Cooperative Learning: Effective Teamwork for Engineering Classrooms

Karl A. Smith
University of Minnesota


Definition of cooperative learning and brief overview of types of cooperative learning groups-informal, formal, and base. Essential elements of a well-structured formal cooperative learning group. Professor's role in structuring a problem-based cooperative learning group. Summary of research support for cooperative learning.


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 [3] 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?

Types of Teams

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.

  1. Pseudo-Learning Group: Students are assigned to work together but they have no interest in doing so. They believe they will be evaluated by being ranked from the highest performer to the lowest performer. While on the surface students talk to each other, under the surface they are competing. They see each other as rivals who must be defeated, block or interfere with each other's learning, hide information from each other, attempt to mislead and confuse each other, and distrust each other. Students would achieve more if they were working alone.

  2. Traditional Classroom Learning Group: Students are assigned to work together and accept that they must do so. Assignments are structured, however, so that very little joint work is required. Students believe that they will be evaluated and rewarded as individuals, not as members of the group. They interact primarily to clarify how assignments are to be done. They seek each other's information, but have no motivation to teach what they know to their groupmates. Helping and sharing is minimized. Some students loaf, seeking a free ride on the efforts of their more conscientious groupmates. The conscientious members feel exploited and do less. The result is that the sum of the whole is more than the potential of some of the members, but the more hard working and conscientious students would perform higher if they worked alone.

  3. Cooperative Learning Groups: Students are assigned to work together and, given the complexity of the task and the necessity for diverse perspectives, they are relieved to do so. They know that their success depends on the efforts of all group members. The group format is clearly defined. First, the group goal of maximizing all members' learning provides a compelling common purpose that motivates members to roll up their sleeves and accomplish something beyond their individual achievements. Second, group members hold themselves and each other accountable for doing high quality work to achieve their mutual goals. Third, group members work face-to-face to produce joint work-products. They do real work together. Students promote each other's success through helping, sharing, assisting, explaining, and encouraging. They provide both academic and personal support based on a commitment to and caring about each other. Fourth, group members are taught teamwork skills and are expected to use them to coordinate their efforts and achieve their goals. Both task and teambuilding skills are emphasized. All members share responsibility for providing leadership. Finally, groups analyze how effectively they are achieving their goals and how well members are working together. There is an emphasis on continual improvement of the quality of learning and teamwork processes.

  4. High-Performance Cooperative Learning Group: This is a group that meets all the criteria for being a cooperative learning group and outperforms all reasonable expectations, given its membership. What differentiates the high-performance group from the cooperative learning group is the level of commitment members have to each other and the group's success. Jennifer Futernick, who is part of a high-performing, rapid response team at McKinsey &Company, calls the emotional binding of her teammates together a form of love [4]. Ken Hoepner of the Burlington Northern Intermodal Transport Team (also described in [4]) stated: ``Not only did we trust each other, not only did we respect each other, but we gave a damn about the rest of the people on this team. If we saw somebody vulnerable, we were there to help.'' Members' mutual concern for each other's personal growth enables high-performance cooperative groups to perform far above expectations, and also to have lots of fun. The bad news about high-performance cooperative learning groups is that they are rare. Most groups never achieve this level of development.

Essential Elements: What Makes Cooperative Learning Work

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:

  1. Positive Interdependence: The heart of cooperative learning is positive

    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.

  2. Face-to-Face Promotive Interaction: Once a professor establishes positive interdependence, he or she must ensure that students interact to help each other accomplish the task and promote each other's success. Students are expected to explain orally to each other how to solve problems, discuss with each other the nature of the concepts and strategies being learned, teach their knowledge to classmates, explain to each other the connections between present and past learning, and help, encourage, and support each other's efforts to learn. Silent students are uninvolved students who are not contributing to the learning of others or themselves.

  3. Individual Accountability/Personal Responsibility: The purpose of cooperative learning groups is to make each member a stronger individual in his or her own right.

    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.

  4. Teamwork Skills: Contributing to the success of a cooperative effort requires teamwork skills. Students must have and use the needed leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills. These skills have to be taught just

    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.

  5. Group Processing: Professors need to ensure that members of each cooperative learning group discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective

    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.

Problem-Based Cooperative Learning

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:

  1. Specify the objectives for the lesson. In every engineering lesson there should be an academic objective specifying the concepts and strategies to be learned and a teamwork objective specifying the interpersonal or small group skill to be used and mastered during the lesson.

  2. Make a number of instructional decisions. The professor has to decide on the size of groups, the method of assigning students to groups, how long the groups stay together, the roles the students will be assigned, the materials needed to conduct the lesson, and the way the room will be arranged.

  3. Explain the task and the positive interdependence. The professor needs to clearly define the assignment, teach the required concepts and strategies, specify the positive interdependence and individual accountability, give the criteria for success, and explain the expected teamwork skill to be engaged in.

  4. Monitor students' learning and intervene within the groups to provide task assistance or to increase students' teamwork skills. The professor systemically observes and collects data on each group as it works. When it is needed, the professor intervenes to assist students in completing the task accurately and in working together effectively.

  5. Evaluate students' learning and help students process how well their group functioned. Students' learning is carefully assessed and their performances are evaluated. The professor provides time and a structure for members of each learning group to process how effectively they have been working together. A criteria-referenced evaluation procedure must be used, that is, grading must NOT be curved.

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:

  1. Groups formulate and solve problems. Each group will place its formulation and solution on an overhead transparency or on paper.
  2. Randomly selected students will present their group's model and solution.
  3. Discussion of formulation and solution. All members of the class will be expected to discuss and question all models.
  4. Each group will prepare and submit a project report, and process its effectiveness as a group.

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 [5].

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.

Support for Cooperative Learning

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 [8].

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 [9]. Working together with fellow students, solving problems together, and talking through material together has other benefits as well [10]:

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.

Practical Support for Instructional Format

W. Edwards Deming [11] 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 [12] 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.


  1. Johnson, David W., Johnson, Roger T., and Smith, Karl A. 1991. Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty instructional productivity.'' ASHE-ERIC Report on Higher Education. Washington, DC: The George Washington University.

  2. Johnson, David W., Johnson, Roger T., and Smith, Karl A. 1991. Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

  3. Treisman, U. 1992. Studying students studying calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. College Mathematics Journal, 23(5), 362-372.

  4. Katzenbach, Jon R. and Smith, Douglas K. 1993. The discipline of teams. Harvard Business Review, 71(2), 111-120.

  5. Woods, Donald R. 1994. Problem-based learning: How to gain the most from PBL. Waterdown, Ontario: Donald R. Woods.

  6. Smith, Karl A., and Starfield, Anthony M. 1993. Building models to solve problems. In J.H. Clarke &A.W. Biddle, (Eds.), Teaching critical thinking: Reports from across the curriculum. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

  7. Starfield, Anthony M., Smith, Karl A., and Bleloch, Andrew L. 1994. How to model it: Problem solving for the computer age. Edina, MN: Burgess International Group, Inc.

  8. Johnson, David W., Johnson, Roger T. 1989. Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

  9. Tinto, Vincent. 1994. Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  10. McKeachie, Wilbert; Pintrich, Paul; Yi-Guang, Lin; and Smith, David. 1986. Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the research literature. Ann Arbor, MI: The Regents of the University of Michigan.

  11. Deming, W. Edwards. 1993. The new economics for industry, government, education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

  12. Tribus, Myron. 1992. Total quality management in schools of business and engineering. Unpublished manuscript.
Fri Sep 29 13:54:20 PDT 1995