Cooperative Learning Strategies

  • Cooperative Learning Strategies

    By Martin Joyce, posted December 5, 2016 —

    Cooperative learning is a learning and teaching style that contrasts greatly with traditional direct instruction. In direct instruction, the teacher completes a math example for the class, then works with the class, and finally the students try it on their own. With cooperative learning, the students start the problem and work it out together. The teacher then provides closure, after students have presented their ideas and shown how they have connected the ideas and added academic vocabulary. According to my review of the research, fewer students can access the content using direct instruction and usually forget it quickly. Cooperative learning provides opportunities for productive struggle, in which students learn from their mistakes through explanations from their peers and teacher. The classroom environment must be such that students feel safe to make mistakes.

    Group work takes commitment. For many teachers (myself included), it is difficult at the beginning. You need to fight the urge to take back control. When students are in control of their learning, they have time to try out ideas, listen to one another, and gain confidence among their peers and the whole class. It can and will be frustrating at times. Remember, we aren’t all naturally great at group work. I had to teach my accelerated class the word “tact” after hearing what was said among classmates. It takes practice. I hope that the following suggestions of establishing study team norms and using study team support strategies will help your students improve and that you will see positive results.

    Each year, I introduce study team norms and reinforce them with participation quizzes. The following are some of the rules: No talking outside your team; keep the conversations on math; ask questions, do not give answers; wait for everyone to finish; don’t work ahead; keep your desk clear of clutter; justify your answer; and ask your team before the teacher. A colleague of mine, Aristotle Ou, developed these study team norms with each class. This idea was suggested to him by the Week of Inspirational Math on, which asked students to finish two statements: “When working in groups, I like when. . . .” and “When working in groups, I don’t like when. . . .” Student answers contain such gems as “I don’t like when people are off topic, give up, say the answer before you tried it,” and so on.

    One of the most important and effective study team strategies suggested by CPM (College Preparatory Math) is the participation quiz. Place a grid on the board and/or your clipboard of the groups’ seating arrangements. Before the students start the lesson, highlight one of the study team norms. Then, you update the board as the lesson progresses, with positive and negative quotes that are evidence of sharing ideas, critiquing ideas, and checking if teammates understand it. Students enjoy getting the instant feedback and are not distracted by it.

    Another strategy that I’ve used is called red light green light. Students worked on three tasks in which they had to decide if a situation was proportional or not and justify their answer with a table, a graph, and an explanation. Then a representative from their group goes up to the board and checks the answer. If the student is wrong, that’s a red light to stop and discuss the mistake with the group and fix it. Then the student has a green light. If the student representative got it right the first time, then it is a green light. This sounds like a simple strategy, but students are motivated when they don’t need the teacher to confirm whether they are right or not. It also empowers students to be responsible for their own learning.

    Rally Coach or Pairs Check is a partner and group strategy that I also like. Students work on a problem with a classmate. The catch is, one person talks and explains the problem while the other writes and says nothing. If the writer disagrees, they switch roles. Then the pairs check with the pair across the table from them to see if they got the same answer. This strategy increases accountability for students who hide in a group of 4.

    The final strategy I’d like to share is called Hot Potato. A group of 4 students uses 1 piece of paper, and each student uses a different colored pencil. They then do one step of a problem, pass the paper to the next person who completes a step, and so on. I (and the students) can look at the paper and instantly see if everyone is contributing.

    How have you gotten students to work efficiently in groups?


    Martin JoyceMartin Joyce,, is a middle school math teacher at Taylor Middle School in Millbrae, California. He blogs at and Tweets from @martinsean. He has taught every level of middle school from sixth-grade math support to eighth-grade accelerated algebra 1. His passion is developing each student’s math identity with cooperative learning, Desmos lessons, and peer feedback. He regularly reads books and blogs to refine his craft.

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