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The Implementation of Cooperative Learning in the Classroom

Wendy Jolliffe

Centre for Educational Studies, University of Hull, Hull HU6 7RX
Telephone: 01482 466513, e-mail:

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005


This paper presents research findings into the implementation of cooperative learning in the classroom. Whilst there is a wealth of existing research into both the benefits and the types of cooperative learning, it will examine the lack of evidence into how to put it into practice effectively.

Results from the author’s research into twelve primary and two secondary schools, in a socially and economically deprived area in the city of Hull, are examined. These schools were all involved in implementing cooperative learning. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, the study assesses, firstly the extent of use, and secondly the most effective professional development for staff implementing such a teaching strategy.

The research shows that after between one and three years of use, teachers were overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of cooperative learning. On average, 78.6% of all staff were using it, and in over half of cases this was across the curriculum. Critical analysis of key factors will be presented into the effective implementation which will range from specific methods of professional development to good practice in supporting staff in schools. The crucial feature emerging from this is the allocation of a dedicated member of staff, as facilitator, to support and monitor the use of cooperative learning.


Cooperative Learning (CL) is the umbrella term for ‘a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together,’ (Smith and MacGregor, 1992:10). It requires a small number of pupils to work together on a common task, supporting and encouraging each other to improve their learning. Types of CL vary from Student Team Achievement Division (STAD) (Slavin, 1983), where pupils work in teams to ensure that all members have mastered the objective. Pupils then take individual tests on the material and scores are averaged for teams. Another form, Group Investigation, is a problem solving approach which has four elements: investigation, interaction, interpretation and intrinsic motivation (Sharan, 1994). Jigsaw, (Aronson et al, 1978) involves each member of a group learning an essential part of a whole of a topic by working with a focus group and then helping the home group to combine the knowledge to complete the task. The Structural Approach, (Kagan, 1994) consists of structures, or social interaction sequences, which enable the teacher to transform existing lessons into a co-operative format by using simple strategies. These strategies, or structures, are content-free mechanisms and are widely transferable across the curriculum; an example being, think-pair-share, where pupils are asked a question, given time to think, then they discuss with a partner before sharing with the class. Regardless of the specific format, researchers generally agree on two features essential to cooperative learning: positive interdependence and individual accountability (Cooper and Mueck, 1992; Slavin, 1992; Smith et al 1992; Cottell and Millis, 1992).

The use of CL in a network of schools in Hull, in the North of England, began with four primary schools in 2000, as part of the Success for All strategy for the teaching of literacy and was based on Slavin’s model of team incentives (STAD). Since then a further eight primary schools and two secondary schools have received training in the use of CL and have been using it for a period of between six months and three years. This model of CL is developed from Johnson and Johnson (1987), Brown and Thomson (2000) and Kagan (1994) using the five principles known by the acronym ‘PIGSF’:

Positive interdependence,

Individual accountability,

Group reflection,

Small group skills

Face to face interaction

Training involved a range of teaching ‘structures’ or techniques, derived from Kagan (1994) which were modelled, together with methods of teaching small group skills, such as ‘active listening’ and ‘helping and supporting each other’. Following training, all of these schools appointed a dedicated facilitator to support the use of CL.

The aim of this research was to elicit key factors into the effective implementation of CL, as well as to gain an accurate picture of the extent of use. Extensive research exists into the benefits of CL (Johnson & Johnson, 1989, Slavin, 1995, 1996). Results of these have shown three main categories of advantages; achievement; inter-personal relationships; psychological health and social competence. However there is limited research into the effective implementation:

‘Although co-operative grouping has a respectable theoretical pedigree, the effectiveness of which is backed up by the systematic research, very few studies have considered how best to put it into practice in classrooms.’ (Bennett, 1994: 60)

The principal aim of this research, therefore, is to determine significant factors for the successful implementation of CL in the classroom.


This included questionnaires provided to all Headteachers and Facilitators at each of the 12 primary and two secondary schools (see appendix 1). 21 responses were received, one from each of the schools, although not all schools returned separate responses from Headteachers and Facilitators. Questionnaires were analysed using Excel to record data and provide a range of graphical comparative data and SPSS to determine frequencies and valid percentages. Analysis was conducted to focus on the following aspects:

1. Length of time the school has used CL strategies.

2. Extent the school is positive about the benefits.

3. Extent of the training received.

4. Extent and frequency of use of CL.

5. Most effective type of professional development.

6. Further support needed.

In addition, semi-structured interviews were held with Headteachers and/or Facilitators and these were analysed using a conceptual framework.

Results (see appendix 1 for full details)

1. Length of Use

Apart from one school, which recorded up to 6 months use (as a result of a change in Headteacher), 50% of the schools have used CL for over two years. It is therefore valid to conclude that the majority of these schools are very familiar with CL as a learning and teaching strategy.

