What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative learning involves students working with their peers to accomplish a shared or common goal. The goal is reached through interdependence among all group members, with each member being responsible for the outcome of the shared goal. Groups are usually heterogeneous in nature (e.g. ability, gender) and include 3-4 students. Putting students into a group does not necessarily translate into a cooperative learning experience. Effective cooperative learning follows 5 essential elements:

Positive Interdependence
Each group member depends on each other to accomplish a shared goal or task. Without cooperation from all members of the group, the desired goal will not be reached.

Individual and Group Accountability
Each group member is held accountable for his or her work. Individual accountability helps to avoid members from “hitchhiking” on other group members’ accomplishments.

Face-to-Face Interaction
Group members promote success by praising, encouraging, supporting, or assisting each other. This positive reciprocal interaction results in a personal commitment to each other and to the mutual goal.

Interpersonal and Small Group Skills
Cooperative learning groups is an ideal setting for students to learn social skills. Examples of skills that can help to build stronger cooperation among group members include active listening, praising, coaching and taking turns.

Group Processing
Group processing is an assessment of how a group is functioning to achieve their goals or tasks. Group members can express their feelings about positive and negative aspects of the group learning process. The purpose of sharing is to help group members to resolve conflicts and celebrate successful outcomes in the group work.

Research has supported the beneficial outcomes of implementing cooperative learning strategies in the classroom. Cooperative learning has been associated to academic, social and emotional gains in students of varying ages, abilities and gender.


Dahley, A. (n.d). Cooperative Learning Classroom Research. Retrieved at http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~andyd/mindset/design/clc_rsch.html

Gillies, R.M. (2007).  Cooperative Learning: Integrating theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (n.d.) Introduction to Cooperative Learning. Retrieved at http://www.cooperation.org/home/introduction-to-cooperative-learning/

Early Childhood and Cooperative Learning

Past literature on the impact of cooperative learning has mostly been focused on older students. This is attributed to the misguided assumption that young children do not have the sufficient development capacity for working cooperatively with their peers. There is increasing support that shows children in their early childhood can, in fact, acquire the skills necessary to work cooperatively with one another. Cooperative learning skills in young children can be achieved through an environment that is both structured and explicit.

The role of the teacher is essential in fostering a successful cooperative learning experience for young children. Scaffolding is a major strategy used to help children through the process of developing their autonomy and cooperative learning skills. The interaction between children working together does not occur naturally and, therefore, needs to be facilitated by teachers. Furthermore, there are specific conditions that are necessary for a successful cooperative learning setting to thrive. These fundamentals include individual responsibility, mutual support and positive interdependence.

Teachers have the responsibility to provide a supportive classroom community, be a model for the skills of cooperative learning, and establish a positive relationship with the children in order to help them develop cooperative relationships with one another.

To design an effective cooperative learning program, teachers also need to consider details such as group size, teacher support, social skills instruction and the content structure.

Group Size
Good cooperative activities challenge children to work together to achieve common goals. Activities that are open-ended and loosely structured work well with groups of 4-5 children. In such activities, several children can be involved at the same time because there are multiple roles and many ways to engage in them. Examples of such activities include building blocks or socio-dramatic play. Activities that are more structured and involve a defined end-point or require high levels of academic skills work best in pairs. Examples of such activities include matching a pattern or a partner interview.

Teacher support
Teachers need to use direct instruction when teaching cooperative activities. Because young children are likely to have fewer of the basic social and emotional competencies, learning intentions must be made clear to them. Teachers can engage children in a discussion about the goals and potential challenges of the task, and to also have children talk about concrete examples of the behaviours that will help them achieve these goals and successfully meet the challenges. Cooperative learning activities need to be structured carefully, with the teacher providing support to young children as they practise to work respectfully and productively with their peers. Giving explicit and constructive feedback is also important as it allows children to hone in and refine their skills. Finally, it is vital for teachers to debrief cooperative activities with children after they have completed them. Helping children reflect on the problems and successes encountered in cooperative activities maximizes their ability to learn from their experiences. This, in turn, encourages children to develop responsibility and a cooperative attitude towards learning.

Social Skills Instruction
Implementing cooperative learning activities is a great way to foster positive peer interactions and to provide children with the scaffolding they need to develop their social and emotional skills. Young children are not yet well developed in their social skills and some may need to be taught how to interact appropriately with their peers. Teachers can teach social skills to young children using cooperative learning activities. Becoming adept at working cooperatively equips children with important lifelong skills that can facilitate their success later in life.

