How does a teacher prepare the class for working in groups. Recommendations for what a teacher can do to improve the chances that group work will be successful (Johnson et al., 1984) include:
  • Pre-teach group skills
  • Assign roles
  • Make the task clear and interesting
  • Give students a say in what the task entails
  • Resist over-intervention
  • Allow the group enough time to work through the group formation stages (see below)
While cooperation works best in an established positive classroom climate, cooperative learning can be phased in while the process of classroom climate improvement and inclusion of isolated children is under way. The teacher's tasks in teaching cooperative learning are:

1. Forming the Groups
Heterogeneous grouping can be as simple as random grouping by having students count off (Glasser, 1986) or so complex that extensive experience with statistics might be necessary (Jennings, 1959). Very different groupings will emerge from the different methods that can be used. These differences make it possible to tailor the grouping strategy to the purpose of grouping.

An ideal heterogeneous group in a classroom might contain a gifted student and a less skilled one, boys and girls, an ethnic mix, etc. In the typical classroom, however, it is not always possible for every group to contain representatives of each subgroup -- particularly if the size of the groups is to be small (2 or 3) or if a class is heavy in one category (boys, for example, or Hispanics, or high-ability students). Still, the spirit of heterogeneity can be maintained if an unavoidably homogeneous group in one subgroup is heterogeneous in a more criteria that the teacher is targeting for improvement.

Stratifying by Ability or Skill - In cooperative learning, it is most common to group students so that a wide range of ability is represented in each group. In a group of four this might take the form of one high-ability student, two of medium-ability and one low-ability. Since students' abilities often vary from subject to subject, teachers should classify (or reclassify) student abilities by the subject on which the group will be working. Students can also be categorized by a certain skill, teamwork skills being a common example and students who have high, medium and low levels of that skill can then be spread among the groups in the same way.

Modified stratification - In a variation of the skill or ability stratification described above, Campbell (1979) recommends a system for grouping students in groups of six so that: 1) no student is with only high or low students, 2) each group has a narrower range of ability than the entire group, 3) each group has some leadership in it (tutoring potential) and, 4) labeling of students is minimized. Campbell would have the teacher rank the students in a criteria he or she chooses. A hypothetical class of 30 would be assigned groups on the following basis (1 being the highest ranked student, and 30 being the lowest):
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Group 5
1 & 2
3 & 4
5 & 6
7 & 8
9 & 10
11 & 12
13 & 14
15 & 16
17 & 18
19 & 20
21 & 22
23 & 24
25 & 26
27 & 28
29 & 30

Flexible Ability Grouping - In this form of grouping students change groups at teacher direction or on their own according to whether the work being done by that group is appropriate for their levels and needs (Schmuck et al, 1966).

Interest Grouping - A common-sense approach to grouping that is appropriate for some kinds of work is grouping according to common Iinterests or topic choices. Given a set of topic options that equal the number of groups desired, allowing students to sign up for topics of interest to them often results in a good mix of abilities, races, and, sometimes, genders. "Common interest often is the best method of grouping when classroom projects are carried out" (Schmuck et al, 1966).

Sociometric Grouping - Grouping students sociometrically involves using student preferences as the major criteria in deciding groupings. Sociometric data are used primarily to get a snapshot of the social structure of the class at the moment the data is collected. This can help the teacher identify and act on problems such as children who are neglected or disliked, cliques, and cleavages. some teachers are inclined to use the results of a sociometric instrument to separate friends in order to keep socialization to a minimum. This is a misuse of sociometric tests (Northway, 1952). One "rule" of sociometrics is that student preferences of classmates with whom they would like to work be honored as much as possible. Groups in which students are placed with at least one preferred classmate are usually more cohesive and productive than those in which preferences are thwarted (Schmuck and Schmuck, 1983). The method most commonly used is to honor the choices of underchosen students first (Jennings, 1959). Sociometric grouping is the centerpiece of the Grouper computer assisted grouping program. <More on sociometric grouping>

2. Planning Cooperative Activities - see <Tasks>

3. Teaching Getting-Along Skills - see <Skills>

4. Assigning and Teaching Team Roles
Roles in learning teams should be taught to the class as a whole. Role playing and discussion of scenarios set up by the teacher are valuable tools in learning how to perform certain roles. For example, a teacher might set up a role-play situation where a group has a reader, a recorder, an encourager and an observer. Discussion would center on what one might hear from the student in each role and when it should be heard. Among the many possible roles to assign are those below:
  • Reinforcer - makes everyone feel valued.
  • Checker - makes certain everyone understands and can explain.
  • Recorder - writes group decisions neatly and accurately.
  • Reader - reads so everyone understands and remembers.
  • Observer - uses a checklist to record how the group is doing on a targeted social skill.
  • Runner - gathers materials and communicates with other groups and the teacher.

