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. 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:
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.


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.


  • Competitive Reward Structure
  • Cooperative Graffiti
  • Cooperative Reward Structure
  • Focused Listing
  • Forced Debate
  • Individualistic Reward Structure
  • Jigsaw
  • PIGS
  • Round Robin
  • Snowball

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Cooperative Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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