TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Cooperative Learning
Small group learning, partner discussions, and group projects are a staple of many elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. And this is for good reason. Cooperative learning is beneficial for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Kamps et al., 1994; Piercy et al., 2002). Learning together as members of the same general education class can help students with disabilities access and make progress in challenging curriculum. Even more, social interactions that come through cooperative learning can build students’ social and communication skills, promote peer acceptance, and provide shared experiences that support friendships (Biggs & Rossi, 2021; Jackson et al., 2008).
Although many teachers are aware of these benefits, implementing cooperative learning with students can still seem challenging. Teachers may not know how to structure learning activities so that students with and without significant cognitive disabilities remain productive and accomplish shared learning goals. This challenge raises a certain truth—not all groups are cooperative. Seating students together, telling them they are a group, and giving them something to work on does not ensure they will collaborate effectively or learn much from their time together.
The term cooperation is commonly defined as working together to accomplish shared goals. Therefore, cooperative learning is evident when students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning, and when teachers design instruction carefully to support this goal. Research has helped identify five core elements of effective cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2009):
- Positive interdependence: Students need to believe their success is linked to the success of others in their group. Positive interdependence requires that students feel invested, want to support the learning of their classmates, and take on roles that contribute to the groups’ success. Therefore, teachers must consider how all students—including students with significant cognitive disabilities—can be full participants. Of course, this does not mean that all students have to participate in exactly the same way.
- Individual and group accountability: All students must be responsible for contributing to the group. The idea of accountability is closely linked with positive interdependence because it is more likely that students will feel responsible for both “carrying their own weight” and supporting other group members if they believe their success is linked to their whole group’s success. Teachers can support individual accountability by ensuring that each student is responsible for contributing to the group and/or knowing the content.
- Positive interaction: The power of cooperative learning happens through social interaction with peers. Some researchers have labeled this essential element “promotive interaction” (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). This means that students should interact with one another in ways that actively promote the participation, learning, and contribution of every group member. Promotive interaction is evident when students are seen sharing resources, asking for and giving help, asking questions, providing feedback, giving suggestions, explaining ideas, praising and encouraging one another, listening and exploring one another’s points of view, and keeping stress and anxiety low.
- Social skills: All students benefit from being taught how to cooperate and support one another’s learning. Many different social skills can be strengthened through cooperative learning. For example, students may learn more about how to communicate clearly, accept and support one another, resolve conflicts or misunderstandings, actively listen, share ideas and resources, comment constructively on others’ ideas, and make decisions democratically.
- Group processing: Group processing occurs when the students reflect on their progress and working relationships. For example, they might discuss the following questions: What have we achieved? Are we on track to reach our goals? What do we still need to achieve? How might we do this? What has been helpful or unhelpful to our progress and interactions as a group? During group processing, it is important that students show respect toward all group members. The goal is to reinforce that everyone is a valued group member and to improve how students work together, not to cast blame or identify fault.
Cooperative learning in inclusive classrooms is typically led by general educators, but that doesn’t mean they need to do it alone. Collaboration should be an everyday part of designing and carrying out cooperative learning, especially when this approach will be used to improve peer engagement and learning outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Effective collaboration between general and special educators is important so that all students are successfully supported. General and special educators each bring unique strengths to their work together—general educators as experts on their classrooms and curriculum, and special educators as experts on teaching and supporting students with disabilities.
Having the time to collaborate and plan together is often a challenge. One highly recommended practice involves working closely with school administrators before the school year begins to align schedules so that general and special educators can have protected time to discuss lessons and support for students. However, effective collaboration can happen even if scheduling changes are not possible. When time is limited, effective collaboration requires that teachers make the most of their time. Some teachers find it helpful to use tools like shared cloud-based folders to collaborate asynchronously. For example, a general educator can upload unit and lesson plans with embedded comments or questions for the special educator. The shared folder can also be a place to review student data and track which supports work best for specific students with disabilities.
Specialized instructional support personnel such as speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, or occupational therapists can also be valued collaborators. For example, a speech-language pathologist can suggest communication supports or identify vocabulary words on a student’s speech-generating device that might be helpful for cooperative learning activities. Additionally, paraprofessionals are sometimes utilized to provide additional support within general education classes. Teachers should collaborate with paraprofessionals before, during, and after cooperative learning activities so that their ideas can be incorporated. This also ensures that paraprofessionals understand their roles in supporting peer engagement and learning for all students.
