Cooperative learning can be a powerful tool for energizing a classroom, motivating students, and raising achievement. However, it’s not always easy to get kids to work together effectively. After a particularly chaotic lesson, you might even get so frustrated that you’re tempted to give up completely and assign seat work for the rest of the year!
If you feel this way, don’t give up just yet! I’m grateful for the extensive cooperative learning training I received from Kagan, but I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t easy at first. I finally realized that there are a lot of moving parts that must function together in a cooperative learning classroom or the whole system will break down. Luckily, if you can figure out where the system is broken, you can implement strategies to fix what’s not working.
5 Questions to Ask When Cooperative Learning Isn’t Working
Think back to your last cooperative learning lesson, and ask yourself the five questions below. If you respond “yes” to any of them, read my suggestions and try the strategies that you think will work best with your class.
1. Are your students rude or impatient with each other?
When students don’t treat each other with respect, it could be a sign that they don’t feel personally connected to their classmates. In other words, they haven’t learned to care about each other as people. This situation is easily prevented if you take steps at the beginning of the school year to create a caring classroom environment. Doing a few team-building activities during the first week of school help kids warm up to each other and yields big dividends later.
If you didn’t start the year this way, don’t worry. These strategies are effective any time of the year! Start right with something as simple as the Buddy Venn Diagram activity, one of the teambuilding activities in my Back to School Super Start Pack. Assign partners in advance by secretly pairing students who don’t get along very well. Write both of their names on one Venn diagram, hand out the graphic organizers, and ask partners to sit together. Then ask students to take turns stating facts and details about themselves and writing them in the appropriate place on the Venn diagram. It always amazes me how quickly students fill up the middle of the Venn Diagram with details that are the same about both of them! Even students who previously thought they had nothing in common are surprised to see that they do!
2. Do your students lack the social skills needed to work together?
Believe it or not, it’s possible for students to like each other yet lack the social skills needed for successful teamwork. Working together involves taking turns, listening to each other, giving suggestions politely, and a host of other social skills.
If your students lack these skills, stick to partner activities for now because working with one person is much easier than working with a team. Keep activity directions simple and very structured, such as requiring students to take turns or assigning them clearly defined roles.
Those tips will help with classroom management, but they don’t address the heart of the problem, which is that your students don’t have the skills needed to work together. To tackle this issue, start teaching weekly social skill lessons, beginning with the social skill that your students need the most.
Create a T-chart like the “Working Together Skills” chart shown here. Write the social skill focus at the top (in this case “Encouraging Others”) and write “Looks Like” and “Sounds Like” for the column headers. Work with your students to brainstorm what it looks like and sounds like when you encourage others, and record their responses on the chart. (See the example on the right from Back to School Super Start).
Next, immediately assign a cooperative learning activity like Showdown, pictured below, that will provide an opportunity to practice the social skill focus. During Showdown, each student has a dry erase board and marker, and they solve every problem independently before showing and discussing answers with their team. As students are working, walk around the room observing student interactions and making positive comments when you see evidence of the social skill in action. You can find the complete directions for Showdown in my blog post, Show What You Know.
3. Do your students have trouble following directions during cooperative learning lessons?
If your students aren’t following directions, it might be that they aren’t hearing them. Cooperative learning lessons are often a bit noisier than other activities, so you need a “quiet signal” to get their attention quickly. It might be a clapping pattern, a few taps on a set of chimes, a call-and-response signal, or another method described on the Quiet Signals page on my site. Teach your students to respond to this signal in 3 to 5 seconds, and always wait until everyone stops talking before giving instructions. If they won’t stop talking, switch gears and assign seatwork for the rest of the lesson. Then try again the next day.
If this isn’t the problem, it might be that you’re giving too many instructions at once. Break the steps down into bite-sized pieces, and have a few students or a team model exactly what to do as you walk them through the directions. It’s also helpful to write the directions on the board, a chart, or an interactive whiteboard.
4. Are some students doing most of the work while others do very little?
Sometimes cooperative learning falls apart because students don’t participate equally. Students who are more assertive and confident might be in the habit of telling their teammates what to do, or they might just do the work themselves. Others sit back passively, never participating in discussions, just waiting for others to tell them what to do. When this happens, analyze the structure of the activity and be sure your directions require equal participation.