Often roles can be assigned to get the best out of certain students or to give them practice in a skill on which they are working. For example, dominating students can be given roles that require listening like observer (Schniedewind and Salend, 1987). Roles appropriate for gifted kids might include: recorder, summarizer, checker, or prober while less able students might fill roles like reader, materials handler, noise monitor, energizer, encourager, praiser, or observer. A student who is reluctant to join a group might be given a peripheral role like observer or a well-defined one like reader. At least in the beginning, and possibly all year, the teacher should assign the roles. Groups can break down before they begin if they start out bickering over who will fill what role. In addition, when given the opportunity to self-select, students often choose roles that they are they always fill or that they are ill-equipped to handle.

5. Differentiating Tasks for Individual Differences
While placing students with particular needs in roles that best meet those needs is one good approach, the work done by each of the students in the group can be differentiated. Often the two go hand-in-hand (i.e., one role assigned to each group will be designed to provide enrichment to an advanced student while another is designed to assure the success of a mainstreamed student). Jigsaw is a cooperative structure well suited to this kind of differentiation (Kagan, 1989). In jigsaw each student is responsible for becoming an expert on one part to the material under study. They then teach the material to their teammates. Tailoring parts of the jigsaw to individual abilities entails assigning short simple parts to less-able students and more challenging material to able-learners (Schniedewind and Salend, 1987). In jigsaw assignments, mainstreamed children also can get help in learning their part of the task from an "expert group" formed of the one member of each group who is learning the same content. Slavin's (1987) Team Assisted Individualization provides a model in which the partner's "expertise" comes from the fact he or she has the answer sheet. Differentiated math, spelling and independent reading assignments are also practical within groups. Assignments can be structured so that some students are expected to do only the "basic lesson" while others are required to include enrichment work. Or groups can work together on "customized" spelling lists or math worksheets. Individual goals might mean different content for each member or differentiated goals (like a 10-point improvement over his or her previous test score) rather than a particular score. When the students in the group are working on different assignments, the cooperative part of the task is for teammates to act as checkers and editors. A good product by one member is an accomplishment for the whole group and teams can be rewarded for each individual's attainment of their goal. Peer tutoring is also a possiblity. Although there should be concern when using peer tutoring that most often the learning that takes place will be from the able student to the less-able, it is possible to teach students to interact so that the "controller of the action" will shift. Sometimes the less-able student is probing for clarity, sometimes being "taught". `

6. Setting the task
Once the prerequisite skills have been taught and the lesson has been planned, the students need to have a very clear idea of what is expected of them. This "setting the task" usually involves the (following steps in a cooperative lesson:
  1. Instruction on the content.
  2. Role assignments - often by position at the table.
  3. Explain the process - what will happen step-by-step and (what each role will do within each step.
  4. Tell what social skills are required and what the teacher expects to see or hear.
  5. Tell the students exactly what they should have in hand at the conclusion at the activity - "In order to be successful, each group will . . ."
  6. Answer questions.
  7. Have one student restate the process, another the social skills, another the product.
  8. Give a time limit and set a timer.
  9. When teams start working, circulate and record /observations on how social goals are being met.
  10. Whole-group discussion of the academic task - correcting of the product.
  11. Self-evaluation of social skills - "Use a 1-to-10 rating, name a way you met one, name something you could improve."
  12. Collect products (with self-evaluation written on the back).

7. Monitoring cooperative groups
  • As the teacher circulates from group to group she should model (the roles of group work), encouraging students to keep using them, praising team members who are performing their assigned role well and explaining to those doing poorly how they might do better. At first, it may seem cumbersome to insist that students follow these assigned roles, but keep in mind that in the traditional class students do not get this kind of frequent encouragement and attention. The fact that they frequently get this support when they work in learning-teams because it is an integral component of the model is highly motivating. Once they get used to these essential roles, which they rotate from assignment to assignment, they thrive on them. Glasser, 1986

