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Active/Cooperative Learning


Introduction to Active/Cooperative Learning

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The first resource is a one-page introduction that briefly addresses several questions that faculty members have raised about using active/cooperative learning.


Mini-documents address the following issues in active/cooperative learning (ACL).

  • Using ACL in Digital Logic Courses: This mini-document is a detailed exploration of how active/cooperative learning can be used in a typical digital logic course. [MS WORD]
  • Using ACL to Teach the Nyquist Stability Criterion: The Nyquist Stability Criterion is typically one of the more difficult topics for students to learn in an introductory controls course. In a paper presented at the 2003 ASEE Annual Conference, Robert Leland, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University, describes how he uses ACL to teach the topic.
  • Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Promotive Interaction: Three Pillars of Cooperative Learning: Although the importance of the five elements of cooperative learning may be recognized, greater understanding regarding what these elements are, why they are essential to effective cooperative learning activities, and how learning activities that incorporate these elements is needed. The mini-document addresses these three questions. [MS WORD]
  • Evidence for the Efficacy of Cooperative Learning: Faculty members who are introduced to the practive of cooperative learning often raise questions about its effectiveness. The mini-document attempts to assemble a summary of evidence across science, engineering, and mathematics at the collegiate level.


The Foundation Coalition offers three workshops on active/cooperative learning:

The lengths of the workshops vary between two hours and two days, depending upon the desired degree of interactivity and participant interaction. Greater interactivity and participation requires a longer workshop. If you interested in hosting several workshops, workshop sponsors can customize content by combining one or more of the workshops offered by the Foundation Coalition (FC). For more information about FC workshops see the workshop introduction. Workshops have been offered on several campuses and some of the presentations are available.

  • University of Idaho, Jim Morgan, 29 July 2002 [PDF | PowerPoint]
  • Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Jim Morgan, Jeff Froyd, 26 October 2001 [PDF | PowerPoint]

Web Site

With input and material from experts across the country, the Foundation Coalition has assembled a web site ( with information on active/cooperative learning. Topics in the web site include

  • an overview of active/cooperative learning
  • preparing students for active/cooperative learning
  • planning active/cooperative learning lessons
  • implementing active/cooperative learning lessons
  • lessons and activities


Research clearly supports the widely accepted proposition that students need to do more than just listen to learn.[1] Despite this widely held and strongly supported proposition, a survey of U.S. professors found that lecturing is the mode of instruction in 89% of physical scientists and mathematicians.[2] One of the underlying ideas of the Foundation Coalition (FC) has been to advocate active/cooperative learning as a pedagogical approach to be used in conjunction with lectures. Bonwell and Eison[3] describe active learning in the following fashion: "When using active learning students are engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialog, debate, writing, and problem solving, as well as higher-order thinking, e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation."

Similarly, Johnson, Johnson, and Smith[4] define cooperative learning as "the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. Five essential components must be present for small-group learning to be truly cooperative:

1.       clear positive interdependence between students

2.       face to face interaction

3.       individual accountability

4.       emphasize interpersonal and small-group skill

5.       processes must be in place for group review to improve effectiveness."

A recent study [5] pulls together many different studies on active, collaborative, cooperative, and problem-based learning.

Many faculty members across the FC have been using active/cooperative learning student teams as an integral part of their courses since the inception of the Coalition in 1993. These faculty members have coupled their experience and expertise with research to create a number of resources that, hopefully, will help faculty members use active/cooperative learning together with their lectures.


Resources that have been or are being produced by the Foundation Coalition include:

  • A one-page introduction to active/cooperative learning
  • Mini-documents are concise (4-10 pages) explorations of issues related to cooperative learning. A series of mini-documents will address several questions that faculty members have raised about active/cooperative learning.
  • Workshops
  • Web site on active/cooperative learning



References for Further Information

1.       Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) "Seven Principles for Good Practice," AAHE Bulletin, 39:3–7, ED 282 491, 6pp, MF-01; PC-01.

2.       Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) "Seven Principles for Good Practice," AAHE Bulletin, 39:3–7, ED 282 491, 6pp, MF-01; PC-01.

3.       Bonwell, C., and Eison, J. (1991) "Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom," ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1.

4.       Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K. (1991) Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company

5.       Prince, M. (2004) "Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research," Journal of Engineering Education, 93:3, 223-231
Abstract: This study examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning. It defines the common forms of active learning most relevant for engineering faculty and critically examines the core element of each method. It is found that there is broad but even support for the coore elements of active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning.

Web Resources

Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota: The web site contains a number of articles describing the fundamentals of cooperative learning, the research support for cooperative learning, and different teaching strategies based on the fundamentals of cooperative learning.