2. Extent the school is positive about the benefits.

Schools were asked to mark on a scale of 1-5 (1 being highest) whether they agreed with a statement about the positive benefits of CL for academic and social skills. Results showed that all schools either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.

3. Extent of the training received

Schools have received a different amount of training. This varied from those that received training as part of the Success for All strategy, some over four years previously, followed by additional shorter sessions led by the Bransholme Networked Learning Community, to extend the use to all areas of the curriculum. Others had received at least two days full training, followed by additional support as required.

In addition, schools were asked if they had received any other training and many commented on Facilitator meetings or Success for All implementation (monitoring) visits or other linked training such as that related to the ‘Talk Project’ or Speaking and Listening training from the Primary National Strategy. All schools reported in-house support.

4. Extent and frequency of use of CL

Schools were asked to comment on the proportion of staff that used CL during the Autumn term 2004 and the response showed that 78.6% of all staff in 14 schools were using CL techniques, with no schools reporting that only a few staff (less than half), or none used CL.

In addition, schools were asked to comment on the extent of use in a range of lessons with over half of schools (57.1%) showing that staff used CL in most lessons across a range of subject area.

5. Most effective type of professional development

Schools were asked to comment on four particular types of professional development and rate these on a 1-5 scale (1 being most useful, 5 least useful) and to indicate and specify any other type they found successful. Results showed that 42.9% found modelling of collaborative activities most useful, 21.4% found peer support most useful, 21.4% found facilitator support most useful and 7.1% found specific school-based support most useful.

6. Further support needed

Schools were also asked to comment on what further support they needed. 21.4% required further external training, 21.4% required external support to work alongside staff, 35.7% required in-house training to be delivered by the Facilitator with 42.9% requiring internal facilitator support to staff and 35.7% requiring classroom-based peer support. This indicated a preference for internal training and support from the Facilitator and peers.


Analysis of this data aimed to answer the following questions:

Firstly, does the length of time that a school had used CL affect the extent of use?

Secondly, does the extent of training received affect the extent of use?

1. Does the length of time that a school had used CL affect the extent of use?

The following graph shows no consistent pattern and the four schools that have used CL the longest (as part of the Success for All strategy) all reporting a variation in use with one reporting in most lessons, across the curriculum, another recording in over half of lessons and the remaining two stating on average about once each day. Interestingly, one school that reported the least time of use (up to six months), showed extent of use to be in over half of lessons across the curriculum. It can be therefore concluded that length of time is not a significant factor in its use.

Graph 1

In addition, the questionnaire looked at proportion of staff using CL as well as the extent of use in lessons. The results can be seen in graph 2, which shows a total of 11 schools reporting that all staff were using CL, with a varying length of time they had been using CL, from one school up to six months and four schools for over three years, but all of these reporting the same proportion of staff using CL. Therefore the length of use showed no significant effect on the number of staff that are using it.

Graph 2

2. Does the extent of training received affect the extent of use?

Analysis then looked at whether training was a significant factor in successful implementation. Firstly to examine the length and type of training as compared to the frequency of use in lessons. This showed no significant pattern. The schools that had received the longest training reported different use, from about once per day, to in most lessons across the curriculum. One school reported equal amount of training to extent of use. It would appear that there is no direct correlation between amount of training and use of CL in schools. Graph 3 shows the results:

Graph 3

In addition, the proportion of staff compared to the length of training can be analysed. This shows, as previously, that eleven schools reported all staff using CL, and the schools that had received the greatest amount of training show that all staff are using it. Two schools that reported the least training reported less staff using (over half). However, five schools that had received less training still showed all staff are using it. It is therefore difficult to make overall conclusions from this, although this indicates that training does impact on use. Graph 4 shows the results:

Graph 4

Significant Comments

Schools were invited to make any further comments which were followed up in semi-structured interviews. These were analysed according to the following conceptual framework:

  • Views on the success of CL

  • Factors viewed as helping in the successful implementation

  • Factors hindering successful implementation

  • Most effective Professional Development

  • Future training needs

  • Full details can be seen as Appendix 2. To summarise these views, it can be seen that generally schools have paired work embedded and need to move to implementing effective group work more consistently. Schools that introduced CL as part of Success for All require further support to ensure that CL is embedded throughout the curriculum. Schools are often making useful links with other initiatives such as the ‘Talk Project’ or Speaking and Listening training from the Primary National Strategy, and are seeing benefits in children’s confidence and oral skills.

