focus on reinforcing law school study skills, such as: reading cases, briefing the cases, note-taking, outlining, and test preparation.


D. Clearly Perceived Positive Interdependence is Essential to Effective Cooperative Learning.

With clearly perceived positive interdependence, each student feels that she or he is part of a team and is responsible for the other group members. Students believe that they “sink or swim together.” Students have two responsibilities: to learn the assigned materials and skills, and to ensure that all members of their group have learned the material and skills. Positive interdependence promotes each group member's efforts for group success; and a situation in which each group member has a unique contribution to the joint effort because of his or her resources, role, or task responsibilities. In fact, group membership and interpersonal interaction among students does not produce higher achievement unless professors clearly structure positive interdependence. The decision on how to construct positive interdependence depends on whether the goal is the production of some tangible, jointly-constructed product, or the achievement of group consensus or behavior. The choice also depends on instructional goals. Several strategies for creating positive interdependence exist: Goals, Resources, Role, Task, Group Grades, Group Product, Group Spirit, Jigsaw, and Reward.

Goals Students must perceive that they can achieve their learning goals if, and only if, all the members of the group also attain their goal. Consequently, some clearly stated group goals such as “do the assigned problem and make sure that all members of your group learn the assigned material” is important to group interdependence. A group goal must be a part of every lesson. Goal interdependence can be set up by requesting one product from the group, and by randomly evaluating the product from one group. Other ways of building goal interdependence are to keep a group progress chart on the performance of the group members, to have different members complete different tasks, and not to accept any work until the project is completed.

Resources The simplest way to get students to work together is to provide only one set of materials or resources, or to provide each member only part of the information, resources, or materials. Depending on the instructional goals, the students can take turns with the materials, or the students can take different roles with one set of materials. For most of the instructional goals, having the students undertake different roles with one set of materials may be the most effective. Consequently, for each major problem or question, a professor can provide a “problem form” for the group to write down their answer. Another method of building in resource interdependence is to give a writing assignment in which each member must write a sentence in each paragraph.

Role Interdependent and complementary roles for each member can create positive interdependence. Several ways roles can be structured include: (1) (1) Functional (such as a recorder), (2) Centered around resources (such as making each member responsible for some resource or piece of information), (3) Based on perspective (where the professor assigns each member a point of view,) (4) Cognitive (where each person is responsible for part of the critical-thinking process). For instance, in a four-person group, a professor could routinely instruct the groups to assign the roles of reader, recorder, timekeeper, and encourager. A professor can also use other roles beyond the traditional legal role-playing. For instance, the professor can assign students to take on other players in a problem, such as a legislator, an administrator, a community activist, or a religious leader. Finally, in my upper division class, the professor can leave the question of how to assign the roles and role rotation up to the students. In the first year of law school classes, the professor may want to assign roles to assure that individual students have the opportunity to practice the same role repeatedly so she or he can gain a higher level of proficiency. On the other hand, the professor can also rotate the roles so that students can learn new skills.

Task Give “each group member a part of the task to complete” to promote interdependence. The division of labor is such that the actions of one group member must be completed in order for the next group member to complete his or her responsibilities (factory-line model). For instance, when teaching students how to use IRAC, a professor can have each student write one part of the answer to a question and then combine them into one answer. Professors can create task interdependence by having one student in each group learn a concept or information and be responsible for teaching it to other group members. When using task interdependence, building in individual accountability is very important so that students are interested in the total results rather than just their parts.

Group Grades The essence of Cooperative Learning is positive interdependence. The most common way to structure positive interdependence is with group grades. Many ways exist for structuring grading to assure positive interdependence. A law professor could: 1average the members' individual grades so everyone receives the average score, 2total the students' individual scores and everyone receives the total, 3provide a group score on the paper or product, 4randomly select one member's paper/exam to score and everyone receives that score, 5give individual scores plus a group bonus or give individual score plus group average, 6give all members the lowest score in the group, 7average academic scores plus collaborative skills performance scores, and 8provide academic and nonacademic rewards.

Group Product Students can create a single product, such as a memo, or a presentation. In the informal Cooperative Learning environment, each group completes a Cooperative Learning form. Having a group product for every class increases the likelihood that individual students will behave responsibly and that the group will stay on the task.

Group Spirit Establishing a group identity is another mechanism for promoting positive interdependence. For instance, if a professor put students in base groups, the professor can use the first meeting to allow them to develop a sense of group identity.

