Cooperative Learning is the name given to a range of teaching methods that promote learning that is structured, purposeful and, of course, cooperative.

The students work on a common assignment. Assignments can range from the simple to the complex, and can include experiment-based work, design, creation of a graphic organiser, extended writing projects, problem solving, devised performances, revision teams – the list is endless.

A very effective assignment is simply to ask a question.

Why is it important?

Used well, Cooperative Learning develops a range of thinking skills; results in a higher retention of information; and deepens understanding. Studies show that student achievement increases by at least a grade. Hattie, based on 1153 studies, gives cooperative learning an effect size of 0.59; Marzano, based on 122 studies, gives an effect size of 0.73.

Cooperative Learning also has a positive impact on student behaviour, student self-esteem and peer-to-peer attitudes. Moreover, and of increasing importance, Cooperative Learning improves inter-cultural attitudes. Simply put, it gets everyone interacting with everyone, which is to the benefit of all.

Cooperative Learning also promotes skills that are essential to the workplace. Businesses commonly work in a ‘cooperative learning’ manner, dividing their staff group into teams, and giving individuals within those teams specific responsibilities or topics to research.

Is it easy to implement?

There is nothing difficult or complex for the teacher. In fact, in many ways Cooperative Learning reduces teacher workload while at the same time making the students work harder and more effectively.

Initially, the teacher needs to explicitly teach the Cooperative Learning approach, that is, the rules, expectations and processes. As time goes by, however, control can be gradually relinquished so that a less directive approach taken – for example, nudging the thinking within the group with well-time observations and questions. However, the teacher remains fully engaged in what is going on and intervenes if needed, that is, if the group isn’t working as well as it should or there are interpersonal difficulties.

Cooperative Learning is NOT an opportunity for the teacher to mark books or answer emails – if the teacher isn’t demonstrating buy-in to the Cooperative Learning process, then there’s no chance that the students will.

How do I go about setting up some Cooperative Learning? Got any tips?

Here’s a dozen to get you going.

  1. Establish group goals

All learning needs a goal. If we don’t know where we are going, then we won’t know how to get there – or even where ‘there’ is. A clear goal helps to establish group unity. In turn, group unity helps individual accountability.

  1. Keep groups midsized

Groups of three or less tend to lack diversity of ideas; groups of six or more can become unwieldy and encourage ‘freeloading’. Four or five are best.

  1. Tell and show

The first time Cooperative Learning is used, outline the process to the class and then have a small group of students model that process. Intervene when necessary to keep the discussion going. As a debrief, discuss effective strategies that the group used or could have used to continue and expand their learning. In other words, do a www (what went well) and an EBI (even better if). From that debrief, create a guideline sheet (flipchart paperwork stuck to the wall) of effective group working – or, using one of the Cooperative Learning strategies below, have students generate guideline suggestions themselves. Common guidelines include:

  • We treat one another with respect
  • We encourage new ideas
  • We value the consideration of all suggestions
  • We justify our opinions to the group
  • We have gender equality
  • We make decisions as a group
  • We work together on the assignment
  • We work together to on group functioning
  1. Build trust and promote open communication

Trust means that students can rely on each other to be accountable for their behaviour within the group, including effort, focus and supportiveness. Deal with interpersonal problems promptly and fully. As students get more and more used to working cooperatively, their skills at resolving interpersonal problems will develop.

Trust underpins open communication. Assignments should encourage group members to explain concepts and opinions thoroughly to each other. Studies find that students who provide and receive detailed explanations gain the most from Cooperative Learning.