Another way to equalize participation is to assign roles or have students take turns. Sometimes it’s necessary to divide teams of four into two sets of partners for an activity to be sure everyone is highly engaged.
One of the best ways to encourage individual accountability is to use highly structured cooperative learning activities like Showdown or Recharge and Write. Recharge and Write is an excellent strategy for scaffolding written response in almost any subject area. The picture on the right shows Recharge and Write About Poetry, a lesson from Exploring Poetry: Tools for Teaching Kids to Read and Understand Poetry.
To introduce Recharge and Write, place a tall cup or a can in the middle of each team, and ask all team members to place their pencils into the container. Tell them that it’s the team’s “recharger,” and that they may only talk while their pencils are being “recharged.” Give each student a copy of the same printable, preferably one that has three to four thought-provoking questions. The first leader reads the first question aloud, and everyone discusses the answer. When everyone is ready, they take their pencils out of the recharger and write their own responses without talking. When they finish with that question only, they put their pencils back in the cup. The role of leader rotes to the left, and the steps of the activity are repeated.
5. Are some or all students failing to make expected academic progress?
If you’ve been using cooperative learning activities on a daily basis and your students are not making academic gains, it’s time to take a close look at what’s really going on.
When I first started using cooperative learning, I was so excited about using the strategies that I didn’t assign enough independent practice. I discovered my error during the first quarter benchmark test, when my students performed poorly. I realized that they had spent so much time working together that they didn’t know how to work alone!
I began using more strategies like Showdown and Recharge & Write that required students to participate actively. No more sitting back and letting others do the thinking and writing. I also started ending each lesson with a quick quiz, an exit ticket assignment, a journal response, or some of type of independent work or homework.
If your low-performing students are making progress but your gifted students are not, ask yourself if ALL of your students are being challenged in every lesson. Sometimes the brightest students end up being tutors for kids who struggle, a practice that will squelch the academic growth of your most advanced students. Heterogeneous teams are often recommended in elementary school, but sometimes you may need to regroup students for a specific lesson so you can differentiate the content. For example, when using Showdown in math, you could temporarily regroup students according to their academic needs and give each team a different set of task cards.
Cooperative Learning SOS Wrap Up
As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of cooperative learning! After being trained by Kagan and mastering a few basic techniques, I developed a passion for teaching that never burned out. Honestly, I can’t imagine teaching any other way! I’ve written five cooperative learning books for Kagan as well as dozens of digital resources with active engagement strategies for my TpT store. I love including step-by-step directions and classroom management strategies because I want others to experience the same success I did in my classroom.
I’ve mentioned my Back to School Super Start Pack several times because it’s a “go to” collection of detailed information, strategies, and printables about how to create a caring classroom community of students who enjoy learning together. You don’t have to wait until the next school year to implement these strategies, either!
Remember that most kids need a lot of support when first learning how to work with others. A teacher once told me he would use cooperative learning more if his kids were better at working together. My response? “Isn’t that like saying you would spend more time teaching math if your students were better at it? How are kids going to learn to work together if we don’t teach them?”
Maybe you’ve tried cooperative learning in your classroom and you’ve been frustrated when the lesson didn’t go as planned. It’s so tempting to just give up and assign seatwork for the rest of the year! But before you do, ask yourself the five questions above to identify where the system is broken and what needs to be fixed. The solution might be a simple as teaching a few social skill lessons, learning to give directions in bite-sized chunks, or taking 10 minutes once a week to do a team-building activity.
The payoff? When cooperative learning starts working in your classroom like a well-oiled machine, teaching will become a joy for both you AND your students!
Laura Candler was an upper elementary classroom teacher in Fayetteville, NC for 30 years, and was among the first teachers in her state to receive National Board Certification. Before Laura retired, she was honored by being named a Milken Educator. Laura is the author of nine print books, including five cooperative learning books published by Kagan. In addition, she’s created over 100 digital resources for teachers that are available in her TpT store. Laura started her online file cabinet of resources for teachers at LauraCandler.com almost 20 years ago, and she’s currently an active blogger at CorkboardConnections.com. Her Teaching Resources Facebook page has over 650,000 followers, and she’d love for you to connect with her there!