Tracing the Origins: The Slippery Slope of Cooperative Learning

“Tracing the Origins” is a multi-part series. Each post explores how an initially promising finding in education research became distorted and misinterpreted in its widespread implementation. Part 1 examined the origin of “reading comprehension strategies.” 

A week or so ago, there was one sentence that stopped me cold while reading. It was Robert Slavin (1996) proclaiming “research on cooperative learning is one of the greatest success stories in the history of educational research.”

This bold assertion was backed up by in Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment (2011). He wrote “activating students as learning resources for one another produces tangible and substantial increases in students’ learning.”

Huh? I thought cooperative learning, or “group work,” was unproven – a fad synonymous with various varieties of minimally-guided instruction. I’ve taken my fair share of shots at “group work” in the past, and was experiencing serious cognitive dissonance.

And so began my journey to discover how original research on cooperative learning came to be misinterpreted. How did specific conditions for working in pairs or groups devolve into students socializing while making posters? How did students acting as “learning resources for one another” become students being hastily put in groups to “discover things?” 

Research-Informed Cooperative Learning

In the 1990s, professor and researcher Robert Slavin conducted a wide review of research on cooperative learning, seeking to isolate what specific elements and conditions accounted for its effectiveness.

“While there is a growing consensus among researchers about the positive effects of cooperative learning on student achievement…there is still a great deal of confusion and disagreement about why cooperative learning methods affect achievement and, even more importantly, under what conditions cooperative learning has these effects.” – Robert Slavin, “Research on Cooperative Learning and Achievement

Slavin (1996) organized his review of existing research using the two primary perspectives in cooperative learning research – incentive structure and task structure. 

1. Incentive structure of cooperative work. Within the incentive structure perspective, researchers sought to understand the importance of motivation in collaborative learning. For example, the use of group rewards tied to individual performance (e.g. a team score based on the individual scores of each group member) would be theorized to encourage peer-to-peer tutoring within groups.

According to Slavin (1996) “while groupmates may readily interact with each other and help each other, without appropriate structuring this interaction and help may take the form of sharing answers or doing each other’s work rather than making certain that group mates can independently solve problems or know the material. ” Basically, an incentive structure proactively discourages social loafing by introducing a clear motivation for interacting along with a form of individual accountability.

2. Task structure of cooperative work. Task structure researchers wanted to know if cooperative activities and mental processes (discussion, argument, clarification) involved during student interactions were responsible for increases in achievement. 

Task structure researchers were grounded in developmental perspective theorists Piaget and Vygotsky, who held that social-arbitrary knowledge (language, values, rules etc.) are best learned through social interactions, and that learner interactions should be mediated by a “Zone of Proximal Development.” 

And so, which perspective – incentive or task structure – was consistently found to be most associated with achievement in Slavin’s (1996) review of research? What Slavin discovered was that the incentive structure of group rewards tied to individual performance was found to have the greatest effect on student achievement.

“Reviewers of the cooperative learning literature have long concluded that cooperative learning has its greatest effects on student learning when groups are recognized or rewarded based on individual learning of their members.

However, Slavin (1996) found that task structure and cooperative activities to encourage debate and interaction did not have much effect on achievement .

“Despite considerable support from theoretical and laboratory research, there is little evidence from classroom experiments done over meaningful time periods that ‘pure’ cooperative methods, which depend solely on interaction to produce higher achievement, will do so.”

Wiliam (2011) put it even more succinctly: “just focusing on social cohesion, without attending to other factors, appears to have little effect on student learning.” In summary, here are two things we can definitively say regarding effective cooperative group work.

  1. There must be group goals with individual accountability (e.g. group rewards based on the sum of individual learning performances)
  2. Help from peers must take the form of elaborated explanations. Merely receiving the answer (ahem, Jigsaws) from another student actually can produce a drop in achievement, according to Slavin (1996).

The Importance of Structure

Having outlined the development and intricacies of cooperative learning research, it is now important to recognize all the different ways this research has been misinterpreted and misconstrued in classrooms. According to Wiliam (2011), “what teachers describe as cooperative learning in their classrooms rarely has the features that would make it effective.”

Slavin (2010) differentiates between Structured Team Learning (STL) and Informal Group Learning. In STL, the focus is on what students are learning together, not on on what they are doing together as a team.SLT also incorporates the fundamental conditions for effectiveness: group goals tied to individual accountability. Again, the success of the pair/team must depend on the individual learning of each group member.

In contrast, Informal Group Learning is characterized by the common use of jigsaws or group investigations. Unfortunately, Slavin (2010) writes that “most use of cooperative learning is informal, and does not incorporate group goals and individual accountability that research has identified to be essential.”

Here are a few other ways cooperative learning has dangerously strayed from its original intent:

  • Cooperative learning has come to mean students discover concepts or pursue open-ended projects in groups with minimal teacher guidance. The research reviewed by Slavin (1996) did not include such methods, and he wrote “most research on cooperative learning has involved the use of these methods to help children master fairly well-defined skills or information.”
  • Cooperative learning has been cleverly wielded by ideology-driven teacher training programs to create a false dichotomy demonizing “teacher talk” and pressuring teachers into creating more “student-centered” classrooms at the expense of explicit teaching and guided practice.
  • Cooperative learning became more about removing explicit teacher guidance, and less and less about peer-assessment and elaboration. Wiliam (2011) reminds us that with cooperative learning, “many of these techniques focus specifically on peer assessment, which, provided it is geared toward improvement rather than evaluation, can be especially powerful – students tend to be much more direct with each other than any teacher would dare to be.”

How Will I Use Cooperative Learning?

Having outlined the research and conditions necessary for effectiveness, I think it’s vitally important to be extremely cautious and implement cooperative learning with great care.

And so, here are a few simple, research-informed examples of cooperative learning I plan to use. Note that I will use these as a supplement to a foundation of explicitly taught lessons. Each example also has group goals tied to individual accountability, and utilizes students as learning resources.

  1. Retrieval Practice. Students quiz each other in pairs or small groups with flash cards or a set of self-generated questions. After a set amount of time, students individually take a short quiz on the material and team members’ scores are averaged.
  2. Reciprocal Teaching. In deliberately-chosen pairs, students work together to formulate questions and/or summarize narrative or expository texts to increase comprehension. Afterwards, students take a short quiz and are rewarded based on the learning of both group members. More research on RT can be found here.
  3. What did we learn today? Like a group exit slip – five minutes before the end of a class, have students form pairs/groups to write a list of 3-5 things learned in the lesson. Then, randomly call on five students to share a reflection.

Put Simply

  1. Cooperative learning is shown to be effective so long as group goals tied to individual accountability are built in.
  2. Cooperative learning was designed to emphasize peer assessment, peer-tutoring, and elaboration (not just sharing answers or creating group products like posters and presentations which allow for social loafing). Cooperative learning is not discovery.
  3. While a promising instructional strategy, cooperative learning was never meant to replace or supplant the strong research behind teacher-led explicit teaching. Cooperative learning is a useful supplement that can be effective in the right conditions.


Slavin, R. E. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary educational psychology21(1), 43-69.  LINK

Slavin, R. E. (2010). Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work. The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice, 161-178. LINK

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press.





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