Cooperative Learning


Enhanced individual learning through cooperative engagement

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … material (to be learned)
  • Knowing is … evolving understandings of material
  • Learner is … a participant (individual in group)
  • Learning is … co-analyzing and retaining
  • Teaching is … guiding and facilitating




Cooperative Learning occurs when groups work collectively to achieve a common academic goal. The group benefits from the skills and experiences of the members. Success is reliant on the success of the group rather than the individual. Both the group and the individuals in the group are accountable. It requires face-to-face interaction, individual interdependence, and group processing – and thus there is typically a strong emphasis on developing soft skills within Cooperative Learning. Original theoretical influences on Cooperative Learning include:
  • Interdependence Theory (Social Interdependence Theory) (Harold Kelley, John Thibaut, 1950s) – a perspective on interpersonal relationships that expresses such relationships as a function of four factors: Structure (the situation), Transformation (participants’ actions), Interaction (participants’ characters), Adaptation (social conditions, including prior experience and social norms)
  • Structure–Process–Outcome Theory (Donabedian Model) (Avedis Donabedian, 1960s) – a model comprising three sequentially linked elements: Structure (readily observed and manipulated contextual factors), Process (technical actions and interpersonal connections that are made available in the system), Outcome (the range of actual and possible effects on participants). The theory was originally developed for evaluation of care-providing systems, but was adapted and utilized by some early authors of Cooperative Learning.
Other theoretical influences include:
  • (Theory of) Competition and Cooperation (Mark May, Leonard Doob, 1930s) – the proposition that patterns of competitive and cooperative behavior emerge as individuals attempt to close the gap between their levels of achievement and their levels of aspiration. Such patterns are regarded as functions of culture, and most institutions (including public schooling) are seen to promote competition over cooperation.
    • Commitment Theories of Cooperation – an umbrella category that reaches across any theory that attributes cooperative behavior principally to formal arrangements between participants – such as legal agreements, historical alignments, and/or personal relationships
    • Structural Theories of Cooperation – an umbrella category that reaches across any theory that attributes cooperative behavior principally to features of the situation – such as actors engaged in the same activities, holding compatible aims, and/or working with similar time frames
A distinguishing aspect of this discourse is the focused advice offered by proponents on strategies and structures to support engagements. Commonly discussed aspects of Cooperative Learning include:
  • Competitive Reward Structure – in a Cooperative Learning setting, assigning group rewards on the basis of individual achievement rather than group performance
  • Cooperative Reward Structure – in a Cooperative Learning setting, assigning group rewards on the basis of group performance rather than individual achievement, which is argued to foster trust, communication, and achievement
  • Individualistic Reward Structure – in a Cooperative Learning setting, assigning individual rewards for individual achievement, independent of group performance
  • PIGS (Roger Johnson & David Johnson, 1990s) – an acronym and mnemonic for the key aspects of Cooperative Learning, standing for Positive interdependence, Individual accountability, Group interaction, and Social skills.
There are dozens of tactics associated with Cooperative Learning, so the following subdiscourses are presented as indicative, not exhaustive:
  • Pair-Based Strategies
    • Active Knowledge Sharing (Mel Silberman, 1990s) – At the start of a new topic, students are paired to discuss a question in order to pool what is already known.
    • Guided Peer Questioning (Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning) (Alison King, 1990s) ­– Pairs of students are provided a structure designed to encourage engagement with higher-level questions on the topic of study.
    • Pair Thinking Aloud Problem Solving (Elizabeth Barkley, Patricia Cross, 2000s) – Pairs are given several problems. For each, one member becomes the “solver,” and thinks out loud while solving it. The other serves as the “listener” – asking clarifying questions, inserting suggestions, and identifying errors. Roles are reversed after each problem.
    • Scripted Cooperation (Angela O’Donnell, 1990s) – A sequence that moves through (1) paired interaction in which one student is synthesizer and one is listener, (2) opportunity for the synthesizer to report to the collective, and (3) opportunity for the listener to complement that report.
    • Think-Pair-Share (Frank Lyman, 1990s) – The teacher poses a question, then learners individually contemplate their own answers (Think), then learners discuss the question with a classmate (Pair), and finally class members report on those discussions to one another (Share).
  • Team-Based Structures and Strategies
    • Base Group (David Johnson, Roger Johnson, 1990s) – A cooperative group that remains together for an extended sequence of study (e.g., unit, semester, or school year)
    • Cooperative Graffiti – In this brainstorming activity, each group of participants is asked to record as many ideas as possible on a topic assigned by the teacher/facilitator, using colored paper and/or pens that are specific to the group. When time is called, groups post and organize one another’s contributions, followed by some manner of debriefing activity.
    • Cooperative Note-Taking Pairs (David Johnson, Roger Johnson, 1990s) – Following the teacher’s exposition/explanation, learners are provided time to critique/improve one another’s notes.
    • Numbered Heads Together (Spencer Kagan 1990s) – Before a task, each member of a team of four is assigned a number (from 1 to 4). Teams then engage in the activity, ensuring that all members understand, after which the student whose number is called by the teacher is asked to explain the team’s solution.
    • Send a Problem (Spencer Kagan, 1990s) – The group is split into teams, and each team is given a unique problem. They solve it and conceal their written solution in an envelope, before passing on the problem and the envelope to another team. When all teams have solved all problems, the entire class compares solution procedures.
    • Snowball – The teacher/facilitator posts chart paper around the room, each with a different prompt. Each predefined group is given a marker and assigned to address the prompt on one of the sheets. When the teacher/facilitator calls time on the round, each group rotates to the next sheet. That continues until all groups have engaged with all sheets, at which time some manner of debriefing activity is undertaken.
    • Structuring Academic Controversy (David Johnson, Roger Johnson, 1990s) – In teams of four, students pair off to argue opposing positions in a debate. After each pair argues both sides, the team regroups to select and extend the best arguments for both points of view.
    • Talking Chips (Spencer Kagan, 1990s) – An item is placed in the midst of a cooperative team, and it is not fully withdrawn until all members have participated and there has been opportunity to reflect on contributions.
    • Teammates Consult (Spencer Kagan 1990s) – Teams are provided a task that is first discussed (i.e., with pencils down and/or computers closed) and then completed individually (i.e., using pencils and/or computers).
    • Team-Pair-Solo (Joe Cuseo, 2000s) – Students experience progressive withdrawal of support by solving three similar problems – the first in teams of four, the second in pairs, and the third alone.
    • Three-Step Interview (Spencer Kagan, 1990s) – A sequence that moves through (1) two members interviewing one another, (2) then introducing one another in groups of four, and (3) finally synthesizing answers to a subset of interview questions.
  • Whole-Group Strategies
    • Focused Listing – This is a brainstorming strategy, aimed at generating descriptions and definitions of something. It begins with a whole-group effort to create an initial list, followed by small-group efforts to refine and/or extend, followed by either small-group or whole-group engagement to reach a consensus on those descriptors that will be carried forward.
    • Forced Debate – The teacher/facilitator introduces a proposition, structures groups according to participants’ agreement or disagreement, and then assigns groups to argue in favor of the side they oppose.
    • Jigsaw – The teacher/facilitator parses and distributing tasks associated with a topic in a manner that compels groups to rely on one another – metaphorically, by each being responsible for one piece of the puzzle
    • Round Robin – The teacher/facilitator presents a topic or category for discussion, and students in their groups take sequenced turns contributing to the discussion (e.g., by adding relevant information, or naming another item that fits in the identified category).


