Karl A. Smith
University of Minnesota
Cooperation is working together to accomplish shared goals. Within cooperative activities individuals seek outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and beneficial to all other group members. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each others' learning [1,2]. Carefully structured cooperative learning involves people working in teams to accomplish a common goal, under conditions that involve both positive interdependence (all members must cooperate to complete the task) and individual group accountability (each member is accountable for the complete final outcome).
There are many ways to implement cooperative learning in engineering classrooms. Informal cooperative learning groups, formal cooperative learning groups, and cooperative base groups are the most common. Each has a place in providing opportunities for students to be intellectually active and personally interactive both in and outside the classroom. Informal cooperative learning is commonly used in predominately lecture classes and will be described only briefly. Formal cooperative learning can be used in content intensive classes where the mastery of conceptual or procedural material is essential; however, many faculty find it easier to start in recitation or laboratory sections or design project courses. Base groups are long-term cooperative learning groups whose principal responsibility is to provide support and encouragement for all their members; that is, to ensure that each member gets the help he or she needs to be successful in the course and in college. The basics of base groups are described by Treisman  and the implementation of base groups in engineering colleges is being pioneered at California State University-Los Angeles, California State University-Pomona, the University of Cincinnati, and numerous other schools.
Informal cooperative learning groups are temporary, ad hoc groups that last from a few minutes to one class period. They are used to focus students' attention on the material to be learned, set a mood conducive to learning, help organize in advance the material to be covered in a class session, ensure that students cognitively process the material being taught, and provide closure to a class session. They are often organized so that students engage in focused discussions before and after a lecture and interspersing turn-to-your-partner discussions throughout a lecture. Informal cooperative learning groups help counter what is proclaimed as the main problem of lectures: ``The information passes from the notes of the professor to the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either one.''
Base Groups are long-term, heterogeneous cooperative learning groups with stable membership whose primary responsibility is to provide each student the support, encouragement, and assistance he or she needs to make academic progress. Base groups personalize the work required and the course learning experiences. These base groups stay the same during the entire course and longer if possible. The members of base groups should exchange phone numbers and information about schedules as they may wish to meet outside of class. When students have successes, insights, questions or concerns they wish to discuss; they can contact other members of their base group. Base groups typically manage the daily paperwork of the course through the use of group folders.
The focus of this short article is formal cooperative learning groups, since they are probably the most difficult to implement and they have the greatest potential for affecting positive change. Formal cooperative learning groups are more structured than informal, are given more complex tasks, and typically stay together longer.
Reflection: Think about your most successful/effective group project experience. What were the characteristics of the group? What were the conditions? Now think about the groups you are using in your classes. Are they similar?
There is nothing magical about teamwork. For example, some types of learning teams increase the quality of classroom life and facilitate student learning. Other types of teams hinder student learning and create disharmony and dissatisfaction with classroom life. To use cooperative learning effectively, you must know what is and what is not a cooperative group.
There are many types of teams that can be used in classrooms. Cooperative learning is just one of them. When you use instructional groups, you must ask yourself ``What type of group am I using?'' The following checklist may be helpful in answering that question.
Well-structured cooperative learning groups are differentiated from poorly structured ones on the basis of five essential elements. These essential elements should be carefully structured within all levels of cooperative efforts. The five essential elements are as follows:
interdependence. Students must believe that they are linked with others in a way that one cannot succeed unless the other members of the group succeed (and vice versa). Students are working together to get the job done. In other words, students must perceive that they ``sink or swim together.'' In a problem-solving session, positive interdependence is structured by group members (1) agreeing on the answer and solution strategies for each problem (goal interdependence) and (2) fulfilling assigned role responsibilities (role interdependence). Other ways of structuring positive interdependence include having common rewards, shared resources, or a division of labor.
Students learn together so that they can subsequently perform better as individuals. To ensure that each member is strengthened, students are held individually accountable to do their share of the work. The performance of each individual student is assessed and the results given back to the individual and perhaps to the group. The group needs to knows who needs more assistance in completing the assignment, and group members need to know they cannot ``hitch-hike'' on the work of others. Common ways to structure individual accountability include giving an individual exam to each student, randomly calling on individual students to present their group's answer, and giving an individual oral exam while monitoring group work.
as purposefully and precisely as academic skills. Many students have never worked cooperatively in learning situations and, therefore, lack the needed teamwork skills for doing so effectively.
working relationships. Groups need to describe what member actions are helpful and unhelpful and make decisions about what to continue or change. Such processing enables learning groups to focus on group maintenance, facilitates the learning of collaborative skills, ensures that members receive feedback on their participation, and reminds students to practice collaborative skills consistently. Some of the keys to successful processing are allowing sufficient time for it to take place, making it specific rather than vague, maintaining student involvement in processing, reminding students to use their teamwork skills during processing, and ensuring that clear expectations as to the purpose of processing have been communicated.
In order for professors to use cooperative learning routinely, they must identify course routines and generic lessons that repeat over and over again and structure them cooperatively. Problem-solving lessons are one good example of a repeated practice.
