What Is Cooperative Learning? Ever Been In A Rehearsal Or Performance?

What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative learning involves more than students working together on a lab or field project. It requires teachers to structure cooperative interdependence among the students. These structures involve five key elements which can be implemented in a variety of ways. There are also different types of cooperative groups appropriate for different situations.

More than Just Working in Groups

Five key elements differentiate cooperative learning from simply putting students into groups to learn (Johnson et al., 2006).

  1. Positive Interdependence: You'll know when you've succeeded in structuring positive interdependence when students perceive that they "sink or swim together." This can be achieved through mutual goals, division of labor, dividing materials, roles, and by making part of each student's grade dependent on the performance of the rest of the group. Group members must believe that each person's efforts benefit not only him- or herself, but all group members as well.
GEO 110 students discuss their findings in the field


  • Individual Accountability: The essence of individual accountability in cooperative learning is "students learn together, but perform alone." This ensures that no one can "hitch-hike" on the work of others. A lesson's goals must be clear enough that students are able to measure whether (a) the group is successful in achieving them, and (b) individual members are successful in achieving them as well.

  • Face-to-Face (Promotive) Interaction: Important cognitive activities and interpersonal dynamics only occur when students promote each other's learning. This includes oral explanations of how to solve problems, discussing the nature of the concepts being learned, and connecting present learning with past knowledge. It is through face-to-face, promotive interaction that members become personally committed to each other as well as to their mutual goals.

  • Interpersonal and Small Group Social Skills: In cooperative learning groups, students learn academic subject matter (taskwork) and also interpersonal and small group skills (teamwork). Thus, a group must know how to provide effective leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict management. Given the complexity of these skills, teachers can encourage much higher performance by teaching cooperative skill components within cooperative lessons. As students develop these skills, later group projects will probably run more smoothly and efficiently than early ones.

  • Group Processing: After completing their task, students must be given time and procedures for analyzing how well their learning groups are functioning and how well social skills are being employed. Group processing involves both taskwork and teamwork, with an eye to improving it on the next project.
  • In this excerpt from the Carleton College (MN) Science Department music ensemble teachers should notice some descriptors that are eerily familiar, in fact these "new" ideas seem positively traditional to many of us. The advantage we have is that ensemble classes are cooperative structures that rely upon "positive interdependence." Our students don't get "put" into groups, our class is a group...every day, all year long. When our students are rehearsing, they are engaged in a non-verbal musical disscussion that is demonstrating... while at the same time... refining what students know about their own musicianship and the composition that is being brought to fruition. Sophisticated? You'd better believe it.

    Cooperative Learning (CL) is sometimes poorly implemented in other classes (ask your students sometimes about their "group projects") but for us it's the very essence of bringing ensemble music to fruition. Ensemble courses require the contribution of every individual in every moment of the period in order for everyone to learn. Our students present group projects throughout the year. These group performances are every bit as authentic (often more so) than Power Points and reports that are created by short-term groups in other types of courses.

    Now, before we all start bragging that we have CL "down pat" we are not off the hook by a long shot. For one thing I would wager a guess that most of our students (mine included) don't even realize that our ensemble is a cooperative learning vehicle. We simply never take the time to talk about it. And another of our major shortcomings as music teachers is the failure to guarantee that ensemble learning is measured and intentional. Keeping the goals and assessments of any group project a secret is a mistake no matter what course is implementing CL. Running a tune over and over while hoping the students will figure out how to magically make it better (or worse yet...dictating their every move) is not what this is all about. No, winning is not sufficient evidence that students understand the essence of a composition, nor is merely showing up for class every day with your instrument.

    Let's start rethinking how we explain, design, and yes assess within our music courses so we can take full advantage of (and our students can get full credit for) the power of authentic cooperative learning in music ensemble courses. We have a lot of work to do, both in improving the learning in our students and educating our colleagues and administrators. People who believe interdependent learning can't take place without words or a pencil and paper have a lot to learn about the way music works, and the true scope of cooperative learning. It's our job to teach them, and each other.

    P.S. College methods profs, we need your help in championing this reality...not falling prey to the outdated argument that "playing" in band, choir, or orchestra is simplistic participation which cannot be assessed, graded, or valued in any way. Help us start to reframe this misinterpretation and let's build a rigorous, relevant and meaningful ensemble curriculum together.

    3 responses
    We can make this even stronger by changing one small thing about ensembles. In most ensemble situations, the musical decision-making about interpretation and meaning is made at the front of the room by the conductor. By shifting this burden to students, we can better foster the fourth item on the list.
    Fantastic. Videotaping rehearsal excerpts and playing back for student self-assessment is also a productive way to encourage students to examine the process "outside" of the execution of the tasks. This then fuels the next rehearsal by helping to shape the thoughts and ideas toward a more comprehensive individual and group understanding.