Cooperative Learning Groups

Many teachers will occasionally break their classes into small groups for discussions, but only a few use the technique as a fundamental teaching tool. A class can be divided into learning teams that are periodically given instructional tasks to complete, either in or out of class. Research has shown that, with careful planning, this technique increases the efficiency and effectiveness of learning.
Groups of six or seven work best because this size is small enough for everyone to participate in problem solving or debate, yet large enough for a spectrum of views to be represented. To work successfully, groups require a wide variety of viewpoints and intellectual skills, so it is important to make them as heterogeneous as possible. The individual data cards you collect on the first day of class can yield important information about your students’ backgrounds and preparation and make it easier to create heterogeneous groups. A professor of political science who uses long-term groups in his class tries to insure that each team has some-one with a math background and at least one political science major. He creates groups with maximum diversity with respect to major, gender, race, and other characteristics.
The tasks you assign for group work should challenge students to analyze phenomena, solve problems, apply theories, exercise judgment, or perform some combination of these activities. Clearly written instructions are vital to the success of this kind of exercise, which means the teacher must analyze the task carefully and break it down into its component parts. During the exercise, the teacher moves from group to group, answering questions, clarifying instructions, giving advice, and observing the group process. Group exercises can be designed for 15- to 20-minute periods, and need not consume an entire class period.
In a well-designed group activity, there should be little need for direct intervention by the teacher. It is true that many teachers are uncomfortable with the loss of direct control that accompanies small-group work, but you still govern the process and outcome by the instructions you provide for the groups.
Small groups can be used with a variety of other techniques, such as peer teaching, case studies, and simulations; imaginative teachers are discovering new ways to use the technique every day.

Cooperative Learning Groups
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