  1. Assign roles

Assigning roles is not always necessary, but it is helpful for complex tasks or influencing (either increasing or reducing) the level of engagement from certain students. You can assign roles or they can be negotiated within groups. Roles should be alternated for new assignments. Here are some common roles:

  • recorder – writes down important information (e.g. assignment details, ideas, conclusions)
  • checker – makes sure that all group members understand the group’s assignment, ideas and conclusions
  • questioner – asks questions
  • assessor – evaluates the progress that has been made
  • Devil’s Advocate – challenges assumptions; asks the question, ‘how do we know that this is true?’
  • encourager – models and reinforces appropriate social skills
  • summariser – summarises the group’s ideas and conclusions
  • spokesperson – represents the group to the rest of the class
  • timekeeper – keeps group on task and on time
  1. Use real world stimuli

Students engage better with real world stimuli (problems, issues, dilemmas) because those stimuli, being real, have greater meaning to them.

  1. Mix ‘em up

The only two considerations for group composition are gender and ability. For the former, have a balance; for the latter, a range.

In groups that are mainly male, girls tend to be ignored; in groups that are mainly female, girls tend to direct their questions to the boy, who often ignores them. Regarding ability, groups tend to learn more from each other when ability levels are mixed.

Mixing the students up also reduces the likelihood that more confident members will dominate. Assigning group roles and promoting pro-social ways of working can also help with this.

The more you run Cooperative Learning, the less you will need to think about group composition. Students will become increasingly able to work effectively with whoever is in the group. They will not see gender, ability or culture, only a viewpoint that is qualified or unqualified.

  1. Stretch the students

Although Cooperative Learning is an excellent way for students to research or share their knowledge or understanding, it is at its best as a way of stretching students. So set challenging assignments – challenging assignments promote higher order thinking skills which in turn leads to deeper learning.

  1. Don’t ditch individual learning

You don’t have to teach everything through Cooperative Learning – in fact you shouldn’t. Variety is very important. Do things the same way all the time and the students will get bored. In fact, even if Cooperative Learning is used, it is helpful to incorporate some in-silence written work, either as a way of starting the process off or concluding it. A written task also provides an opportunity for the student to crystalise learning, and for the teacher to assess learning.

  1. Use timers

Timers let students know how long they have to complete an assignment or section of an assignment. It is a tool that helps the group manage its pace. It goes without saying that not all elements of Cooperative Learning need a timer; however, if a timer is used, resist any temptation to extend the time. The time that is set must be the time the students get – boundaries are only helpful when they are certain.

  1. Keep it safe

Like all people trying to work together, interpersonal difficulties can happen. Have strategies to prevent or solve those difficulties. Actually, those strategies can themselves be generated through a Cooperative Learning approach. Set students the assignment of identifying possible problems, and then ways of resolving those problems.

Ultimately, however, it is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that the students feel safe. Close monitoring is therefore key. Interpersonal problems can and should be discussed and, if necessary, a robust response given.

  1. Debrief

Debrief as a default. A debrief is an opportunity to clarify concepts, rectify misunderstandings and embed learning. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to assess learning. Debrief both the assignment and the Cooperative Learning process; if necessary, refine the process for future sessions.

A written activity helps to embed the learning even further.

So, what are specific Cooperative Learning strategies?

Here they are. Read them with the tips (above) in mind.

Think, pair and share

  1. The teacher sets an assignment (question, task, problem)
  2. The teacher sets some in-silence thinking or writing time
  3. Students share their thoughts with a partner
  4. The pair share their responses with another pair, thus making a four-person group. Again this can be timed
  5. An additional assignment can also be used at this point – for instance, ranking their responses by set criteria
  6. Responses are then shared in a bigger group (a group of eight) or with the whole class.

Numbered heads

  1. Divide students into equal groups (say groups of 5)
  2. Students number themselves (1 to 5)
  3. Groups work on the same assignment
  4. The group needs to ensure that each group member knows the group’s agreed answer
  5. The teacher calls out a number and asks all students with that number to stand and answer a question. Thoughtful and interesting responses are recognised
  6. More questions of different numbered students are asked.


  1. Divide a topic into subtopics (e.g. childhood diseases divided into the five subtopics of meningitis, whooping cough, measles, mumps and chickenpox)
  2. Divide the class into groups – number of groups equals the number of subtopics (in this case, five)
  3. Number the groups (e.g. 1 to 5)
  4. Each group studies one subtopic (e.g. group one, meningitis; group two, whooping cough and so on)
  5. Number the students in each group. All the one’s sit together, all the twos, all the threes and so on
  6. Each student in the new group shares his or her expertise.