Planning for cooperative learning involves (a) identifying the learning goal, (b) deciding on the form for cooperative learning, (c) determining what is expected for all students, and (d) planning class-wide and individualized supports.
Identify the Learning Goal
Good teaching is driven by a clear vision for what students should learn. Because cooperative learning can be used to promote both content learning and peer engagement, teachers should identify learning goals in both areas (e.g., a social goal and an academic goal). For example, a teacher might use cooperative learning to help students learn aspects of United States geography, as well as how to share leadership responsibilities or make decisions democratically.
Decide on the Form for Cooperative Learning
Cooperative learning can take many different forms. The first consideration is the structure, which can range from informal to formal (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Informal cooperative learning involves having students work together in brief “ad hoc” groups, which might last anywhere from a few minutes to a class period in length. For example, students might engage in a 5–7 minute “focused discussion” that sets the stage for the start of the lesson by having students discuss their own background knowledge and experiences. On the other hand, formal cooperative learning consists of students working together to complete more substantive joint learning tasks such as completing a project, conducting an experiment, researching a topic, writing a report, or developing a presentation. Formal cooperative learning can last anywhere from one class period to several days or weeks (using part of class across several days). Informal and formal cooperative learning are best thought of as two ends of a spectrum; cooperative learning activities can actually fall anywhere in between.
Two other more specific types of cooperative learning arrangements are reciprocal teaching and cooperative base groups. Reciprocal teaching describes cooperative learning in which students have opportunities to switch between the roles of the “teacher” and the “learner.” Two examples of different types of reciprocal teaching include classwide peer tutoring and jigsaw arrangements, which are described briefly in Figure 1. Cooperative base groups are long-term groups that provide a stable, diverse group of peers who offer one another encouragement, advice, and/or assistance. Typically, cooperative base groups meet regularly (e.g., daily, once per week) throughout the semester or school year. These small groups of 3-4 students might be used to check homework, provide social support, act as a book club, or review previously learned content.
Each of these arrangements for cooperative learning has its own strengths; there is not one right or better approach. Teachers should work to choose which arrangement is best aligned with their learning goal(s), as well as their students, classroom structure, and resources (e.g., amount of instructional time). Several specific examples of different types of cooperative learning activities are described in Figure 1.
Group size is another important factor. Smaller groups generally work better. If groups get too large, students may be less likely to believe that their efforts are important to the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Smaller groups can also help students with complex communication needs participate socially and not be overwhelmed by or left out of interactions. A good rule of thumb is to try to keep cooperative learning groups to about 2-4 students per group. Unlike some other types of small-group instruction, cooperative learning groups should be heterogeneous. This means that each group should be diverse in terms of student strengths and learning needs, as well as things like gender, race/ethnicity, or other characteristics.
Determine What Is Expected of All Students
The next step is to clearly delineate expectations and procedures. Teachers should craft their expectations by thinking about students’ learning goal(s) and the five core elements: positive interdependence, individual and group accountability, positive interaction, social skills, and group processing. The amount of planning in each of these areas will vary by the type of cooperative learning. For example, when planning short “turn and talk” questions during a lesson, teachers may readily see how they can support individual accountability by asking that each student in the pair have a turn to talk. On the other hand, planning how to ensure both individual and group accountability will take more time for a more formal group project.
Plan Class-Wide and Individualized Supports
Students need teachers to actively guide and support their work during cooperative learning. Although students with significant cognitive disabilities may need individualized support, teachers should begin by identifying support that will lead to the success of all students at a class-wide level. This approach is directly tied to the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is a framework that guides teachers in designing instruction that supports the diverse learning needs of students in an inclusive classroom. Related specifically to cooperative learning, UDL principles can help teachers overcome barriers that might challenge students’ engagement with their peers and with the content, understanding of what they are learning (based on how ideas are represented), and participation and expression of what they know. For example, teachers can use the UDL principle of student engagement to outline clear expectations for student behavior during cooperative learning groups. This might involve posting visuals at workstations to remind students about these expectations.
