Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 8, Issue 2, Article 7 (Dec., 2007)
Fui Fong HO and Hong Kwen BOO

Cooperative learning: Exploring its effectiveness in the Physics classroom

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Cooperative learning

According to Johnson and Johnson (1993), cooperative learning is the structuring of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. Over 500 research studies back the conclusion that cooperative learning produces gains across all content areas, all grade levels, and among all types of students including special needs, high achieving, gifted, urban, rural, and all ethnic and racial groups.  In terms of consistency of positive outcomes cooperative learning remains the strongest researched educational innovation ever with regard to producing achievement gains (Kagan, 1999).

Relationship between cooperative learning and students' academic achievement

In a meta-analysis of 122 research studies from 1924 to 1980 that compared cooperation, competition and individualistic learning, Johnson and Johnson (1988) found that cooperative learning (CL) promotes higher achievement than competitive or individualistic learning. The results hold for several subject areas and a range of age groups from elementary school through to adult. They found that students with cooperative experiences are more able to appreciate 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.

Slavin (1980) reviewed 28 primary field projects lasting at least 2 weeks in which CL methods were used in elementary or secondary school. He concluded that:

  1. For academic achievement, cooperative learning techniques are no worse than traditional techniques, and in most cases they are significantly better.

  2. For low level learning outcomes, such as knowledge, calculation, and application of principles, CL techniques appear to be more effective than traditional techniques.

  3. For high level cognitive learning outcomes, such as identifying concepts, analysis of problems, judgement and evaluation, less structured CL techniques that involve high student autonomy and participation in decision-making may be more effective than traditional individualistic techniques.

In the same review, Slavin found that structures like TGT (Teams Games Tournaments) showed relatively consistent positive results on student achievement, race relations, mutual concerns, and other variables. Research on STAD (Student Teams Achievement Divisions) further supports the positive effects of structured CL techniques on academic achievement and race relations (Slavin, 1980).

Slavin (1983) analysed 46 controlled research studies which were conducted for an extended time in regular elementary and secondary school classrooms. Among the studies examined by Slavin, 63% showed superior outcomes for CL, 33% showed no differences, and only 4% showed higher achievement for the traditional comparison groups. Achievement gains were found in almost all (89%) of the studies which used group rewards for individual achievement (individual accountability). When individual accountability was absent, achievement overall was about the same as in comparison classrooms. In another review, Slavin (1989) identified 60 studies that contrasted the achievement outcomes of CL and traditional methods in elementary and secondary schools and found that there is wide agreement among reviewers of the CL literature that cooperative methods can and usually do have a positive effect on student achievement. However, achievement effects were only seen for cooperative structures that incorporate positive interdependence and individual accountability.

The lowest achieving students and minority students in general benefit most but the benefit obtained for the lower achievers is not bought at the expense of the higher achievers; the high achieving students generally perform as well or better in cooperative classrooms than they do in traditional classrooms (Kagan, 1994).

Relationship between cooperative learning and students' understanding of concepts

In general, past research has found that cooperative efforts produce higher-quality problem solving than do competitive efforts on a wide variety of problems that require different cognitive processes to solve. Possible reasons why cooperation may increase problem-solving success include the exchange of information and insights among cooperators, the generation of a variety of strategies to solve the problem, increased ability to translate the problem statement into equations, and the development of a shared cognitive representation of the problem (Qin, Johnson & Johnson, 1995).

Schwarz, Neuman and Biezuner (2000) presented a classroom study showing that two students working together can make learning gains even though both students entered the peer learning situation with low levels of competence. The thrust of the research on peer learning shows that when peers engage in dialogues and discussions (even arguments) that are relevant to both the task at hand and to initial misconceptions, cognitive gains can result from the peer interactions.  The main purpose of using peer learning in schools is to sharpen academic skills such as listening and communication, and to enhance subject matter mastery by promoting deeper levels of understanding based on discussion and a free exchange of ideas (De Lisi, 2002).

In an experiment conducted by Heller, Keith and Anderson (1992) to investigate the effects of cooperative group learning on the problem solving performance of college students in an introductory physics course, it was found that better problem solutions emerged through collaboration than were achieved by individuals working alone. In well-functioning cooperative groups, students can share conceptual and procedural knowledge and argument roles, and request clarification, justification, and elaboration from one another, so a better solution emerges than could be achieved by individuals working alone (Heller et al., 1992).

Relationship between cooperative learning and students' motivation to learn

Among the studies that explore student motivation to learn as a result of cooperative-learning environments was that done by Nichols and Miller (1994) on high school students studying algebra. Their results indicated that CL treatment produced motivational effects. Wang, Haertel and Walberg (1993) also found a strong correlation between motivation to learn and student achievement. Peterson and Miller (2004) compared the experiences of college students during CL and large-group instruction and found that the most consistent results of this study related to student motivation, all aspects of which were more positive during cooperative learning. They found that during CL, students were more engaged. Some of the CL strategies such as Slavin's methods (TGT and STAD) include a unique scoring system that provides students with maximum opportunity to improve their achievement scores by comparing their present level of achievement to their own previous level, without reference to the scores of other students in the class. This individualised reward system enhances motivation (Sharan, 2002).

While there is a growing consensus among researchers about the positive effects of cooperative learning on student achievement as well as a rapidly growing number of educators using CL at all levels of schooling and in many subject areas, there is still a great deal of confusion and disagreement about why cooperative learning methods affect achievement and, even more importantly, under what conditions CL has these effects. Researchers investigating CL effects on achievement have often operated in isolation from one another, almost on parallel tracks, and some describe theoretical mechanisms to explain achievement effects of CL that are totally different from the mechanisms assumed by others (Slavin, 1996). There is still much to be discovered such as, which kinds of students, which techniques, and in which subjects do CL techniques have positive effects.


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