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College of Education and Human Development
104 Burton Hall
178 Pillsbury Dr. S.E
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Voice:  612-626-9252

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Cooperative learning

Brothers and fellow professors in the College of Education and Human Development, Roger and David W. Johnson are the nation’s leading researchers on cooperative learning. They head the Cooperative Learning Center which focuses on making classrooms and schools more cooperative places and on teaching cooperative skills—leadership, communication, decision making, trust building, and conflict resolution.

Photo of Roger and David W. Johnson
Professors David (left) and Roger Johnson
won the 2007 Brock International Prize in
Education
, which recognizes individuals
who have made a significant impact on the
practice or understanding of education.

The center plays host to a continuing stream of visitors—students, scholars, colleagues, educators—from all around the U.S. as well as countries such as Australia, Russia, Singapore, New Guinea, Ireland, and Lebanon. The Johnsons also travel extensively to offer training in cooperative learning theory and application—throughout the U.S. and Canada, Germany, England, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Turkey, Panama, Singapore, and Hungary, among others.

They work with school teachers and administrators, the U.S. Navy, colleges and universities, and the Disney Corp. They’re also working with schools in Eastern Europe to promote cooperative learning as a way to help prepare coming generations for democracy and free enterprise.

How cooperative learning works

After more than 20 years of research involving over 80 research studies and a series of extensive reviews of existing research on cooperation and learning (more than 800 dating back to the late 19th century), Roger and David Johnson have no doubts: cooperative learning works to the benefit of students, teachers, schools, and communities. “Human beings learn more, flourish, and connect more when they’re cooperating and less when they’re competing or working in an isolated fashion,” Roger Johnson says.

Cooperative learning situations designed correctly have five key components:

  • Positive interdependence (each individual depends on and is accountable to the others—a built-in incentive to help, accept help, and root for others)
  • Individual accountability (each person in the group learns the material)
  • Promotive interaction (group members help one another, share information, offer clarifying explanations)
  • Social skills (leadership, communication)
  • Group processing (assessing how effectively they are working with one another)

What the research shows

Cooperative learning, the Johnsons discovered, has many positive outcomes. Their research shows that cooperative learning improves students’ efforts to achieve. They work harder, achievement levels go up, material is remembered longer, higher-level reasoning is used more, and it provides not just external motivation but also intrinsic motivation.

What interests the Johnsons even more is that cooperative learning methods also improve interpersonal relationships among those working together. Students working cooperatively tend to like each other better, including groups with both able-bodied students and students with disabilities, groups with students of different ethnic backgrounds, and groups with both genders.

Students in cooperative learning situations also show increased self-esteem, self-efficacy, and confidence in the future. They tend to have a higher regard for school, for the subject they are studying, and for their teachers.

“Each group should leave each individual stronger,” Roger Johnson says. “The ideal in cooperative learning is that they learn in a group and are able to perform it alone.”

What others say about cooperative learning

Ann Birdseye, director of human resources for Charleston County School District, Charleston, S.C., says her department has used cooperative learning training for more than 10 years. “Very simply, it works!” she says. “When teachers use cooperative learning strategies correctly, students learn more, enjoy it more and develop interpersonal and study skills that they will use for a lifetime. When administrators use cooperative leadership strategies, the organization is more supportive, effective, positive and productive.

“Perhaps most importantly,” Birdseye says, “I have seen cooperative learning save careers. Potentially outstanding young teachers, frustrated by the inability to engage students in active learning and motivate them to higher levels of achievement, are so energized by the results they get when they implement cooperative learning that they stay with us and go on to produce amazing classroom results.”

Karl Smith, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Professor and director of undergraduate studies in civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, has worked extensively with the Johnson brothers and the Center for Cooperative Learning. He says: “David and Roger's work has had an enormous impact on me, personally, and on engineering education in general. They and their work have influenced hundreds of engineering faculty. The foundation coalition website (clte.asu.edu/active/main.htm) is an example of the influence of their work. The powerful combination of a strong theoretical and conceptual foundation and superb models for practice make the Johnson's cooperative learning approach a winner in engineering education.”

Peter Coleman, director of the Cooperative Learning and Conflict Resolution Center at Columbia University, N.Y., calls the research from the Johnsons “seminal, setting high standards for the field in research, curriculum development, and assessment. Their studies are rigorous. They have a model that allows them to develop the theory, apply it in practical ways in the field—in the classroom, then evaluate it for effectiveness, and feed that evaluation back into the theory for adjustments and further testing.”

Coleman says one of the things about the Johnsons’ work that most impresses him is “their commitment to trying their ideas out in the real world, using those experiences to feed the theory and help it grow.”

Why this research matters

Cooperative learning is proven to be an enormously effective method for learning. It allows and encourages students to explain what they are learning to each other, learn each other’s point of view, give and receive support from classmates, and help each other dig below the superficial level of understanding of the material they are learning. It also leads to greater acceptance of differences based on ability, ethnic background, and gender. It provides a structure for resolving conflict through negotiation and is being used to reduce school violence.

April 2002

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College of Education and Human Development
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