Cooperative and collaborative learning – the what, why and how

Both cooperative and collaborative learning are styles of group work, but what are the differences (if any?) and are they even worth using in today’s classrooms?

Firstly, is there a difference between group work, collaborative work and cooperative work? Absolutely. The term “group work” is probably enough to make many educators (and parents) cringe as too often it has been used with vague objectives and little individual accountability towards a student’s own or peers’ learning. One student takes over, another doesn’t pull their weight, and sometimes students are not quite sure what they are meant to be doing towards the “project”. These are some of the reasons that some educators believe that group work just doesn’t work.

However, collaborative and cooperative group work offer enhanced learning opportunities. Collaborative group work allows learners of varying abilities and personality types to explore units of work and share their thoughts and insights as they work together towards a common goal. When collaboration is working well it can lead to a deeper understanding of content, increased overall achievement in grades, improved self-esteem, and higher motivation to remain on task (Concept to Classroom. 2004).

Cooperative group work is perhaps the most beneficial of the group work categories. Students work together in a small groups, specifically selected by the teacher, towards a common goal. However, in order to achieve this goal, each individual is accountable for their own work, and success of the group is assessed as a whole. Cooperative learning is guided by clear objectives and success of the group is dependent on the learning of each of its members. Cooperative learning can fall into two main categories – Structured Team Learning or Informal Group Learning.

Structured Team Learning includes strategies whereby there are team rewards, individual accountability and equal opportunities for success. In many Structured Team Learning techniques, “students contribute to their teams by improving over their past performances” (Slavin. 2010. p. 163). Informal Group Learning techniques include the use of strategies such as Aronson’s  1978 “Jigsaw” (as cited by Slavin. 2010. p.168) whereby small groups are given a topic. This is then broken down into subtopics and allocated to each member. Members from various groups who are studying the same subtopic meet as an “expert group” to discuss their topic and then return to their ‘home group’ to share their learning. “Since the only way the students can learn material other than their own is to listen carefully to their teammates, they are motivated to support and show interest in one another’s work”. (Slavin. 2010. p. 169). This can be further extended in that each individual is assessed across all subtopics, which adds to a team score.

When the task of the group is to make sure that everyone learns something, a much higher and genuine investment is given to ensuring one’s teammates understand as well. And the research shows that high achievers gain from cooperative learning as much as low and average-achievers (Slavin, 1995 cited p. 171).

Overall, in order for group work to work, two things must be present – group goals and individual accountability. “Groups must be working to achieve some goal or to earn rewards or recognition, and the success of the group must depend on the individual learning of every group member” (Slavin. 2010. p. 170). Well-designed group work opportunities need to play a role in 21st century education, and cooperative learning in particular allows students to “master traditional skills and knowledge as well as develop the creative and interactive skills needed in today’s economy and society” (Slavin. 2010. p.173).


Happy teaching!


Concept to Classroom. (2004). Workshop : Cooperative and Collaborative Learning. Retrieved from:

Slavin, R. (2010). Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work? (pp. 161 – 178). In The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, OECD Publishing.

Image 1. (2015). Retrieved from:

One thought on “Cooperative and collaborative learning – the what, why and how

  1. Pingback: Article 5. Group, Collaborative & Cooperative Learning Spaces – Creating Great Spaces

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