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Cooperative and Collaborative Learning - Theoretical Perspectives on Collaboration, Collaborative Learning in Dyads and Groups, Group and Individual Performance

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Cooperative and collaborative learning are instructional contexts in which peers work together on a learning task, with the goal of all participants benefiting from the interaction. Cooperation and collaboration can be treated as synonymous, as a truly cooperative context is always collaborative. Varied perspectives on collaboration and their implications for classroom instruction will be described here, and a number of cooperative techniques involving dyads or larger groups will be outlined, including the costs and benefits associated with them in terms of cognitive or affective outcomes. Finally, the relationship between group and individual performance will be addressed.

Theoretical Perspectives on Collaboration

In 1996, Robert Slavin described a variety of perspectives on peer learning, including social-psychological, sociocultural, cognitive-developmental, and cognitive-elaboration approaches. Explanations of how and what peers can learn from one another differ. Angela O'Donnell and James O'Kelly note that classroom decisions a teacher makes in relation to cooperative or collaborative learning depend on the theoretical approach adopted. Social-psychological approaches suggest that the interdependence among group members is the underlying mechanism for effective cooperation. Interdependence is created by using group rewards or by encouraging social cohesion and a norm of caring and helpfulness. From a cognitive-developmental perspective, effective peer learning occurs as a result of processes of cognitive conflict and resolution, or through the modeling of skilled behavior.

A sociocultural perspective would suggest that the joint knowledge of the group members is greater than the individual knowledge of any member and that the group operates as an interacting system. In contrast, a cognitive-elaboration approach suggests that collaboration enhances student learning by providing a context in which individual learning is promoted by the use of more effective learning processes. In other words, an individual learns better with a peer because the peer provides an audience, prompts more metacognition, or maintains an individual's focus on a task. In creating and using collaborative groups for instructional purposes, teachers' decisions about the size and composition of groups, the kinds of tasks on which students will work, whether or not they should use explicit rewards, and the particular stance to take in relation to the collaborative groups will be influenced by the theoretical perspective that the teachers adopt.

Collaborative Learning in Dyads and Groups

Dyads have many advantages as a functional unit for collaborative learning. The likelihood of participation by all students is increased when there are only two individuals involved. The larger the group, the more opportunity there is for diffusion of responsibility among group members or for exclusion of some members. Active participation in the collaborative process is essential for learning to occur.

Among the cooperative techniques that can by used by dyads are scripted cooperation, devised by Angela O'Donnell and Donald Dansereau; reciprocal peer tutoring, devised by John Fantuzzo and colleagues; and guided peer questioning, as outlined by Alison King. In scripted cooperation, partners work together to learn text material. The text is broken down into sections and both partners read the first section. One partner summarizes the material for his or her partner, who in turn provides a critique of the summary. Both partners elaborate on the information, and they then alternate roles for the second section of the text, continuing in this way until they have completed the reading. They then review the material together. The activities in which students engage (oral summarization, elaboration, metacognition, elaboration, review) are known to promote effective learning. The technique works well for acquiring information, and students are typically positive about their learning experiences with their partners.

In reciprocal peer tutoring (RPT), students work together to teach one another, and they alternate between the roles of student and teacher. This technique combines elements of both motivational and cognitive approaches to collaboration. Motivation is encouraged by the use of group rewards, such as choices of desired activities or acting as the teacher's helper or messenger, which are intended to create interdependence among group members. Rewards are based on team achievement. The technique also promotes cognitive processing by using a structured approach to teaching and learning within a tutoring context. RPT has been used successfully to promote achievement and is also associated with positive social outcomes including an increase in students' self-confidence and better scores on measures of behavior.

In contrast to scripted cooperation and reciprocal peer tutoring, King's guided peer questioning technique is explicitly intended to promote knowledge construction through higher-order thinking. This technique can be used in dyads and with larger groups. It involves a process of question asking and answering, which is guided by the provision of question starters, such as: "Why is … important?" Students pick a few of the question starters, generate questions that fit the form of the starter, and then ask questions of their peers and answer their peers' questions. The question starters serve as a scaffold for students' thinking. Different kinds of questions can be used that support comprehension or complex knowledge construction. The provision of starters supports students in constructing high-level questions to which their peers must provide explanations rather than simple responses of a terminal nature. In addition, the students must engage in self-monitoring. Because these questions require complex answers, peers must probe their own understanding of material in order to answer. Positive effects on achievement are associated with the use of guided peer questioning.

One of the advantages associated with the techniques described above is the increased participation in cognitive activities by more students in a classroom than would be possible in whole-group instruction. In whole-group instruction, for example, teachers typically ask questions (often low-level questions such as those that simply require the recall of factual information but do not probe understanding) and a small number of students have the opportunity to construct a response. With the focused activity of guided peer questioning, all students have the opportunity not only to respond to questions, but to generate them as well. The techniques previously described promote active processing of material using activities that are strongly linked to achievement. In all of these techniques, the interactions of students are very structured, and this structure is important to the success of the techniques.

