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What are cooperative and collaborative learning?
How do cooperative and collaborative learning differ from the traditional approach?
How have cooperative and collaborative learning developed since they became popular?
What are the benefits of cooperative and collaborative learning?
What are some critical perspectives?
How can I use cooperative and collaborative learning in conjunction with other
educational techniques?

What are some critical perspectives?

Critics of small-group learning often point to problems related to vague objectives and poor expectations for accountability. Small-group work, some claim, is an avoidance of teaching. According to these critics, dividing the class into small groups allows the teacher to escape responsibility.

Vicki Randall (1999), who has taught elementary, high-school, and college-level students, cautions against abuse and overuse of group work. According to Randall, the many benefits of cooperative learning sometimes blind us to its drawbacks. She identifies the following practices as common weaknesses:


  • Making members of the group responsible for each other's learning. This can place too great a burden on some students. In mixed-ability groups, the result is often that stronger students are left to teach weaker students and do most of the work.

  • Encouraging only lower-level thinking and ignoring the strategies necessary for the inclusion of critical or higher-level thought. In small groups, there is sometimes only enough time to focus on the task at its most basic level.

You can find information about this and other critical works we cite on our Resources page.

Some critics cite the mix of students as a source of potential difficulties, although they disagree on which types of groups are problematic. Other dissenters highlight the overuse of cooperative groups to the detriment of students who benefit more from learning alone. Yet others recommend that we negotiate more with students to determine how they learn best and apply these ideas to the way we structure classes.

Recommendations from advocates of cooperative learning to address issues that critics raise include:

1.. making sure to identify clear questions at the outset and to show how these questions relate to students' interests and abilities and the teaching goals;

2.. resolving small-group conflicts as soon as they arise and showing students how to prevent trouble in future;

3.. creating rubrics 1 at the beginning of any assignment and using these for guiding the learning process and for assessing final work;

4.. helping students reflect on their progress on a regular basis;

5.. expecting excellence from all students and letting them know that you believe in them and their ability to produce excellent work.


Another possible problem with cooperative learning involves racial and gender inequities. Research (Cohen 1986; Sadker et al. 1991; Linn and Burbules 1993) shows that in science, and perhaps in other areas of the curriculum as well, group learning may be LESS equitable for girls than autonomous learning. Group learning may reinforce stereotypes, biases, and views of science and math as a male domain. Male students may discredit females, and the classroom may become a microcosm of the "old boy" network that has frequently discouraged women and minorities from participating in certain curricular activities. Specifically, according to Sadker et al. (1991):

The different and contradictory findings of the relatively few studies analyzing cross-gender performance in cooperative learning organizations suggest that, by itself, the implementation of cooperative learning groups does not necessarily lead to a more equitable and effective learning environment for females and minorities.

Group formations that avoid diversity -- e.g., all female or all racial-minorities -- may be useful in these situations, but these groups also have drawbacks of their own.


Workshop: Cooperative and Collaborative Learning
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