College Level One - Collaborative Learning Page: The National Institute for Science Education - College Level One - offers an techniques, stories by practitioners, an annotated bibliography and more for faculty members interested in collaborative (small group) learning.

Active-Learning-Site.Com Research Summaries: The web page summarizes three research articles that can inform classroom practice and demonstrate the value of active learning approaches.

Interactive-Engagement vs. Traditional Methods in Teaching Mechanics: The article by Richard Hake compares gains on the Force Concept Inventory by different classes (involving almost 6,000 students) using lecture and interactive-engagement methods of teaching mechanics.

Cooperative Learning in Technical Courses: Procedures, Pitfalls, and Payoffs: The article by Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent provides a good overview on cooperative learning for faculty thinking about trying this approach in class.

Evidence for Active Learning

  Laws, P., Sokoloff, D., and Thornton, R. (1999). Promoting Active Learning Using the Results of Physics Education Research. UniServe Science News, 13, Retrieved from, 4 September 2006

  Relevant Section: “The successes of the research-based strategies and curricula described above have been demonstrated by large conceptual learning gains in introductory courses. After traditional instruction, only 30% of a sample of over 1200 students in calculus-based physics courses at five different universities understood fundamental acceleration concepts. When, for the first time, two Tools for Scientific Thinking active-learning kinematics laboratories were offered at these universities, more than 75% of the students understood these concepts. At universities where the complete set of RealTime Physics Mechanics laboratories have been implemented, such as the University of Oregon and Tufts University, 93% of students understand these concepts, even in non-calculus introductory courses. At such universities, less than 15% of students held a Newtonian point of view after traditional instruction in dynamics, while 90% did so after RealTime Physics laboratories. There is good evidence that this conceptual understanding is retained.”

Evidence for Cooperative Learning

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., and Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69:1, 21-51.

Abstract: Recent calls for instructional innovation in undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) courses and programs highlight the need for a solid foundation of education research at the undergraduate level on which to base policy and practice. We report herein the results of a meta-analysis that integrates research on undergraduate SMET education since 1980. The meta-analysis demosntrates that various forms of small-group learning are effective in promoting greater academic achievement, more favorable attitudes toward learning, and increased persistence through SMET courses and programs. The magnitude of the effects reports in this study exceeds most findings in comparable reviews of research on educational innovations and supports more widespread implementation of small-group learning in undergraudate SMET.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (1998). Cooperative Learning Returns to College: What Evidence Is There That It Works? Change, July/August 1998

Terenzini, P.T., Cabrera, A.F., Colbeck, C.L., Parente, J.M., Bjorklund, S.A. (2001). Collaborative Learning vs. Lecture/Discussion: Students' Reported Learning Gains. Journal of Engineering Education, 90:1, 123-130

Hake, R.R. (1988). Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66, 64- 74,

Felder, R.M., Felder, G.N., Dietz, E.J. (1998). A Longitudinal Study of Engineering Student Performance and Retention. V. Comparisons with Traditionally-Taught Students. Journal of Engineering Education, 98(4), 469-480

Wright, J.C., Millar, S.B., Kosciuk, S.A., Penberthy, D. L., Williams, P.H., Wampold, B.E. (1998). A Novel Strategy for Assessing the Effects of Curriculum Reform on Student Competence. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(8), 986-992

Crouch, C.H., and Mazur, E. (2001) Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), 970-977

Bonsangue, M. (1994). An efficacy study of the calculus workshop model. CBMS Issues in Collegiate Mathematics Education, 4, Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 117-137

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231

Abstract: This study examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning. It defines the common forms of active learning most relevant for engineering faculty and critically examines the core element of each method. It is found that there is broad but even support for the coore elements of active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning.

Buck, J.R., & Wage, K. E. (2005). Active and Cooperative Learning in Signal Processing Courses. IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, 22(2), 76-81.

Cooperative Learning Structures

Cooperative learning structures are frameworks within which faculty members can construct cooperative learning activities. Cooperative learning structures support inclusion of the five elements of cooperative learning: positive interdependence, promotive interaction, individual accountability, social skills, and group processing. Several collections of cooperative learning structures are available:

  • Cooperative Learning Structures, Barbara Millis, U.S. Air Force Academy
  • Cooperative/Collaborative Structures Explicitly Designed To Promote Positive Interdependence Among Group Members, Joe Cuseo
  • Cooperative Learning Structures, National Institute for Science Education, University of Wisconsin

Jigsaw: A jigsaw is a cooperative learning structure in which material to be learned is divided into separate components. Groups of students are assigned responsibility for each component and learn together how to teach that component. Then, teams with one individual responsible for each component come together to teach each other the entire set of material. First, students work together to learn how to best teach the material for which they are responsible. Second, students interact in their final teams to teach each other what they have learned.

