OVERCOMING LIMITATIONS OF COOPERATIVE LEARNING
AMONG COMMUNITY COLLEGE STUDENTS
By Paris S. Strom & Robert D. Strom.
[Excerpt from The Community College Journal of Research and Practice,
by Paris S. Strom & Robert D. Strom, 26, 315-331, 2002.*]
A 21st Century View of Teaching
The preparation of teachers has been based upon models emphasizing direct
instruction. In this orientation, teachers are considered experts who
broadcast what the students need to know. The corresponding responsibilities
of students are to pay attention to whatever the teacher communicates,
take good notes, and memorize the pertinent information for testing. However,
technology has produced new tools that require transformation of the educational
process. One of the greatest challenges for colleges of education is to
help future teachers set aside the no longer reasonable expectation that
they should be the source of most learning and students ought to play
a passive role. Some observers believe there is a simple solution, reduce
the amount of teacher talk and allocate greater amounts of time for student
discussion. But, the needed changes are more comprehensive because the
new paradigm must make room for appealing and powerful influences like
computers, the Internet, satellite television, personal digital assistants,
films, videotapes, and simulations. In addition, methods must be found
to incorporate the cultural, ethnic, and generation resources that students
rely on outside school. Structured interviews and discussions with parents,
relatives, and neighbors seem essential so students can integrate the
insights and viewpoints of these cohorts that are usually left out of
the educational process. Sharing the resulting impressions with teammates
during class can yield a broader perspective and a more constructive outlook
than can interaction limited to the perceptions of peers.
No one knows how to include and to connect the many resources for learning
available today. Bold and creative alternatives should be described, implemented,
and subjected to evaluation. Toward this goal, a new outlook on learning
and instruction called Collaboration-Integration Theory is described here
along with definitions of student roles leading to practical application.
The opportunity to experiment with elements of this theory is intended
to help prospective teachers determine whether it should be adopted as
the orientation in their own classes. Collaboration-Integration Theory
for educators is based on the following assumptions:
• Students need to practice the teamwork skills that are required
in the workplace
• Perspective is enriched by incorporating learning sources from
outside the school
• Cultural and generational differences in perspective deserve student
• Assigning separate roles to team members increases the scope of
• Accountability can be determined by how well students perform
• Observations about peer and self contributions to group work improve
• Individual productivity can be motivated by anonymous recognition
These theoretical assumptions call on students to look beyond their own
cohort to gain a larger frame of reference for interpreting events, ideas,
and problems. The need for consideration of an integration strategy is
reflected by the following questions.
(1) Is it reasonable for educators to complain about a lack of parent
involvement if homework rarely includes tasks that enable parents to be
viewed by adolescents as important sources of learning? (2) How can students
be expected to acquire respect for older adults if homework seldom identifies
elders as having observations or ideas worth soliciting? (3) Why should
educators appeal for greater cultural awareness and cultural appreciation
if homework never requires students to explore, examine, and share their
unique and common heritage with teammates?
A key to ensure that relatives and other out-of-school advisors of students
are not left out of the instructional equation is for teachers to focus
less on themselves as performers and more on designing homework tasks
permitting input from additional community assets. Creative assignments
can help students discover unfamiliar modes of thinking in much the same
way as anthropologists discover understanding by conducting interviews
and interacting with informants of the host culture.
Cooperative Learning Exercises and Roles
The method of instruction to transform the Collaboration-Integration Theory
into practice is referred to as CLEAR, an acronym for Cooperative Learning
Exercises and Roles. The purposes of CLEAR are to
(1) shift the role of students from passive to active learners;
(2) make the collaboration process the focus for group work;
(3) enable every teammate to provide a unique contribution;
(4) reduce boredom by differentiating the roles of individuals;
(5) ensure enough observation time in groups to support peer evaluation.
This approach can provide the greatest benefit when members of teams have
some roles in common and additional ones are based on individuals choosing
tasks for which they are willing to be accountable. The strategy requires
the development of many exercises that match the content of lessons studied
in a class. When teachers prepare enough tasks, each teammate can be given
a separate role to perform. This makes it easier to establish accountability,
support development of self-directedness, increase sources of information,
and expand the scope of group learning. Furthermore, the collaboration
students need to practice becomes the focus of their combined efforts.