Techniques/methods for Cooperative Learning tend to be formulaic and prescriptive, as might be inferred from their names (e.g., “think–pair–share,” “jigsaw,” “round robin,” and “reciprocal teaching”). Virtually any learning theory can be pasted into the framework – that is, it is more a set of techniques for organizing learners than a theory on the complex dynamics of learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

David Johnson; Roger Johnson; Robert Slavin

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cooperative Learning is not a theory of learning. Indeed, almost any theory of learning can be pasted into most accounts of Cooperative Learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Most versions of Cooperative Learning are appropriately interpreted as theories of teaching. They generally offer practical advice on designing tasks and structuring groups.

Status as a Scientific Theory

There is evidence that structures and tactics associated with Cooperative Learning can impact academic achievement, student satisfaction, attendance, and thinking strategies. That evidence, however, is not extensive and it the results vary considerably across studies.


  • Active Knowledge Sharing
  • Base Group
  • Commitment Theories of Cooperation
  • (Theory of) Competition and Cooperation
  • Competitive Reward Structure
  • Cooperative Graffiti
  • Cooperative Note-Taking Pairs
  • Cooperative Reward Structure
  • Focused Listing
  • Forced Debate
  • Guided Peer Questioning (Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning)
  • Individualistic Reward Structure
  • Interdependence Theory  (Social Interdependence Theory)
  • Jigsaw
  • Numbered Heads Together
  • Pair Thinking Aloud Problem Solving
  • PIGS
  • Round Robin
  • Scripted Cooperation
  • Send a Problem
  • Snowball
  • Structural Theories of Cooperation
  • Structure–Process–Outcome Theory (Donabedian Model)
  • Structuring Academic Controversy
  • Talking Chips
  • Team-Pair-Solo
  • Teammates Consult
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Three-Step Interview

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Cooperative Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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