Content Structure
Successful cooperative tasks usually include the following elements:

  • lessons are engaging and challenging
  • there is a common goal
  • children can readily see the benefits of working together
  • all group members are meaningfully engaged in the task at all times.

When thinking about how to design cooperative learning activities for young children, there are four basic types of cooperative tasks that provide a very practical framework for teachers to implement in their classroom.

Teacher-Directed Whole Class Activity
This is the simplest type of cooperative task that is mediated by the teacher and involves a whole class effort. In these activities, children work independently to produce something that is combined into a single group product. The teacher’s primary role is to help children to recognize the relationship between their individual efforts and the group’s common goal and product. The purpose is to help children to see the importance of being an active contributor in a whole-group effort to produce a single product. Examples of whole class activities include creating a class mural or building a role-play centre.

Open-Ended Activities with Semi-Independent Parts
These activities are open-ended and self-directed with many semi-independent parts. This allows children with varying levels of social skills to participate successfully in a joint activity. Examples include exploring the properties of water at the water table or sorting manipulatives based on different attributes. Children with basic cooperative skills can work successfully in a group because they don’t need to be fully involved in cooperative play behaviours while those with stronger cooperative skills can be more engaged on the same tasks.

Activities with Shared Scripts or Rules
These types of cooperative tasks have definite interdependent roles that help group members coordinate their behaviour. Depending on the complexity of the task, teachers can group 2-3 children to work together. The overall structure of the task is typically scripted or has a set of agreed-upon rules. Examples include playing a simple board game or acting out a story.

Unstructured Activities with Multiple Outcomes
These types of tasks are considered to be the most difficult for young children as they require self-monitoring of behaviour and have no defined roles to guide the actions of individuals in the group. Children must constantly adapt their own behaviours to one another in order to accomplish the task together as a group. These cooperative learning activities are usually unstructured and can have multiple outcomes depending on the choices made by all involving members of the group. Examples include building at the construction centre or sharing materials at the art centre. Because the success of these cooperative learning activities relies on the coordination between members, children must decide together how to divide up the tasks and combine their effects.

Teachers play a central role in helping young children become successful at cooperative learning and peer interactions. They can promote and foster this development by doing the following:

  • set clear and explicit goals for the activity
  • monitor groups as they work
  • intervene as needed (scaffolding, mediating conflict resolutions)
  • encourage children to reflect on their experiences

Under such conditions, even young children can benefit greatly from working cooperatively with their peers.


Battistich, V., & Watson, M. (2003). Chapter 2: Fostering social development in preschool and the early elementary grades through co-operative classroom activities. In R. M. Gillies & A. F. Ashman (Eds.), Co-operative learning: The social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups. London; New York: Routledge Falmer.

Gómez, F., Nussbaum, M., Weitz, J. F., Lopez, X., Mena, J., & Torres, A. (2013). Co-located single display collaborative learning for early childhood education. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 8(2), 225-244.

Cooperative Learning and Academic Achievement

Interaction, communication and cooperation are key factors in children’s learning. When children work cooperatively, they learn to give and receive help, share their ideas and listen to other students’ perspectives. They also learn to clarify differences, become problem solvers and to construct new understandings and knowledge. These cognitive and social processes improve children’s academic outcomes which motivate them to become a lifelong learner.

Cooperative learning enhances children’s learning process as they are encouraged to participate in activities which are slightly above their level of achievement and that requires cooperation with the rest of the group members to accomplish mutual tasks. According to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, children’s learning and development is driven by social interactions with people in their environment. Social interaction is seen as the mediating role in the construction of knowledge and is orchestrated by the more knowledgeable other (MKO), typically an adult or someone who is more skilled.

Creating an optimal learning experience requires children be scaffolded within the zone of proximal development. This zone is where the MKO serves as a guide by modeling tasks that are too hard and encouraging children to make an attempt at it using the provided support. The MKO can also help children through assisted discovery within the zone of proximal development using questions, demonstrations and explanations. Through these social interactions, children are able to form new connections between the self and the environment.

Cooperative learning can be used as a strategy for scaffolding academic instruction. Scaffolding is a powerful teaching approach for developing higher level cognitive strategies, such as those involved in problem solving. Teachers can begin with direct instruction and then shift to cooperative learning structures once children are well-practised with working together. Children will learn that there are different ways of approaching tasks and solving problems while working together to generate and evaluate alternative approaches. Furthermore, working cooperatively can help children to internalize feedback and gradually learn to detect and correct their own errors, enabling them to think effectively and solve problems on their own.