Whenever needed, teachers should also collaborate with other team members to plan individualized support for students with significant cognitive disabilities. This may include communication or social supports (e.g., a speech-generating device or communication board with picture symbols, social scripts), self-management and behavior supports (e.g., a visual schedule, self-monitoring checklist), learning supports (e.g., manipulatives, visuals, video models), or other supports (e.g., adapted materials). Planning individualized supports should also involve identifying roles within cooperative learning activities that allow students with significant cognitive disabilities to successfully share their strengths, participate in valued ways, and reach their personal learning goals. Teachers often realize that support designed for individual students with disabilities may also be useful for other students in the class. In line with UDL, these can be provided to all students. For example, Figure 2 shows two self-monitoring checklists that could be used as an individualized support or made available to all students.
Informal Cooperative Learning
As described previously, informal cooperative learning involves bringing students together to work collaboratively on a task for a short period of time. Collaborative work might include discussing an idea, answering a question, or completing an activity. Although informal cooperative learning can take many different forms (see Figure 1), it is important that teachers always (a) carefully explain the task, and (b) monitor and support students as they work together. Although the word “informal” is used to describe this type of cooperative learning, even simple tasks need to be explained clearly so that students understand expectations, both for the task and for how they need to collaborate. After clearly explaining these directions, teachers and other support staff such as paraprofessionals should move around the room during the activity, offering help and positive feedback (e.g., an encouraging statement, thumb up) as they watch and listen for how students work and interact with one another. When activities are very brief—such as only a few minutes—it is typically better to avoid interrupting students to offer praise. However, if the cooperative activities are longer, simple reinforcing statements can be helpful (e.g., “Great job giving each group member a chance to say what they think.”). Groups that include students with significant cognitive disabilities might need more of this support, at least at the beginning of their work together. Teachers and paraprofessionals can offer support by sharing information, making sure all students have a valued role, teaching or modeling interaction strategies, and providing specific praise statements (e.g., “Let’s be sure that everyone has a chance to share their ideas. Daliah, can you use your communication device to share what you think?”)
To stay on track during cooperative activities, teachers may want to keep a timer nearby. Visual timers can be helpful for many students, including those with disabilities. Because groups may finish their work at different times, teachers should explain what students are to do if they finish early. Since a common goal of cooperative learning is to increase interactions with peers, teachers might want to identify socially-focused activities students can do with extra time that still keep the classroom noise level at a manageable level (e.g., playing an educational game, looking at books with a partner in a class library).
Formal Cooperative Learning
Implementing formal cooperative learning has much in common with informal cooperative learning, including the importance of clear expectations for students. Clear directions often become even more important when cooperative learning activities are longer or more complex. Teachers should start by describing the task itself. When expectations have multiple components or are more complex, it can be helpful to break information down into smaller chunks and use multiple ways to communicate ideas (e.g., aloud, written, visuals, videos). Teachers should also explain the cooperative aspects of the activity, making sure that students understand and are excited about supporting one another’s learning. It is important to help students begin to think about how they and their classmates—including classmates with disabilities—each bring different strengths to the group. As part of this, teachers should also describe and teach any cooperative skills that students are expected to use. One great way to do this is to embed social skill “mini-lessons” over time. This involves describing each skill, giving and modeling examples, and giving feedback as students role play the skill.
As students work together, teachers and paraprofessionals should circulate to monitor progress and offer support. Because formal cooperative learning involves longer activities, educators may be able to spend more time with each group than they would during briefer activities. Although it is important that teachers not get in the way of students working together, they should also avoid missing opportunities to step in and support student learning and peer engagement. Teachers should see their role as a facilitator—guiding students rather than simply telling them what they need to know, what they are doing wrong, or how to fix it. Some strategies that teachers and paraprofessionals can use to support cooperative learning include:
- being available to clarify ideas or expectations, review procedures, or answer questions;
- bringing a positive energy to students as they work together, such as by using humor or offering encouragement;
- mediating between students when difficulties arise and seeing these as teaching opportunities;
- asking questions that guide students in planning their next steps or solving their own problems, and;
- sharing ideas so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can contribute to and fully participate in their groups.
