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How the Heck Do We Get Students to Work Together?

Cooperative Learning. Small groups. Group work. Just the thought of these ideas can elicit groans from students and teachers alike. Face it, there’s always that one student who does everything and there’s always that one student who seems a tiny bit lost. And what do we do with the students who just refuse to participate at all? How do we get students to use their time wisely How do we release the control of learning? How do we manage behavior and noise levels? How do we resolve conflicts or teach our students how to resolve conflicts? And how do we assess student learning in a cooperative model? So. Many. Challenges.

But it is so worth all the hurdles. I actually love cooperative learning because it flips students' and teachers' roles in the classroom. In a great cooperative learning model, the ownership of teaching and learning is taken on by the students and is no longer the sole responsibility of the teacher. Students have more opportunities to actively participate in their learning, question and challenge each other, share and discuss their ideas, and internalize their learning. How cool is that?

And what’s more--cooperative learning is one of the ultimate Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) tools we have available. Cooperative learning helps students engage in thoughtful discourse and examine different perspectives, and it has been proven to increase students' self-esteem, motivation, and empathy. This kind of learning really gives students the opportunity to practice real-world skills. Think about it: there are very few jobs out there that don’t require folks to work in small groups or on teams or to cooperate with colleagues. It’s actually crucial we give them opportunities to practice working together.

But man it’s tough. How the heck do we do this?

It can definitely be overwhelming but like any other learning and teaching strategy, if we spend time on the front end deliberately and thoughtfully putting structures and supports in place, and troubleshooting ahead of time, cooperative learning can be incredibly powerful. Below is a list of ideas and strategies for setting up cooperative learning with structures and supports that can head off some of the problems and give our students clear expectations to lean into. Once you have some structures and supports in place, you can dive into picking out the right cooperative learning strategy. But first things first…

Construct activities that cannot be completed alone

I mean, this seems obvious. But sometimes, we aren’t even aware that we have created a group task that one person in the group can complete on their own. And if there is a way for one student to do all the work, then you can be sure that one student will. I like to approach cooperative learning activities as though each student is holding one piece of a giant puzzle and that puzzle can’t be completed if that student doesn’t step up with their piece. I like to ask myself:

  • Can this assignment be done by just one person? If so, how can I restructure this so that it is more like a puzzle?

  • What is the benefit of doing this assignment as a group assignment? What does having multiple perspectives bring to the assignment?

  • What if one person does not do their share? How will this affect the outcome?

Team norms are guidelines or rules governing how group members agree to work together. Get your students to brainstorm their own norms. It is far more powerful if they can come to some common agreements about how they will work together than if you give them a list. Have them type these up and keep them handy. Have them revisit their norms whenever they get together to work cooperatively. Norms are a crucial foundation for cooperative learning.

Why assign roles? When students have clear roles they are more likely to take ownership and participate in the assignment. This means they are more likely to stay on task. You are less likely to see one student taking over the assignment if each student has a specific role. Instead, you will see students holding each other accountable for their particular “piece of the puzzle.” Also--SEL! Roles can help with communication skills, especially in areas that they are less confident in volunteering for. And finally, and very importantly, group roles can help disrupt stereotypical and gendered role assignments, which can be common in group learning. For example, research has found that female students tend to undertake less technical roles and more communicative roles than male students. By assigning roles during group work, and by asking students to alternate these roles at different points, students can work past gendered assumptions about themselves and their peers.

Provide checkpoints for self-assessment

One of the hallmarks of cooperative learning is that group members are responsible for the success of each member. Whether it is a short group work project that only takes one class period or a project that spans several days/weeks, it is important for students to some self-assessment both of their individual contributions and of their success as a team. There are a ton of great group work self-assessment rubrics out there. I love this super simple, quick assessment students can do periodically during longer group assignments: Group-work peer and self-assessment. Here is an in-depth example: Quick group self-assessment

Give a pre- and post-task assessment

To gauge how well groups are doing, give an assessment before and after students work together. It is incredibly helpful if you provide the group with a rubric for how you are assessing both content skills and Social-Emotional Skills. There are so many ways to assess group work.

  • You can assess the specific skills that are related to the content of the lesson. Assess the skills before and after to look for growth in understanding.

  • You can also assess Social-Emotional Skills by asking questions related to teamwork, communication, conflict, etc. Get students’ thoughts before the group work and after to see if their perception or understanding of those skills has grown or changed.

  • You can also ask students to do some self-assessment by gathering their perceptions on their own abilities in either the content or the SEL skills.

Both quantitative and qualitative evidence can guide your approach to working with different groups. You will start to see what successful and unsuccessful teams are doing differently.


Turn your group work into a game! Many of our students are gamers or at least have experience playing games and respond well to things like earning badges and points and “leveling up” when they complete assignments. There are so many ways to gamify group work. You can simply have groups compete against each other or you can have them compete against themselves by earning badges, points, etc for achieving different aspects of the work. It can be as simple as earning straight points for completion and as complicated as embarking on a longer quest that spans multiple lessons. I have even seen teachers gamify their entire classes by grouping students into teams and gamifying non-academic aspects of the class. For example: earning points and badges for attendance and taking hits to their strength or power by using bathroom passes.

Your students probably have a ton of ideas about how to gamify the group work! There are so many resources out there for gamification online. If you are interested in gamifying on a larger scale, check out this amazing Comprehensive Gamification Framework. And here is a guide to principles and basic structures of gamification.

Introduce Tech to Streamline Communication

Your digital native students may work better and more efficiently if there are opportunities for them to move some of their collaboration online. They can use websites and apps to brainstorm together, map ideas, gather information, create presentations and documents, and communicate virtually. Here is a great list from Common Sense of tech tools for group work productivity: Best Student Collaboration Tools

Putting in the time and effort on the front end to institute these structures and supports will pay massive dividends when you are introducing cooperative learning activities. Once your students have the foundational supports they need, they will be able to take the cooperative learning and really run with it.


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