Past research on cooperative learning and academic outcomes all suggest the benefits of adopting this learning approach. A study to investigate the effects of cooperative learning on children’s motivation and learning from text revealed that those in the cooperative group performed better on reading comprehension tasks compared to the control group. When children perceived that their peers were willing to help each other and were committed to the group, they tended to be more motivated and performed better in reading comprehension. Studies on mathematical skills and cooperative learning revealed similar findings, with children in cooperative groups seeing an improvement in learning outcome compared to those in the control group.


Boyd, D. & Johnson, P. & Bee H. (2012). Lifespan Development (Fourth Canadian Edition). Toronto: Pearson Education.

Gillies, R. M., & Boyle, M. (2005). Teachers’ scaffolding behaviours during cooperative learning. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 33(3), 243-259.

Law, Y. (2008). Effects of cooperative learning on second graders’ learning from text. Educational Psychology, 28(5), 567.

Shoval, E. (2011). Using mindful movement in cooperative learning while learning about angles. Instructional Science, 39(4), 453-466.

Souvignier, E., & Kronenberger, J. (2007). Cooperative learning in third graders’ jigsaw groups for mathematics and science with and without questioning training. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(4), 755-771.

Cooperative Learning on Social and Emotional Development

Promoting cooperative learning in young children can be quite beneficial to their social and emotional development. It can help them to develop positive attitudes towards learning, school and their peers. Engaging in cooperative learning can also help young children to develop their theory of mind, strengthen language skills and the ability to solve interpersonal problems.

Peer acceptance, as defined by the degree in which a child is liked or disliked by members of his/her social group, emerges during pre-kindergarten years. Young children begin to form relationships with their peers during this time through social interactions and activities. Those who are able to interact successfully with their peers tend to be well accepted throughout their schooling while those with poor social skills are often rejected by their peers.

Children who suffer from low peer acceptance are susceptible to developing maladaptive behaviours such as isolation, aggression, resistance, fear and restlessness. These behaviours may persist over time and negatively affect children’s social development and well-being later on in life. It is important then, to teach the skills needed for effective peer interaction early in children’s life so they can become successful in their later years.

Cooperative learning activities is a great way to foster positive peer interactions and to provide children with the scaffolding they need to develop their social and emotional skills. Participating in cooperative learning activities allows children to learn from one another and to develop their cognitive, verbal and social skills. As well, it provides an opportunity for children to learn to work with one another through negotiation and compromise.

Teachers can teach social skills to young children by incorporating cooperative learning activities. Many children need to be taught how to interact appropriately with their peers and it is during this time that they begin to form concrete relationships with one another. Helping young children develop the tools needed to communicate successfully with others is beneficial to their social and emotional development.

Learn how to implement cooperative learning activities to promote social and emotional development here.


Alisinanoglu, F., Ozbey, S., & Kesicioglu, O. S. (2012). Impact of social skill and problem behavior training program on children attending preschool: a survay. Academic Research International, 2(2), 321-330.

Battistich, V., & Watson, M. (2003). Chatper 2: Fostering social development in preschool and the early elementary grades through co-operative classroom activities. In R. M. Gillies & A. F. Ashman (Eds.), Co-operative learning:The social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups. London; New York: Routledge Falmer.

Choi, D. H., & Kim, J. (2003). Practicing social skills training for young children with low peer acceptance: A cognitive-social learning model. Early Childhood Education Journal, 31(1), 41-46.

Choi, D. H., & Md-Yunus, S. (2011). Integration of a social skills training: A case study of children with low social skills. Education 3-13, 39(3), 249-264.

Goodwin, M. (1999). Cooperative learning and social skills. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(1), 29-33.


Teaching Social Skills Through Cooperative Learning

Most often, young children are not yet well developed in their social skills and some may need to be taught how to interact appropriately with their peers. One social-emotional competency that influences young children’s success to function in school settings is their ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation makes it possible for children to conform to classroom rules and to benefit from learning in various social contexts, from one-on-one interactions to large groups.

The cooperative learning approach is ideal in helping children build their autonomy, self-regulation and social skills. However, working together effectively in a cooperative setting does not usually happen naturally, especially for young children. Cooperative learning skills need to be taught and then from there, teachers can incorporate targeted social skills in this setting.

When designing a cooperative learning program, teachers can use the following to help them ensure that children are given the opportunity to do the following:

  • see the need for the skill
  • understand what the skill is and when to use it
  • practise using the skill
  • receive feedback on how well they are using the skill
  • practise the skill until it has reached automaticity

Explicit instruction is important because it allows children to be conscious of the targeted social competencies and how they can work towards achieving this goal. It is most ideal to form groups of 2-4 children than large cooperative groups. As well, for young children, it is helpful to introduce the social skill slowly, to make things simple and to make changes incrementally.

