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Cooperative Learning or Positive Interdependence

Cooperative learning refers to a set of instructional strategies which include cooperative student-student interaction over subject matter as an integral part of the process. (Kagan, 1989, p.4:1)

There is a long history of research showing the effects of cooperative learning on developing students’ character competence and social skills (Berkowitz & Bier, 2003).  “Whether assessed in isolation or as part of a character education initiative…cooperative learning resulted in better conflict resolution skills, greater cooperation, and higher academic achievement, among other outcomes” (Berkowitz, 2003, p.13).  Cooperative learning is an alternative to the competitive-individualistic structures and the recitation-presentation teaching methods commonly used in classrooms. While it is not suggested that cooperative learning be the only teaching method used, it is a powerful approach to facilitate the development and practice of prosocial skills, to develop understanding of diverse perspectives, and to contribute to the process of making the classroom a community of learners. Through cooperative structures, students have the opportunity to work together in pursuit of a common goal which enhances their social, ethical, and cognitive growth. (Vessels, 1998, as cited in Vincent, 1999, p.71)

Cooperative learning promotes prosocial behavior. Having children learn from one another creates powerful bonds between them and sends a message very different from that sent by a classroom in which each child is on his or her own—or, worse still, one in which the success of each is inversely related to the success of the others….Cooperation is an essentially humanizing experience that predisposes participants to take a benevolent view of others. It allows them to transcend egocentric and objectifying postures and encourages trust, sensitivity, open communication, and prosocial activity” (Kohn 1991, as cited in Vincent, 1999, p.74).

Cooperative learning can be as simple as two students pairing up to discuss a piece of learning. It can also be complex and can include team development activities; cooperative classroom atmosphere through class building activities; special training in social roles and social skills; specialized tasks for teams; and special scoring, recognition, and reward systems structured for individuals, teams, and classes (Kagan, 1989).  With some thoughtful modifications, traditional direct instruction lessons can be delivered using cooperative strategies.

Kagan (1989) describes the five key elements which define characteristics of cooperative learning.

  1. Team formation – teams of 2-4, with students of different abilities, mixed ethnicity, gender
  2. Positive interdependence – the gain of one student is associated with gains for other students; team has same goal; positive interdependence can take several different forms
  3. Individual accountability – contributes to academic gains; contribution of each individual is made known to the team; can take several forms: reward accountability (i.e. team grade based on individual test scores), task accountability (i.e. each student accountable to group for her portion of the project)
  4. Social skills – are developed and practice based on the structures used; students can learn how to listen to each other, resolve conflicts, set and revise agendas, keep on task, and encourage each other; time devoted to review group process which can be done individually and as a team, i.e. Did we help each other? Did we ask for help if we needed it? Did we all participate?
  5. Structuring and structure – a critical component; task structures are created when no one individual can complete the learning task alone (e.g. think-pair-share, jigsaw, round robin paraphrasing, group products); reward structures are created by making grades dependent on  each other (e.g. team scores are a sum of the improvement scores of individuals)

Cooperative learning provides the opportunity for students to learn academic skills and care about the feelings and needs of others in their groups. It requires that students assume responsibility for themselves and for the success of the group. Cooperative learning, to be successful, requires that students learn to respect the contributions that others bring to the learning environment” (Vincent 1999, p. 73).

Some of the simplest structures that can be used to facilitate cooperative learning are described below. Some of the structures such as roundtable, jigsaw, and numbered heads have several variations, this chart presents the basic structure.


Uses and Steps


Useful to encourage time on task and listening to each other. After rehearsing in pairs, more students are likely to respond.

  1. Students listen while the teacher poses a question.
  2. Student are given time to think of a response.
  3. Students pair with a neighbor and discuss their responses.
Students are then invited to share their responses with the whole group or another pair.

Numbered Heads Together

This strategy is useful to check for understanding, to review, as an antidote to the whole-class question-answer format

  1. Students in a team of four number off, 1-4
  2. Teacher asks a high-consensus question. You can elect to have a time limit.
  3. Students put their heads together and make sure everyone knows the answer. The role of checker may be added here
  4. Teacher calls a number at random and students with that number raise their hand to be called upon.


A useful content-related team building exercise:

  1. Teacher poses a problem with many possible answers such as “How can we show respect in our classroom?”
  2. Students make a list on one piece of paper, each writing one of the possible answers and then pass the paper to the next person. The paper literally goes round the table.

Team Jigsaw

Jigsaw can be used to develop a concept, master content, for discussion and group projects.

  1. Each student on the team is given specific content to read and understand, (through reading, homework, learning centers, etc.)
  2. Students do a round robin within teams to share the new knowledge with their team mates.
  3. There may be an assessment of all of the students on the material.
  4. A variation is that team experts can share what they know with members of another team.
  (Kagan 1989)


Berkowitz, M. W. & Bier, M. C. (2003, draft) Character education literature review.

Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. (in Press).  What works in character education: A Research-based guide for practitioners.  Washington, DC:  Character Education Partnership.

Kagan, Spencer (1989) Cooperative learning resources for teachers. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers.

Kagan, Spencer (1999) Building character through cooperative learning. Port Chester, NY: National Professional Resources, Inc.

Vincent, P. (1999). Developing character in students: a primer for teachers, parents, and communities. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill, NC: Character Development Publishing.


L.A. Vezzuto, Ph.D.
© 2005 Orange County Department of Education