Formal cooperative learning groups may last from one class period to several weeks to complete specific tasks and assignments-such as decision making or problem solving, writing a report, conducting a survey or experiment, preparing for an exam, or answering questions or homework problems. Any course requirement may be reformulated to be cooperative. In formal cooperative groups the professor should:
A typical format for problem-based cooperative learning is shown in Figure 2. The format illustrates the professor's role in a formal cooperative learning lesson and shows how the five essential elements are incorporated.
Cooperative problem-solving groups typically consist of two to four members. Group membership is randomly selected and typically changes with each assignment. Problem-solving group work follows a format such as:
Problem-based learning results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem. The process of problem-based learning is shown in Figure 3 and is contrasted with subject-based learning .
Problem-based learning is very suitable for engineering (as it is for medicine, where it is currently used) because it helps students develop skills and confidence for formulating problems they've never seen before. This is an important skill, since few professional engineers are paid to formulate and solve problems that follow from the material presented in the chapter or have a single ``right'' answer that one can find at the end of a book.
The intellectual activity of building models to solve problems-an explicit activity of constructing or creating the qualitative or quantitative relationships-helps students understand, explain, predict, etc. [6,7]. The process of building models together in face-to-face interpersonal interaction results in learning that is difficult to achieve in any other way.
During the past 90 years, nearly 600 experimental and over 100 correlational studies have been conducted comparing the effectiveness of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts. These studies have been conducted by a wide variety of researchers in different decades with different age subjects, in different subject areas, and in different settings. More is known about the efficacy of cooperative learning than about lecturing, the fifty-minute class period, the use of instructional technology, or almost any other aspect of education. From this research you would expect that the more students work in cooperative learning groups the more they will learn, the better they will understand what they are learning, the easier it will be to remember what they learn, and the better they will feel about themselves, the class, and their classmates. The multiple outcomes studied can be classified into three major categories: achievement/productivity, positive relationships, and psychological health. Cooperation among students typically results in (a) higher achievement and greater productivity, (b) more caring, supportive, and committed relationships, and (c) greater psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem. A summary of the studies conducted at the higher education level may be found in Johnson, Johnson, &Smith [1,2]. A comprehensive review of all studies and meta-analyses of their results is available in Johnson &Johnson .
Cooperative learning researchers and practitioners have shown that positive peer relationships are essential to success in college. Isolation and alienation are the best predictors of failure. Two major reasons for dropping out of college are failure to establish a social network of friends and classmates, and failure to become academically involved in classes . Working together with fellow students, solving problems together, and talking through material together has other benefits as well :
Student participation, teacher encouragement, and student-student interaction positively relate to improved critical thinking. These three activities confirm other research and theory stressing the importance of active practice, motivation, and feedback in thinking skills as well as other skills. This confirms that discussions. . .are superior to lectures in improving thinking and problem solving.
W. Edwards Deming  recently made a compelling case for the importance of cooperation and interdependence:
We have grown up in a climate of competition between people, teams, departments, divisions, pupils, schools, universities. We have been taught by economists that competition will solve our problems. Actually, competition, we see now, is destructive. It would be better if everyone would work together as a system, with the aim for everybody to win. What we need is cooperation and transformation to a new style of management. . .Competition leads to loss. People pulling in opposite directions on a rope only exhaust themselves: they go nowhere. What we need is cooperation. Every example of cooperation is one of benefit and gains to them that cooperate. Cooperation is especially productive in a system well managed.
Myron Tribus  maintains that teams are essential for developing engineering skills and competencies:
The main tool for teaching wisdom and character is the group project. Experiences with group activities, in which the members of the groups are required to exhibit honesty, integrity, perseverance, creativity and cooperation, provide the basis for critical review by both students and teachers. Teachers will need to learn to function more as coaches and resources and less as givers of knowledge.
Many educators who believe that they are using cooperative learning are, in fact, missing its essence. There is a crucial difference between simply putting students in groups to learn and in structuring cooperation among students. Cooperation is not having students sit side-by-side at the same table to talk with each other as they do their individual assignments. Cooperation is not assigning a report to a group of students where one student does all the work and the others put their names on the product as well. Cooperation is not having students do a task individually with instructions that the ones who finish first are to help the slower students. Cooperation is much more than being physically near other students, discussing material with other students, helping other students, or sharing material among students, although each of these is important in cooperative learning.
To be cooperative a group must have clear positive interdependence, members must promote each other's learning and success face-to-face, hold each other personally and individually accountable to do his or her fair share of the work, appropriately use the interpersonal and small-group skills needed for cooperative efforts to be successful, and process as a group how effectively members are working together. These five essential components must be present for small group learning to be truly cooperative.
Cooperative learning can be used to (a) teach specific content and problem-solving skills (formal learning groups), (b) ensure active cognitive processing during a lecture (informal learning groups), and (c) provide long-term support and assistance for academic progress (base groups). When used in combination, these formal, informal, and base cooperative learning groups provide an overall structure to teamwork in engineering classes.
The ideas, materials, and support from David and Roger Johnson, Co-Directors, Cooperative Learning Center, University of Minnesota, are gratefully acknowledged.