A potential disadvantage to dyadic interaction may emerge on complex tasks, as there may be insufficient resources within a dyad to generate appropriate strategies to complete the task. As group size increases, the likelihood of having someone in the group who can satisfactorily complete a challenging task increases. Larger groups present their own difficulties, however. Although group members can help one another through explanations, reminders, and questions, they can also distract one another from the task at hand. In addition, some students may elect not to participate, while others many be precluded from doing so.

One solution to the problem of differential participation of students is to structure the group interaction to ensure equitable participation. This can be accomplished by assigning specific roles, alternating roles and activities, or requiring that consensus among group members be reached. These strategies can be effective. In a 1999 study, for example, Noreen Webb and Sydney Farivar trained students to both seek and give appropriate help. The collaborative technique used by groups is a more open-ended one than those previously described. By focusing the group norms on helping, Webb and Farivar were successful in ensuring participation by students. Elizabeth Cohen suggests that structuring the interaction of group members may also stifle the spontaneous interaction that may be necessary to effective problem solving in groups. Instead of tightly structuring tasks, Cohen believes that an interest in complex tasks will result in genuine collaboration. Students, however, need to be prepared to work with one another so that patterns of inclusion and exclusion associated with having high or low status in a group are minimized. Cohen and her colleagues have been very successful in promoting achievement among students in collaborative groups using tasks that are interesting, challenging, and that involve higher-order thinking.

Decisions about what size of group to use, whether members of that group should be heterogeneous or homogeneous with respect to ability, and what kind of support students will need to achieve the desired outcomes must be carefully considered. Such decisions will be influenced by the theoretical perspective one adopts with respect to collaborative learning.

Group and Individual Performance

The relationship between group and individual performance in cooperative or collaborative learning is not well understood. Slavin's work on cooperative learning emphasizes the role of individual accountability. His techniques depend on group rewards that are earned by each student in a team when performance is improved. In Slavin's work, therefore, there is continuity between individual and group performance. However, the question of the relationship between group and individual performance is often unexamined. The issue of what factors transfer from a group to subsequent individual performance is not well understood. Part of the difficulty in addressing this issue comes from the variability of approaches to peer learning, as the importance or relevance of this issue varies across approaches. Nevertheless, because of the prevalent use of cooperative and collaborative techniques in schools, the increases in high-stakes testing, and the concerns of parents in relation to their children's involvement in collaborative experiences, the relationship of individual and group performance warrants consideration.

Teachers who wish to use cooperative and collaborative leaning to promote students' achievement need to be thoughtful in considering the implications of their decisions about group size, rewards, group composition, and their own role in the classroom. The variety of theoretical perspectives available to inform such decisions can be confusing. Fundamentally, cooperative learning that promotes student achievement depends on the quality of student interaction. Such interaction needs to be task oriented, helpful, characterized by deep processing of content that involves organization or restructuring of knowledge, and elaboration of that knowledge. Making decisions about group size, for example, becomes simpler if the teacher focuses on the expected quality of interaction among students. Large groups limit participation while smaller groups provide more opportunities for interaction. Other decisions such as the composition of the group will also be informed by a focus on the quality of interaction. If the group is of mixed ability, other interventions may be needed to maintain the quality of participation (such as the use of question stems or other ways of structuring the interaction to maximize quality) or to guarantee the inclusion of all participants.


FANTUZZO, JOHN W.; KING, JUDITH A.; and HELLER, LAUREN R. 1992. "Effects of Reciprocal Peer Tutoring on Mathematics and School Adjustment: A Component Analysis." Journal of Educational Psychology 84:331–339.

KING, ALISON. 1999. "Discourse Patterns for Mediating Peer Learning." In Cognitive Perspectives on Peer Learning, ed. Angela M. O'Donnell and Alison King. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

O'DONNELL, ANGELA M., and DANSEREAU, DONALD F. 1992. "Scripted Cooperation in Student Dyads: A Method for Analyzing and Enhancing Academic Learning and Performance." In Interaction in Cooperative Groups: The Theoretical Anatomy of Group Learning, ed. Rachel Hertz-Lazarowitz and Norman Miller. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O'DONNELL, ANGELA M., and O'KELLY, JAMES B. 1994. "Learning from Peers: Beyond the Rhetoric of Positive Results." Educational Psychology Review 6:321–349.

SLAVIN, ROBERT E. 1996. "Research on Cooperative Learning and Achievement: What We Know, What We Need to Know." Contemporary Educational Psychology 21:43–69.

WEBB, NOREEN M., and FARIVAR, S. 1994. "Developing Productive Group Interaction in Middle School Mathematics." In Cognitive Perspectiveson Peer Learning, ed. Angela M. O'Donnell and Alison King. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


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