Formal cooperative learning activities often conclude with opportunities for students to share what they accomplished or learned with the entire class. There are many different possible ways to do this. Regardless of how students will share what they learned, it is important to plan for how students with disabilities can be full participants (e.g., by using their communication device or using other supports). Some options for sharing include:
- Some Stay, One Strays: When it is time to share, one group member rotates to another group to share and listen, while the others stay put, welcoming the member from a different group who joins them. This can repeat for a few rounds so that more students have the chance to “stray.”
- Stand and Share: One member of each group can stand and share what they learned with the class, often using visuals.
- Gallery Walk: This method of sharing works well when each group has created some type of product (e.g., a poster of their work). Students rotate to explore each poster or product from the other groups. To promote greater engagement, students can leave post-it notes on different posters with comments, questions, or reflections.
Cooperative learning has many benefits for all students. However, it is important that teachers carefully monitor and evaluate students’ progress—both in completing the learning task and in working together. Teachers should gather data to ensure that individual students are accountable for their learning within each group. They can also use data to determine when and how to offer extra support so that every student learns, interacts, and collaborates in effective ways.
For Students with Disabilities
Teachers can collect data on student communication and engagement with peers during the cooperative learning activities, both of which can be captured using observation and simple techniques like tallying the frequency of communication, or using a rating scale to evaluate interaction quality. To promote collaboration, it can be helpful for other educational team members (e.g., special educator, related service provider) to observe in the general education classroom and discuss their findings with the teachers. Determining whether any positive changes spill over to other parts of the day is also wise. Prior research shows that well-supported cooperative learning can lead to peer interactions and relationships that extend beyond the classroom (Biggs & Rossi, 2021; Kamps et al., 1994; Piercy et al., 2002). Finally, teachers and other educational team members should collect and reflect on data regarding how cooperative learning helps students with significant cognitive disabilities access and make progress in the general curriculum.
Being part of cooperative learning with classmates who have significant cognitive disabilities can also positively impact peers without disabilities. Such impact may be evident in changes related to their acceptance of classmates with disabilities, their confidence and skills interacting with classmates with disabilities, and their social relationships. Cooperative learning within inclusive classrooms can also help peers without disabilities learn the academic content better because they have opportunities to explain ideas to their classmates (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). To understand the experiences of peers, teachers can talk with these peers and collect data on their academic progress. In addition, teachers can ask peers about what is good or challenging about the cooperative learning activities, about their relationships with fellow group members, and whether there is anything that could improve the way they learn with their classmates. This input can be used to improve activities in the future.
Carrying out cooperative learning that includes students with and without disabilities can also have a positive impact on educators, such as general educators or paraprofessionals in the classroom. Many general educators already incorporate cooperative learning in their classroom, but learning how to use this practice to support the participation, peer engagement, and academic learning of students with significant cognitive disabilities can be empowering. School teams can try to understand how educators are impacted in these types of ways through informal interviews or questionnaires.
Sustaining and Expanding
Good teaching does not happen in isolation. Finding ways to help teachers connect more with one another—or even to leverage the connections they already have—can be incredibly helpful for expanding the use of effective cooperative learning to include students with significant cognitive disabilities. At a school level, providing professional development related to cooperative learning in conjunction with UDL can help promote school-wide change. However, who teachers know is as important for changing their agency and practice as what they know (Baker-Doyle & Yoon, 2020). School teams should think of ways to promote the sharing of ideas and supports across educators related to cooperative learning, whether that is through structural change at the school (e.g., grouping teachers in teams, making time for collaboration), helping teachers become more aware of the importance of their own social networks, or fostering a culture in which collaboration and the sharing ideas or resources is valued and expected.
Across Ages and Grades
Cooperative learning can be implemented successfully in inclusive classrooms in all grades—from early elementary years to post-secondary learning. However, it is important for teachers to consider their specific students when planning cooperative learning. For example, younger students, such as those in the lower elementary grades (K-2), will likely need more instruction and support related to using foundational social skills within cooperative learning groups such as taking turns with materials. In contrast, older students may have more experience and confidence working collaboratively in this way, but could benefit from learning other cooperative skills such as making decisions democratically or active listening.
