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"Cooperative learning can backfire"

January 19, 2004

Star Tribune
"Cooperative learning can backfire"
by Cheri Pierson Yecke
Published 01/18/2004

Cooperative learning is an educational strategy that is used in many classrooms today. Whether it is a tool that helps students learn, or whether it is being used in ways that are detrimental to student learning, is a subject of debate.

The evolution of cooperative learning is a fascinating study. While it became popular in education beginning in the 1970s, experts in the field of social psychology have studied the effects of group processes for more than a century. Their research has found that many individuals in groups are unwilling to evenly distribute the workload in a group project, choosing instead to let others do the work for them. There is even a term for this phenomenon -- "social loafing."

Although social loafing has been identified (if not by name at least by description) for nearly a century, some cooperative learning enthusiasts appear to have overlooked this rich body of research.

The effects of social loafing are often apparent in cooperative learning experiences today. In many instances, groups are formed so that children of varying abilities are grouped to work together. When there is individual accountability for performance, this arrangement appears to work well. However, the reality is that far too often, a small group of students ends up pulling the weight for all.

I was driven to collect research on cooperative learning for my recent book, "The War Against Excellence," because as a mother and as a middle school teacher, I found that the idealistic vision some people have of cooperative learning is actually quite different from the reality of its implementation.

While some educators might extol its benefits, consider the words of this parent: "Invariably, it would be the same students who took on the majority of the workload to see that the job was done, because the whole group received the same grade. This cooperative grouping, intended to help slower students and to make leaders of faster students, in fact caused resentment when reality hit that not everyone carries the same load."

Students who are forced to carry the weight for the whole group indeed grow frustrated. Consider this student's group experience: "I was forced to work with the group, at their pace, or face disciplinary actions. I found that if I disagreed with the group, I could not voice my opinion or I would quickly be hushed ... . The teachers were quick to 'correct' me and forced me to work only for my group as a whole."

What was this student learning from her cooperative learning experience? That she had to slow down the pace of her learning and that she could not challenge the group, or she would be punished. Although this is but one example, we have to ask: Are these the sorts of lessons we want our children to learn?

Prof. Marian Matthews has conducted two extensive studies on the impact of cooperative learning groups and high ability students. She found that students "resent having to explain the material to students who won't listen to them." She states that high-ability or highly motivated students often find that they must "do all the work," resulting i n negative attitudes toward other group members. However, when working in like-ability cooperative groups, such students tend to develop the positive attitudes and gain the social benefits attached to group interactions.

I have heard similar comments from parents from Minnesota and across the country as they have sent letters and e-mails in response to my book.

But perhaps some educators support this practice because they think there is clear and unequivocal evidence that it promotes higher levels of academic achievement. Unfortunately for them, recent data suggest that its overuse is having a detrimental effect on student learning, at least in math. The 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress assessed math achievement among American students in grades 4, 8 and 12.

Students in grades 4 and 8 who worked in a group to solve their math problems on a daily or weekly basis posted lower math achievement than those who did so on a monthly basis. The report concludes that students "generally seem to perform best when certain classroom activities were engaged in on a moderate basis, rather than on a daily basis."

So can the effects of social loafing be eliminated, or at least controlled? Research from social psychologists and others indicates that when group members know that their work can be individually identified, social loafing is lessened. The reality of individual evaluation provides an incentive for individuals to strive for peak performance. The lesson here is that educators need to look outside of education to other fields if they truly want a full picture regarding educational issues.

Should cooperative learning be eliminated? No -- but neither should it be used indiscriminately and embraced as the "be-all" and "end-all" of educational strategies. This practice should be used in moderation, and with the expectation that all individuals will be held accountable for their performance.

Cheri Pierson Yecke, Minnesota's commissioner of education, is author of the book "The War Against Excellence" (2003, Praeger Publishers).


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