Jigsaw Jigsaw is a very complex strategy. It involves dividing the information and making each base group responsible for a different set of information. The professor instructs the students to learn the information and to be prepared to teach it to their classmates (or others). The professor then brings the students together into “expert groups.” The “expert groups” review what they have learned, clear up any confusion, share what they have written, and come to agreement on what is important to teach. They plan how they will teach, and then they teach their classmates. I have used this technique very successfully in my Health Care Law Class where students have made presentations to the school and to the community on a variety of topics.

Reward One popular strategy for fostering interdependence is to give rewards when a group accomplishes a goal. This strategy is frequently used with children. However, the Cooperative Learning community debates whether rewards are an appropriate strategy. Some professors believe that extrinsic reward can be effective if used in moderation; while others argue that extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation.

Use as many strategies as possible for promoting positive interdependence within one lesson. “Positive interdependence provides the context within which promotive interaction takes place, group membership and interpersonal interaction among students do not produce higher achievement unless positive interdependence is clearly structured and . . . goal interdependence is present.”

E. Considerable Promotive Interaction is a Trademark of Cooperative Learning.

Promotive interaction is a process in which individuals encourage and help each other's efforts to achieve, to complete tasks, to produce and to reach the group's goals. Promotive interaction needs to be face-to-face. In the typical law school, students talk to each other's back. Having significant promotive interaction when students talk to each other's back is not only difficult, but impossible. When promotive interactions are appropriately structured, students:

1. Provide each other with efficient and effective help and assistance;

2. Exchange needed resources, such as information and materials;

3. Process information, more efficiently and effectively;

4. Provide each other with feedback to improve subsequent performance;

5. Challenge each other's conclusions to promote higher-quality decision making;

6. Advocate the exertion of effort to achieve mutual goals;

7. Influence each other's efforts to achieve the group's goals;

8. Act in trusting and trustworthy ways; and

9. Are motivated to strive for mutual benefit.

Most law school classrooms do not easily allow for face-to-face interaction. However, if the chairs in the classroom are movable, the room can be situated with little disruption to the class. When using either base groups or formal groups, assign the students to seats so that the two students sitting in front can turn around and face the students in back quickly. In addition, professors can ask to be assigned to a classroom larger than the class size would ordinarily dictate. For instance, if the class size is thirty, a room large enough to hold forty-five or sixty would be appropriate. The students can quickly move into groups without too much disruption.

The typical law school classrooms. All eyes are on the teacher who is the center the learning processes. The teacher is a “sage on the stage.”


The Cooperative Learning Classroom. In the Cooperative Learning environment, a large portion of the interaction is between students. As the figure below shows, by having the students turn in their seats so they can talk face-to-face, knee-to-knee, the role of the teacher is to be a “Guide on the Side.”


F. Clearly Perceived Individual Accountability is Essential to Effective Cooperative Learning.

The purpose of Cooperative Learning groups is to make each member a stronger individual. Accountability is the key to ensuring that all group members are, in fact, strengthened by learning cooperatively. Accountability exists:

1. when the professor assesses the performance of each individual student;

2. when the professor gives the result of the assessment back to the individual and gives the group average back to the group; and

3. when students hold other group members responsible for contributing his or her fair share to the group's success. Individual accountability is necessary to avoid the free rider effect. Individual accountability can be assured in several ways: group size, signature, sampling, checkpoints, observing, journals, peer evaluation, and testing.

Group size. The smaller the group, the greater the individual accountability. A person can consistently come to class unprepared in the typical law classroom, because the chances of someone discovering it is very low. However, in a small group, the other group members will know when a person is not prepared, in part because the individual is necessary for the group to do its part.

Signature. Have students sign any group work. However, the professor should clearly explain what the student signature means. For instance, place a statement on the form that “your signature says that you were prepared for class and that you fully participated in your group discussion.” Requiring a signature will not guarantee that everyone is prepared, however, it sends a message on the importance of individual responsibility. Law students take their signature very seriously and will not sign the group product when they cannot attest to the fact.

Sampling. Call on students at random to discuss part of their group's work. This technique easily combines with the typical Socratic Method.

Checkpoints. For long projects, such as a group presentation or paper, build in checkpoints where each student must turn in part of the task completed. Checkpoints hold the students accountable. Checkpoints also help develop the student's organizational skills.