    Factors that have helped the implementation have been a mixture of monitoring and support with all schools verifying the key importance of the role of the Facilitator. One school that has been particularly effective has a key member of staff who is very knowledgeable about CL through research and training. This impacted upon the staff and provided a clear vision for the school. Additional key aspects are the sensitive mix of monitoring and support to staff with one school using a positive and helpful observation proforma for peer observation. Also the clear identification of skills and staged implementation through the school development plan and within medium term plans showed a positive impact. Involving pupils in identifying skills and setting targets has also been advantageous. Support to facilitators proved particularly beneficial, with a number or schools finding meetings for facilitators to share good practice and offer support, helpful. Schools using the Success for All strategy have also found external monitoring useful.

    Factors that have hindered successful implementation have centred on the role of the Facilitator and where insufficient time has been provided through issues of time and cost, this has impacted on the level of use. In addition, the constant need to update and train due to staff turnover has caused difficulties. The importance of ensuring training meets the school’s needs was particularly noted by some schools, and many found that initial external training was useful followed by in-house support.

    All schools reported that in-house support has been the most effective form of professional development, clearly showing the vital role of the Facilitator. Future training needs require some additional external training to embed CL throughout the curriculum followed by in-house support.


    This research has shown that 12 primary and two secondary schools using CL are all positive about its use with academic and social benefits to pupils. To reiterate 78.6% of all staff are using CL and over half of those staff (57.1%) are using it in over half of all lessons across the curriculum. Paired work is particularly well established and most schools need to work further on establishing group work.

    Key factors in successful implementation

    The following factors emerged:

    1. The vital role of the Facilitator in supporting, training and monitoring the use of CL.

    2. Useful support to Facilitators provided through cluster meetings.

    3. Facilitator expertise and research impacted on effective implementation.

    4. The effectiveness of providing a mixture of external training and support, in initial stages, followed by in-house support through the Facilitator as well as peer support.

    5. Training that incorporated explicit modelling of strategies was more effective.

    6. Identification of skills for CL and phased implementation through the school development plan and medium term plans.

    7. Involvement of pupils in target setting for CL skills using assessment for learning principles.

    8. Peer observation using clear guidance proforma.

    The above provides strong indicators regarding successful continuing professional development more generally which centre on the following themes:

  • Ownership

  • The schools had a strong sense that whilst they had received whole school external training, they were developing CL in different ways according to their own needs. The Facilitator was crucial in supporting teachers, individually or in groups.

  • Peer coaching/support

  • All the schools had separately undergone training in peer coaching and this, alongside the support of the Facilitator, was found to be mutually beneficial. Definitions and methods of peer coaching vary, however it can be broadly described as ‘the process of teachers helping other teachers’ (Koballa, et al, 1992:42). Research on peer coaching (Joyce and Showers, 1996: 12) found that ‘coaching, following initial training, would result in much greater transfer than would training alone’.

  • Networking

  • The schools had close links stemming from originally being part of an Education Action Zone and later a Networked Learning Community. They had for over two years employed an Administrator, part-time, to support this network and organise regular meetings, including meetings of Facilitators. This has enabled the sharing of good practice and developed a system of mutual support.

  • With specific regard to cooperative learning, the success largely depends on firstly ensuring teachers receive sufficient training in the key elements, and secondly that pupils are provided with support and training in the crucial inter-personal and small group skills. In addition, this research showed clearly the importance of a dedicated member of staff to support and monitor the school’s evolution of a radically different pedagogy. In essence, the effective implementation of CL requires the empowerment of the Facilitator.


    Aronson, E., Blaney, N., Stephan, C, Sikes. J., and Snapp, M. (1978) The Jigsaw Classroom, Beverley Hills, CA : Sage Publications Inc.

    Bennett N. (1994) ‘Cooperative Learning’, in P Kutnick & D. Rogers (Eds) Groups in Schools, London: Cassell.

    Brown D. and Thomson C., (2000) Cooperative Learning in New Zealand Schools, Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

    Cooper, J. and Mueck, R. (1992) ‘Student Involvement in learning: Cooperative learning and college instruction’ in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, edited by A. Goodsell, M. Maher, and V. Tinto, University Park, PA: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

    Cottell Jr., P. G., and Millis, B. J. (1992) ‘Cooperative Learning in Accounting’ Journal of Accounting Education (Spring): 95-111.

    Johnson, D. W., and Johnson R. T. , Houlbec, E., Roy, P., (1984) Circles of Learning, VA: ASCD.

    Johnson, D. W, & Johnson R., (1989) Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research, Edina MN :Interaction Book Company.

    Johnson, D. W, & Johnson R., ‘Learning Together’ in Sharan S. (Ed) (1994) Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

    Joyce, B. and Showers, B. (1996) ‘The Evolution of Peer Coaching’, Educational Leadership, Alexandria: Mar, 1996, Vol 53, (6) 12-17.

    Kagan, S. (1994) Cooperative Learning, San Juan Capistrano: Kagan Cooperative Learning.

