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Using Small Groups Effectively

What is it?

Cooperative learning is a method for using small groups in the classroom to engage students in active learning techinques. It is a student centered teaching method which places responsibility for learning on the students. Responsibility for creating and facilitating an optimal learning opportunity is the teacher's. (For a discussion of the distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning, see Panitz A Definition of Collaborative vs. Cooperative Learning).

When should it be used?

Effectively using cooperative learning.

There are three parts to effectively using cooperative learning groups: 1) creating effective assignments, 2) facilitating group work; 3) grading group assignments. An instructor should consider all three components before beginning the group process.

Creating effective group assignments:

1. The task should require "group" interaction - not be able to be divided into smaller parts and done individually and then put back together with no need for the group to meet and discuss to accomplish the task.

2. The task should have a definite outcome and deadline. Telling groups to "discuss" this, does not tell them when they are done or give them a focus to work toward.

3. The group task should require them to use the knowledge/skill you want them to learn. Discussions which require them to produce a product beyond defining terms are best. Michealson suggests pojects which focus on why or how.

4. There must be individual and group accountability (also part of grading assignments). Often a pre-group task which requires students to be prepared in some way for the group task is helpful.

5. Having all groups work on the same project and then report out simultaneously (or as close to that as possible) creates another learning opportunity as they compare results with other groups.

Facilitating group work:

1. Assign students to groups randomly. It is rarely wise to let them choose their own groups since you may end up with three people who are best friends and another who does not know any of them, creating a division before the group even gets started! Also, you generally want groups to be as heterogenous as possible. When they choose their own groups, they tend to choose others like themselves which undermines the advantage of diversity. If particular skills are necessary in the group or some people have more background or experience than others, it is a good idea to purposely distribute these people among the groups rather than have them all end up in one or two groups. Sometimes you may want to purposely mix genders, ages, backgrounds, majors etc.

2. One of the best ways to facilitate group work is to create a task with a definite outcome and a deadline. This is an effective way to help groups stay focused on the task and use time efficiently.

3. If possible, visit groups as they work. Do not ask, "How are you doing?", they will say fine. Ask, "What progress have you made?", "Where are you in the project?" etc. It's a good idea to sit with the students when you do this. Sitting with them indicates three things: 1) I am interested in what you have to say; 2) I have time to listen, 3) I am at your level, not in evaluating mode but in facilitating mode.

4. If the project is a long one, consider intermediate deadlines of parts of the project so no group can get too far behind or off track without your knowledge.

5. If necessary, encourage groups to create "rules" for working with each other efficiently and productively. Make it clear they do not need to like each other but do need to exhibit "professional behavior" in working with each other.

6. Make breaking up a group very difficult to do and involve reflective thought and attempts to openly mediate problems. Creating several steps by which to "divorce" a group, forces groups to actively try to identify and work through their problems before giving up. Not only does this encourage them to stay together but teaches them to work with diverse people and diverse working styles.

Debriefing group assignments

1. Were the key points covered by all groups in a way that indicates understanding? If so, summarize, if not discuss them.

2. Ask them to debrief (which allows you to see what they have learned). You may want to ask questions such as:

Grading group assignments

1. Group and individual accountability is best. The group must, to some extent, succeed or fail as a group. However, there must also be individual accountability to offset the likelihood of social loafing. This can be accomplished via an individual quiz or other assignment (including showing evidence of preparatory thought about the group project) over the material before the group begins. If you choose to have group members "grade" each other, be very careful and very specific about how they are to grade each other and keep these confidential.

2. Provide the groups the criteria for the individual and group parts of the grade in advance so they know what they are working toward.

Issues related to using cooperative learning.



Designing Effective Group Activities (pdf file) (Michaelson, Fink and Knight's article on designing group assignments)

Cooperative Learning for New college Teachers (article on why and how to use cooperative learning groups)

Putting Cooperative Learning to the Test (Harvard Education Letter article about the benfits of cooperative learning)

Cooperative Learning (quick overview of cooperative learning)

Cooperative Learning: Effective Teamwork for Engineering Classrooms (brief overview and essential elements of cooperative learning, including the instructor's role)

Resources on Collaborative Learning (links to four sites discussing and/or giving specific ideas on how to do collaborative learning)

Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams (article from Tools for Teaching by Berkeley professor)