Teachers should provide individualized support to students with significant cognitive disabilities to promote their learning, participation, and during cooperative learning groups with their peers. This personalized support can take many different forms, including augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) such as speech-generating devices or communication boards if the student has complex communication needs, or adapted materials if the student has a visual impairment or physical disabilities. Collaboration with other team members is important to identify the best individualized support for students with disabilities.
Culturally responsive teaching requires that teachers work to create equitable classrooms that support the learning of all students from diverse backgrounds. Well-designed cooperative learning can also help students learn to value diversity. It can also strengthen students’ desire and skills to work with peers who come from backgrounds different than their own because it gives them opportunities to know, work with, and interact with classmates at a personal level (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). When students work cooperatively to reach shared goals, they get to see one another’s personal strengths and abilities, rather than stereotypes or labels.
Mrs. Harrison is a 7th grade Life Science teacher at Oakland Middle School. After teaching for 10 years at the school, Mrs. Harrison feels she is a skilled and experienced teacher. She is passionate about helping students engage deeply and critically with understanding key concepts— from systems within single cells to complex ecosystems. This year is the first year that Mrs. Harrison has a student with a significant cognitive disability included in one of her classes. Before the school year begins, Mrs. Harrison doesn’t know all that much about Christiana, who has Down syndrome. But, she does know that she wants to be sure her classroom is a place where Christiana will fully belong—where she is welcomed, involved in every aspect of the class, and valued as a member.
Now, about a month into the school year, Mrs. Harrison is getting ready for a 3-week unit on cell structure and function. She already embeds informal opportunities for peer interaction throughout her lessons on a regular basis (e.g., “turn and talk,” “think-pair-share”). For this unit, Mrs. Harrison has also planned two more formal cooperative learning activities—a jigsaw activity for students to learn about each different part of an animal cell, and a group project that involves creating a 3-D model of a cell to understand how cell parts and their unique functions work together. The jigsaw activity involves groups of four students. Each group is assigned the task of becoming an expert on a certain cell part and its function (e.g., cell membrane, nucleus). Students are then re-grouped so there is one “expert” for each part of the cell in each new group. Using multiple means—like videos, explaining, and pictures—each “expert” student is expected to teach their new groupmates about that part of a cell. Although Mrs. Harrison has used these cooperative learning activities in the past, she wonders how to best support and include Christiana in meaningful ways.
One of the collaboration strategies that Mrs. Harrison had set up with Mr. McLoughlin, the special education teacher, and Ms. Kincaid, a classroom paraprofessional, was meeting together before each new unit. At the meeting for this unit, Mrs. Harrison brought up her questions about supporting Christiana during the cooperative learning activities. Focusing first on the jigsaw activity, Mrs. Harrison, Mr. McLoughlin, and Ms. Kincaid identified several strategies for supporting Christiana well. Since there is an odd number of students in the class, they decided to put Christiana in a group of 5, rather than 4. This would allow her to have a “partner” to work with collaboratively when the students re-grouped to teach one another. Mrs. Harrison and Ms. Kincaid knew that Christiana’s friend Nicki would be the perfect partner. They also wanted Christiana to be able to be in the group focused on becoming experts on the nucleus of the cell. They knew that spending more time learning about the nucleus would set her up well for learning about other key content in the future, like cell division. Mr. McLoughlin agreed to work with Mrs. Harrison over email to develop a visual checklist of expectations for the activity and a communication board to support understanding and use of key vocabulary. They also planned how Mrs. Harrison and Ms. Kincaid would each rotate through student groups to offer support—including Christiana’s group.
This team of educators met again after the lessons with the jigsaw activity were complete. Ms. Kincaid and Mrs. Harrison told Mr. McLoughlin how things went. They were impressed by how well Christiana and Nicki worked together to teach other students about the nucleus. They also discussed a few of the things that seemed to be more challenging, which included that the peers in Christiana’s group tended to try to help her too much. Together, the team decided that Ms. Kincaid and Mrs. Harrison could use times they checked-in with groups to teach peers how to use wait time before offering help. Overall, the team was pleased with how cooperative learning helped all students, including Christiana, engage with the challenging curriculum and with each other.
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Biggs, E. E. (2022). A guide to implementing cooperative learning. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/cooperative-learning
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