Monitoring is crucial. Students who are having difficulties sticking to their assigned roles need individual instruction. Students who lack the necessary cooperative skills should receive suggestions for more effective ways to work together. Without instruction and/or teacher intervention, dominant students will continue to dominate any group they are part of and passive students will continue to allow others to do the work for them. Higher ability students will tend to try to control the group or work alone (Good et al., 1989). Carol Black, a cooperative learning instructor in the University of Oregon Summer Program on Teaching Skills, gave this advice: intervene in social interaction problems but not content problems -- let them work it out. Black also listed the following as teacher behaviors more common to the cooperative classroom that the traditional one: regular monitoring, encouraging, modeling, listening, letting go of some control, multi-directional awareness, strategic intervening, timing, humor, coaching, directing practice of roles and skills, summarizing, and eye on the ball. In short, monitoring cooperative groups is much like the entertainer trying to keep plates spinning atop sticks: as soon as one plate is spinning well, another needs a boost. Record-keeping can help teachers zero in on skills that need more work than others. Good records can also tell teachers whether instruction in a skill is required by the group in general or by individuals or small pockets of students. A clipboard on which teachers tally the target behavior (positive or negative) for each student as they circulate is a proven method of keeping records (Knight et al, 1982). Whole-group role playing ("What does it sound like?" "What does it look like?") is also good for dealing with problems in the group (domination, repetition of same points, off-task behavior, tangents, deadlock, bogging down in details, ideas discarded without "a hearing, non-participants, etc.) It is also important to monitor the big picture. Learning groups are often exclusively task-oriented and ignore the importance of maintaining effective working relationships among members. Group sessions should be enjoyable, lively, and pleasant. Teachers should occasionally take a step back and check the atmosphere of the classroom. If the students aren't having fun - productive fun, something is wrong. Problems should be brought up and solved, and there should be a continuing emphasis on improving the effectiveness of the group members in collaborating with each other (Johnson et al, 1984).

Often special students will be reluctant to join groups. Some possible ways of dealing with these students (from Carol Black's class) include:
  1. Assign them the role of observer with checklist.
  2. Assign them the role of reader.
  3. Place them with a sociometric choice.
  4. Place them with a group, but allow non-participation.
  5. Plan an activity to be one of interest to the student.
  6. Make the task too fun to miss.
  7. Provide an extrinsic reward.
  8. Don't back them into a corner. Leave a face-saving way out.
  9. Place them with the most supportive classmates.
  10. Give them only one small task.

8. Debriefing
When the task is done, it is difficult to find time to do this one final step but it is absolutely crucial to the continued success of a cooperative learning program. Debriefing is the time when product-oriented students get a chance to take a look at the cooperative process and how they are doing on using cooperative skills. If teachers let this step slide, product orientation will return and cooperation will wither as dominant individuals "take over" the task. Debriefing sessions are given focus with questions such as "How well did you listen to the contributions of each member?" "Did you find a way for everyone to contribute?" "How could you get a 'wallflower' involved?" "What were some of your problems?" "Can anyone help them out?"

Debriefing sessions can also include:
  • Classroom meetings to brainstorm solutions to problems :encountered in one or more of the groups (Joyce and Weil, 1986).
  • Praise a group that has solved or is working toward solving a problem. Have them explain how they approached the problem.
  • Ask each group to self-evaluate on a scale of 1-to-10 its attainment of a targeted social goal. Group discussion can :then elicit suggestions for improvements on the next task that targets that skill. These can be recorded and brought up for the next assignment.

Cooperative learning has the potential to address needs of children who may be involved in pull-out programs for the gifted, learning disabled, or handicapped but are placed in a heterogeneously grouped classroom for some of the school day. It is an opportunity to bring them into the structure of the class; to their benefit and to the class, too. Circles of Learning (Johnson et al,1984) has more information on the principles of cooperative learning themselves.

  • The behaviors children exhibit during the first attempts at cooperative, independent group work . . . are likely to be noisy, aggressive and random. (But) do we believe, really believe, that cooperative group work involving higher-order thinking tasks is an important learning goal? This we must believe to the depth of our soul. For if we believe this enough, prize these skills enough, want them enough, value them enough, we will inevitably go through the fires of hell to bring them about. Wassermann, 1989

While cooperative learning may have faded in popularity with NCLB, there is much to say for it in today's diverse classrooms. Every teacher will not use cooperative groups and cooperative learning should not be used all the time in any classroom. Individual and competitive learning are more appropriate for some content, for some class moods or even just for the sake of variety. And even when cooperative learning is used, the lessons, the roles and the skills should be varied. While routine is important when getting comfortable with cooperative processes, cooperative lessons should not be allowed to become so routine they become uninspiring. If cooperative learning is to make a positive difference in education, it must be used wisely. Otherwise, cooperative learning promises minimal benefits barely worth the time and effort. But the research cited above (and common sense) clearly indicate that with planning, training, commitment and support, cooperative learning works.