 Speed interviews

  1. Students form two concentric circles with the same amount of chairs in each circle – the chairs in the centre, face out; the chairs in the outer circle, face in
  2. One student sits opposite another student
  3. The teacher sets an assignment – a question works well
  4. The paired students work on the assignment for a set amount of time (say one or two minutes)
  5. The students in the outer circle stand up and move one seat clockwise. The paired work is repeated with the same time limit
  6. Activity ends when every student in the outside circle has spoken to every student in the inside circle.

The same assignment can be used throughout or it can be changed. To speed the process up, either give a shorter paired time or use two sets of ‘two concentric circles’. Speed interviews work very well for a range of assignments, including revision.


Clockwise is an excellent activity for developing listening and attention skills.

  1. Divide students into groups and set a time limit (five minutes, say)
  2. Give each group an assignment – it could be the same assignment for all groups
  3. One student in the group says something about the assignment (an opinion, a view, a fact or what they believe to be a fact). It can be as long or as short as the speaker wants.
  4. When the previous person has finished talking, the person sitting clockwise of the speaker then speaks. He or she can make their own comments about the assignment or respond to what the previous speaker has said. Or both.
  5. When that previous person has finished talking, the person sitting clockwise of that speaker then speaks. And so on.
  6. No one can speak out of turn. No one can respond to another’s comments unless it is their turn to speak
  7. Students write a summary of the group’s responses.
  8. Students return to their groups and share their summaries.

You can include a pass (the option to not contribute for one round of clockwise), but students should be encouraged to share their views even if their views are not fully formulated.

Three-step interview

  1. Students form pairs. One person interviews the other
  2. Students switch roles
  3. The pair links with another pair. The pairs share and discuss the information and insights resulting from the interviews.

The bigger picture

For this strategy, imagine that the assignment you have given the students is to work on the business plan for a failing company (idea from Geoff Petty).

  1. Divide students into groups of four
  2. Each group is given the same assignment
  3. Students are told that at the end of the assignment two things will happen: individuals will have to justify an aspect of their group’s response to the assignment and that there will be a fact-based quiz
  4. Students are given information relating to the assignment (a piece of research, an article, some facts, a first-hand perspective) – but each student gets a different bit of information.
  5. The students study the information
  6. Each student shares (describes and explains) their piece of information with the group – but they are not allowed to show it. In fact, it is helpful to remove any documentation materials at this point.
  7. The group formulates their response to the assignment and shares with the class as a whole
  8. Using ‘numbered heads’ (above), students justify an aspect of their group’s response to the class as a whole
  9. An in-silence quiz takes place (useful for consolidating learning and teacher assessment)

Academic controversy

This method is for a topic where there are conflicting views and it is not easy to say which is the best. For example: Do prisons work? Are grammar schools justified? Is crime always bad?

  1. Divide the students into As and Bs
  2. The As are given one point of view (Yes, prisons do work) and the Bs are given the opposing point of view (No, prisons do not work)
  3. Working individually, the students prepare persuasive arguments
  4. The students are put into pairs or groups to develop their argument further (As together, Bs together)
  5. A pair of As joins with a pair of Bs. The pairs take turns to present their argument as persuasively as possible. No interruption is allowed
  6. The group of four have an open discussion, persuasively making their position
  7. The A pair joins up with a different B pair
  8. The pairs swap positions: the As now argue that prisons do not work, the Bs that they do work
  9. Students drop their adversary roles and try to reach a consensus by synthesizing all views
  10. Groups present their consensus to the whole class.

Article written by Robin Launder, from Behaviour Buddy

Sourced authors:

Laura Candler; Miriam Clifford; James Duplass; John Hattie; Dr Roger Johnson and Dr David Johnson; Robert Marzano; Geoff Petty.