The CLEAR paradigm is flexible in permitting teams to decide their allocation
of tasks and determine when to modify the guidelines provided them. This
strategy calls on each student to make a continuous contribution to learning
of teammates by assuming responsibility for particular roles. The dominance
that exists whenever someone takes over a group is minimized because differentiated
roles obligate every person to pay attention and listen to teammates while
they report the results of their tasks. It is recommend that, for each
class meeting, all students share the three roles of discussant, reader,
and participate in the group review of the lesson. Sometimes an instructor
may invite teams to present their projects to the whole class. Teams can
take turns choosing tasks, sharing outcomes, and combining interview data.
Inter- group collaboration occurs when students who perform the same role
on their team come together to merge their results. Students are likely
to detect additional options for implementing CLEAR that will increase
group flexibility and team learning.
CLEAR enables teams to practice the multi-tasking necessary for expanding
the scope of group learning and improving efficiency of group production.
This is consistent with the potential of simultaneity that is offered
by the Internet. It also illustrates the need for changes in what is to
be expected of teams and individuals. An abundance of exercises for each
unit of instruction make it possible for all students to practice a broad
range of relevant roles and thereby improve overall benefits of group
interaction. Eventually, everyone should participate in each role several
times instead of repeatedly performing a favorite function. Teams should
avoid repetitious assignment of particular roles to individuals just because
they carry them out well.
One way to ensure cooperative roles are practiced in a balanced way is
to keep track of the ones you perform. Tasks are differentiated so that,
during a semester, each student will practice twelve roles that enrich
learning for every lesson. Mutual understanding of the purposes and anticipated
outcomes for every role guides group expectations and clarifies accountability
expected of individuals. Knowing the defined responsibilities for each
role helps to establish common expectations, minimizes misunderstanding,
and improves accountability. Consider the descriptions of functions which
team members perform in each of these roles: summarizer, discussant, reader,
generation reporter, cultural reporter, challenger, voter, organizer,
review guide, evaluator, improviser, and storyteller.
Most of us summarize everyday when we share experiences with relatives
and friends. We want them to be familiar with what pleases and bothers
us, know some of the things we find hard to comprehend or accept, and
be aware of the circumstances that cause disagreement or disappointment.
It is more difficult to summarize team reactions and reflections because
collective experience is more complex than the experience of an individual.
Some of the common problems in summarizing for a team include being self-centered,
not providing sufficient detail, and leaving out information that is disliked
or presumed irrelevant. Summarizing saves time but it also poses the danger
of reporting a distorted impression of what actually took place during
The summarizer is expected to present a coherent glimpse of considerations,
conclusions, and recommendations for a team. It is essential to state
the important points raised during discussion, identify the main themes,
and describe elements of agreement or differences of opinion. A summarizer
writes down ideas expressed by every speaker no matter how the teammates
react to their comments. If someone's remarks seem unclear, the summarizer
encourages clarification so the speaker is better understood and more
fairly represented in the synthesis. After a discussion, the summarizer
prepares a report for submission to the teacher. Sometimes other teammates
may be asked to read the summary and initial signifying their agreement
that it is correct. These reports are submitted to the teacher for group
credit or for points and might be heard as an oral report in class.
Periodically, a summarizer may be asked by the teacher to monitor input
of individual team members. This task can be achieved by placing a tally
mark beside the name of each person on the team every time they speak,
thereby developing a frequency of speech indicator. Such records yield
participation ratios. For example, during the discussion John spoke twice,
Mary once, Ellen did not have anything to say, and Brian commented five
times. Using these indicators of inclusion can detect the persons who
dominate discussions, identify non-participants, and make known whether
the students from minority groups or special education are integrated
or left out of the group process.
The benefits of conversation increase when students are given the agenda
ahead of time. Having advance notice allows them to act like teachers
in preparing for a dialogue by referring to previously read materials
and bringing resources to show the team. Listening carefully to what teammates
say makes it possible to gain new insight, combine and build on ideas
expressed by others, monitor the logic of peers, and provide feedback.
The quality of a discussion can also be influenced by individual attendance,
being on time, allowing others to speak without interruption, limiting
length of remarks, and avoiding put down statements as a way of reacting
to opposing viewpoints.
Students typically spend a greater amount of time in the discussant role
than performing other cooperative learning functions. Still, personal
initiative necessary to fulfill this shared task is usually underestimated.
When some students prepare for discussions and others fail to do so, there
is bound to be disappointment and reduction in the amount of learning.