Thnk-Pair-Share: Think-pair-share is a cooperative learning structure in which learners individually think about a question, share their thoughts in pairs, and then selected members share the thoughts of their pairs with the entire class.

Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning: Guided recipriocal peer questioning asks small groups of students to address a set of questions designed to encourage higher level cognitive processing. Structuring peer interaction to promote high-level cognitive processing presents theory supporting this cooperative learning structure and provides a concrete example to help faculty envision how this structure might work.

Scripted Cooperation: A pair of learners both read an assignment. Without referring to the reading material, one learner describes what was in the reading material while the other learner listens, identifies errors, and offers corrections. Both learners refer to the reading assignment, and reverse roles. Studies indicate both improvement in comprehension as well as the transfer of learning skills when reading individuallly.

Using Cooperative Learning

Zemke, S. C., Elger, D. F., and Beller, J. (2004). Tailoring Cooperative Learning Events for Engineering Classes. Proceedings, ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition

Abstract: Faculty value high student engagement that leads to high learning outcomes. While high student engagement is frequently difficult to achieve, numerous studies have shown that cooperative learning events produce greater student engagement in a wide variety of disciplines. However, many students have had negative experiences with "group work" and are hesitant to participate. In addition, it can be unclear when creating a cooperative educational event for engineering classes whether it will work as planned. Our question is:

“What are the important design features when tailoring cooperative educational events for engineering classes?”

We designed and applied fifteen distinct cooperative learning events while teaching an undergraduate materials science course of twenty-five students. Three separate instruments were used to collect student perceptions of the learning events and the data was then triangulated to determine and verify trends. The first instrument was a student survey immediately following each event to collect “snapshot” perceptions. The second instrument was an end of term activity in which each student rank ordered the individual events from “most helpful in learning,” to “least helpful in learning.” The third instrument was end of term qualitative data where the students described in writing what made the “most helpful” events helpful and the “least helpful” events least helpful.

We rated the events from excellent to poor based on the collected data. The spread of the event ratings allowed us to discover two important design features. (1) Design each event so that the students begin with the concepts and are guided through the application. This connection of the concept, application, and interrelationship between them greatly enhances learning. The learning environment is weakened when concept and application are taught separately. (2) Design each event so that students need to create and use visual elements in the learning. Student creation and subsequent use of graphs, sketches, or diagrams makes the learning more concrete and also facilitates collaboration.

Students overwhelmingly indicated that use of effective cooperative events enabled them to more easily master difficult material. The students did not consider effective cooperative events merely “group work.”

Mourtos, N. J. (1997). The Nuts and Bolts of Cooperative Learning in Engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 86(1), 35-37

Abstract: A great number of engineering students work alone most of the time. This is in sharp contrast with industry where most of the work is performed in teams. The ability to work in a team effectively is not acquired automatically. It takes interpersonal and social skills which need to be developed and practiced. In addition, research shows that the student-student interaction, often neglected in traditional ways of teaching, is a most effective way of learning. Thus, it is imperative that we encourage our students to work with each other in their efforts to achieve their educational goals. In this paper I discuss my experience with Cooperative Learning (CL) in a variety of engineering courses during the last four years. The discussion includes benefits and problems along with possible solutions. Lastly, I have made an effort to evaluate the impact of CL on student performance and attitude.

Felder, R. M., and Brent, R. (2001). Effective Strategies for Cooperative Learning. Journal of Cooperation & Collaboration in College Teaching, 10(2), 69-75

Summary: About 15 years ago one of the authors (RF) began to experiment with groupwork in his engineering courses. After making every mistake in the book (which he had not yet read), he recognized that there must be more to getting students to work together effectively than simply putting them in groups and asking them to do something, but he wasn’t sure what it was. Then, like so many of his colleagues in engineering, he attended a workshop given by Karl Smith, heard the gospel of cooperative learning according to Johnson et al., and was converted. Things went much better after that, although every course he taught produced additional items on his lists of things that work and things to avoid.

During that same period, the other author (RB) was also using cooperative learning—first as an elementary school teacher and then as an education professor—and compiling her own lists of successful and unsuccessful techniques. Eventually the two of us combined our lists and began to give teaching workshops together, and at almost every campus we visited someone was using cooperative learning and had come up with a technique or pitfall that was new to us. We paid attention, and if an idea sounded plausible and was supported by experience we added it to the appropriate list.

In this paper we summarize some of these ideas, presenting them as answers to questions from workshop participants who have been exposed to the basic principles and methods of cooperative learning as set forth by (for example) Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1998), Millis and Cottell (1998), and Felder and Brent (1994, 1996).



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