Observing. Observe each group recording the frequency with which each member contributes to the group work. For instance, in a problem-based course, the professor could require students to keep a “problems journal.” The professor could then observe how many students have their journals, their books, and other signs that they prepared for the lesson. Of course, for the observation to have an impact on the students, it is necessary that the faculty member explain his or her role, what the professor is observing, and why the information is relevant.

Journals. The professor can ask students to keep journals or write reflective papers after each lesson. In journals, students reflect on the substantive knowledge and skills that they are learning. In addition, students reflect on their contribution to the group, what they are learning about working with others, or the skills they need to be a better group members.

Peer Evaluation. Having students evaluate their team members is another mechanism for assuring individual accountability.

Testing. Besides promoting individual accountability, regular testing can be a means of assessing students' skills, comprehension, and thinking. The information from the testing can help us to structure our course around the students.

“There is a pattern to classroom learning. First, students learn knowledge, skills, strategies, or procedures in a cooperative group. Second, students apply the knowledge or demonstrate the skill, strategy, or procedure alone to demonstrate their personal mastery of the material. Students learn it together and then do it alone.”

G. In Cooperative Learning, the Professor Must Assure That Students Have Appropriate Group Social Skills.

To work cooperatively to achieve mutual goals, students must (1) get to know and trust each other, (2) communicate accurately and unambiguously, (3) accept and support each other, and (4) resolve conflicts constructively. We are not born instinctively knowing how to interact effectively with others. These skills do not magically appear when students need them. Consequently, the professor must teach the skills. The professor may be inclined to assume that students in law school will have the necessary social skills, that would be a mistake. No assurances exist that individuals at any educational level have the social skills for cooperating effectively. “The more socially skillful students are, and the more attention instructors pay to teaching and rewarding the use of social skills, the higher the achievement that can be expected within the Cooperative Learning groups.” Professors need to teach skills that fall into the following categories: forming skills, functioning skills, formulating skills and fermenting skills.

Forming Skills Forming skills include the initial management skills needed to establish appropriate behavior norms such as, encouraging everyone to participate, calling group members by name, making eye contact with the speaker, eliminating “put-downs.”

Functioning skills Functioning skills include the skills necessary to assure a functioning group. Students evidence these skills by stating or restating the purpose of the assignment, setting time limits, suggesting procedures for how to most effectively complete an assignment, and energizing the group when motivation is low.

Formulating skills Formulating skills include the mental processes needed to build deeper understanding of the subject being studied, the use of higher quality reasoning strategies, maximizing mastery and retention of material, and providing methods for processing the material.

Fermenting skills Fermenting skills are those skills that stimulate reconceptualization of the material being studied, cognitive conflict, the search for more information, and the communication of the rationale behind one's conclusion. “The most important aspects of learning take place when group members skillfully challenge each other's conclusions and reasoning.” To coordinate efforts to achieve mutual goals, students must: 1) get to know and trust each other, 2) communicate accurately and unambiguously, 3) accept and support each other, and 4resolve conflicts constructively.

Steps to Necessary Interpersonal and Social Skills


H. Frequent Group Processing is Important to Cooperative Learning.

Group processing involves reflecting on a group session to describe what member actions were helpful and unhelpful and to decide what actions to continue or change. Group processing clarifies and improves the effectiveness of the members in contributing to the collaborative effort. Two levels of group processing exist, small group and whole class. Small group processing occurs at the end of each class session for each cooperative group, helping them process how effectively the groups worked together. Group processing is an important part of the Cooperative Learning process. Studies show that students who work in Cooperative Learning groups that use group processing have increased achievement. Group processing enables learning groups to focus on maintaining good working relationships among members by:

1. facilitating the learning of cooperative skills,

2. ensuring that members receive feedback on their participation,

3. ensuring that students think on the meta-cognitive and the cognitive level, and

4. providing the means to celebrate the success of the group and reinforce the positive behaviors of group members.

Professors can use several strategies to promote effective group processing, such as, faculty observation, self-monitoring, or student observation.

Faculty Observation Faculty can monitor students' interactions and give them feedback regularly by collecting information as they observe groups.

Self-Monitoring Students can complete question(s) about how their group interacted. Students can answer the questions individually or as a group.

Student Observation In a class with more than eight groups of fours, consider using student observers. Professors can hire student observers as teaching assistants or students in the course can be observers.