    Koballa, Jr T. R., Eidson, S. D., Finco-Kent, D., Grimes, S., Kight, C. R., Sambs, H. (1992) Peer Coaching: Capitilizing on Constructive Criticism’, The Science Teacher, Sep, 59 (6) 42-45.

    Slavin, R. E., (1983) ‘When does cooperative learning increase student achievement? Psychological Bulletin (November): 429-445.

    Slavin, R. E., (1992) ‘Research on Cooperative Learning: Consensus and Controversy in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, edited by A. Goodsell, M. Maher, and V. Tinto, University Park, PA: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

    Slavin, R.E. (1995) (Winter). ‘A Model of Effective Instruction’, The Educational Forum, Vol. 59. 166-1.

    Slavin, R. E., (1996) Education for All, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger, B. V. Lisse.

    Smith, B. L. and MacGregor, J. T., (1992) ‘What is Collaborative Learning?’ in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, edited by A. Goodsell, M. Maher, and V. Tinto, University Park, PA: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

    Smith, K. A., Johnson, D. W. and Johnson, R. T. (1992) ‘Cooperative Learning and Positive Change in Higher Education in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, edited by A. Goodsell, M. Maher, and V. Tinto, University Park, PA: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

    Appendix 1

    Analysis of Results using SPSS

    Frequency Table

    Appendix 2

    Facilitators’ and Headteachers’ Comments on the Implementation of Cooperative Learning


    Views on success of CL

    Factors helping

    Factors hindering

    Most effective Professional Development

    Future training needs


    Embedded in SFA

    External implementation visits

    Extra training and meetings

    Facilitator not teaching during specific SFA time, unable to speak from experience

    In-house support

    Staff meetings

    Opportunities to observe others

    Periodic refreshers


    Embedded well in SFA

    Internal support from facilitator and staff meetings

    Facilitator not released in afternoons so not able to gain complete overview

    Staff turnover

    Individual teachers’ understanding

    In-house support

    Training in classroom most valuable

    More use of videos

    Peer collaboration

    More external training on CL in rest of curriculum


    CL embedded in SFA and paired work throughout

    External implementation visits

    Facilitator support

    Developing further across the curriculum

    External support followed by in-house monitoring - support and challenge

    Training delivered to clusters of schools

    Support to embed across the curriculum – external training and internal support


    CL becoming embedded throughout

    Head’s experience of using CL

    None identified

    Leadership from Head

    In house support

    Can be met from school’s expertise.


    Becoming embedded – staff very positive

    Facilitator support

    Other school issues (amalgamation)

    In-house support

    External support to work alongside staff


    Embedded throughout and impacting on behaviour and confidence with speaking

    Facilitator support

    to colleagues within classroom

    Staff turnover

    In-house support

    Facilitator working alongside staff

    Refresher and additional training for newer staff

    In-house training


    Embedded in SFA and paired work throughout

    Facilitator support

    External monitoring

    Insufficient time to train all staff in using CL across the curriculum

    Lack of monitoring across all subjects

    External support followed up by support in –house

    Support to embed across the curriculum


    Strategies becoming embedded. Used alongside work on Talk Project

    Identifying key outcomes in School Improvement Plan and monitoring success

    Training needs to be tailored to school’s needs.

    Zero noise signal not felt helpful

    In-house support

    External support needs to be specific to needs of the school

    In-house support most effective


    Embedded well in Year 7 and now spreading further

    Staff positive

    Facilitator’s research

    Key actions in Development plan

    Hierarchy of skills shared with pupils.

    Links with AfL

    Staff cross-phase observations

    Peer coaching

    None identified

    In-house support

    Facilitator support


    Embedded in SFA

    Facilitator support

    External monitoring visits and support

    School self-evaluation

    None identified

    Externally delivered plus a range of in-house support

    In house support


    Paired work embedded across the curriculum

    Linking CL with other training, e.g. Speaking and Listening

    In school support and monitoring.

    None identified

    Externally delivered plus a range of in-house support

    Whole school inset followed by further in-house support


    Staff positive about advantages particularly social skills.

    Paired work embedded

    Facilitator support

    Facilitator modelling of good practice

    Facilitator led staff meetings for revision

    Facilitator meetings

    Expense and disruption caused by release of Facilitator and other staff to observe good practice, although also advantageous for monitoring

    In-house support

    In house support


    Staff positive and children developing more confidence at speaking

    Facilitator support

    Facilitator meetings

    Staff meetings to revisit strategies

    Sharing ideas for good practice

    Staff found difficulty in implementing some strategies and need to see them modelled

    In-house support

    In house support


    CL is developing

    Facilitator and peer support

    None identified

    In-house support

    In-house support by Facilitator

    Peer support

    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 19 September 2005