Below are some cooperative learning strategies teachers can use to facilitate appropriate peer interactions and to foster social and emotional development:

This cooperative learning strategy promotes and supports higher-level thinking. The teacher asks students to think about a specific topic, then pair with another student to discuss their thinking and, after that, share their ideas with the group.

Inside-Outside Circle
During this strategy, students form two different circles: half of the group stands in a circle facing outward while the other half forms a circle around them facing inward. Students exchange information until the teacher signals the outer circle to move in one direction. The students now have a different partner with whom to exchange.

Place Mat
This cooperative learning strategy allows students to think about, record, and share their ideas in groups. Each group member writes ideas in a space around the centre of a large piece of paper. Afterwards, the group compares what each member has written, and common items are compiled in the centre of the paper.

Four Corners
This approach asks students to make a decision about a problem or question. Each of the four corners of the classroom is labeled with a different response. Students move to the corner that best represents with their thinking. They share their ideas with others in their corner and then come to consensus. One member of each group shares the result of the discussions with the whole class.

Each small group brainstorms ideas and record them on a large sheet of paper. All group members write their “graffiti” (words, phrases, pictures, symbols) for a given amount to time. All the groups continue the above process until each group has contributed to every piece of paper. Afterwards, the whole class will review everyone’s “graffiti” and to identify patterns and categories.

This cooperative learning strategy allows a student to become an ‘expert’ in some aspect of a topic, then return to a ‘home’ group to share what he or she has learned. Expertise is developed, acknowledged, and shared among the members of each group as they encourage each other in the learning process.

The skills involved in cooperation are important to the social and emotional development of young children. Becoming adept at working cooperatively equips children with important lifelong skills that can facilitate their success later in life.


Battistich, V., & Watson, M. (2003). Chapter 2: Fostering social development in preschool and the early elementary grades through co-operative classroom activities. In R. M. Gillies & A. F. Ashman (Eds.), Co-operative learning: The social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups. London; New York: Routledge Falmer.

Goodwin, M. (1999). Cooperative learning and social skills. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(1), 29-33.

eWorkshop – Online Teaching Resource. (2014) Active Learning. Retrieved at http://eworkshop.on.ca/edu/core.cfm?p=main&modColour=1&modID=100&m=111

Cooperative Learning in the Primary Classroom

The cooperative learning approach in a primary classroom is based on the five essential elements necessary for a successful cooperative learning experience. Like all students, early primary children need to be taught how to engage in proper cooperative learning behaviours. Putting children into groups does not mean they have the knowledge or capability to work together.

Along with the five essential elements, teachers can consider the following guidelines when implementing cooperative learning activities in a primary classroom:

Training children to work together is an important factor in the success of a cooperatively learning setting. Likewise, training teachers to teach cooperative skills enhances the overall experience for children. Teachers who are trained are often more prepared to adopt different teaching pedagogies, instructional strategies and alternative teaching resources.

Groups work best with three to four students. When groups are too small, there is not enough variety of responses. When they are too large, it is difficult to ensure that all students have a chance to participate.

Group Composition
Before assigning children to groups, carefully examine their profile information, taking into account gender, individual strengths and weaknesses, interests, learning styles, and whether they are  English Language Learners and/or have exceptionalities. Addressing these areas helps to create balanced groups and contributes to the success of group lessons. Heterogeneous groupings allow students to learn from each other and adopt different roles within the group.

Group Task
High level cooperative tasks promote higher reasoning interactions. However, teachers need to be mindful of the importance of differentiated instruction and the different ways of structuring group tasks so students have the opportunity to maximize their own and each other’s learning.

Structuring Interactions in Groups
Teachers can teach children to use specific question strategies (e.g. guided questioning or scripted interaction) with their partners and group members as they work on problem-solving tasks. Through this structured process, children learn to ask more strategic and complex questions. This allows them to develop and enhance metacognitive ability which is an important aspect of academic, social and emotional development.

Gilles, R. M. (2003). Chapter 3: Structuring co-operative learning experiences in primary school. In R. M. Gillies & A. F. Ashman (Eds.), Co-operative learning: The social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups. London; New York: Routledge Falmer.

eWorkshop – Online Teaching Resource. (2014) Active Learning. Retrieved at http://eworkshop.on.ca/edu/core.cfm?p=main&modColour=1&modID=100&m=111