In addition to having many opportunities to learn from conversations with
teammates, students benefit from being an audience for other teams who
present their tasks and outcomes to the class.
Educators should encourage learning that they themselves do not provide.
One way to make sure this happens is for all students to participate in
the reader role. The purpose of this role is to bring more to discussions
than personal opinion. Reading is a powerful way to go beyond the collective
experiences of a team. By searching the Internet, journals, and books,
students can discover written materials that add new insights to direct
instruction by teachers or a text. Being able to find suitable sources
of information is an undervalued aspect of reading that can do much to
support team research.
Students who are self-directed read different materials than teammates
do and can be counted on in discussions to refer to the sources they find
relevant. Sometimes the views of an author can be reported to support
personal opinions. Another way to share impressions of outsiders is by
bringing documents to class and reading selected passages aloud before
giving teammates a chance to look them over. These kinds of activities
reinforce curiosity and promote more productive interaction. For each
of the topics in a course, students should share additional resources,
which confirm, clarify, or offer alternative perspectives. This strategy
demonstrates the greater learning that can occur when everyone regularly
takes the initiative of bringing relevant materials to class without being
told to do so by the teacher.
The main purpose of generational reporting is to provide a broader outlook
about events, ideas, and life than can be obtained from one's own peer
group. Some homework tasks in middle school, high school, and college
should implicate the relatives of students as primary sources of ideas,
feelings, and opinions. To ignore out-of-school advisors that students
rely on as frames of reference prevents the formation of a teaching partnership.
Students benefit from interviewing parents, other relatives, friends,
neighbors, and target populations about particular issues. A structured
agenda, which corresponds to topics covered in class, allows student interviewers
to raise questions and find out the impressions of persons representing
other age groups. This role can produce a more comprehensive orientation
than what emerges if team discussions are restricted to the normative
outlook of peers.
The appreciation of diversity requires consideration of events and circumstances
from the perspective of other cultures. Unfortunately, many students admit
they have little knowledge about their ethnic heritage. Consequently,
they are unable to acquaint outsiders with the ways in which their culture
is unique or similar to others. Still, they have access to informants
such as relatives and friends who possess knowledge about the traditional
customs, beliefs and lifestyles associated with their background. Interviewing
these people is a way for students to become better informed, promote
reciprocal learning, and compare personal heritage with the background
of classmates from other cultures.
There is also value in listening to people with firsthand experiences
of living in another society, reading opinions of authors reflecting other
cultural outlooks, and watching films which present unfamiliar ways to
look at common difficulties. These kinds of activities can create the
awareness and empathy that is vital to get along in an increasingly complex
social environment. Then too, when cultural pride is joined by a capacity
to think critically about one's ethnic group, the best elements of culture
can be preserved while aspects that have become inappropriate because
of social change are modified or left behind. Instead of limiting cultural
awareness to what the teacher knows and can communicate, greater variance
can be portrayed by students who are likely to represent multiple cultures.
Acting as a cultural reporter can support personal identity and encouraging
inclusion in cooperative groups.
During polite conversation people might say they would act as the devil's
advocate. By warning ahead of time that an opposing viewpoint is about
to be expressed, the challenger also makes known that subsequent comments
may not reflect his or her own opinion. Instead, the goal is to increase
the factors, which receive consideration in a dialogue. This well-established
strategy is advantageous to everyone. First, the individuals whose views
are challenged must address concerns they might otherwise overlook in
the presence of a less critical audience. Comfort is provided for challengers
who usually want to avoid giving the impression that their friendships
or motives are in question. Instead, they are recognized as just playing
the cooperative learning role assigned to them. The practice of showing
support for friends by agreeing with their ideas is common at every age
and in certain settings is viewed as a critical factor to remain in good
standing with the group.
Legitimizing the challenger role so that teammates recognize their mutual
responsibility to help one another monitor the quality of their thinking
can enhance the merits of loyalty. Are people who agree with us trustworthy
or could they have other purposes in mind? Challengers assume the responsibility
to identify concerns that are overlooked, question assumptions, seek examination
of the implications that flow from decisions, and urge caution in reaching
generalizations based upon singular events or situations. Adolescents
are often reluctant to assume the challenger role since they fear it may
result in rejection from peers. However, when this role is seen as beneficial
for the entire group, students feel more comfortable because they can
pursue it without risking social status.
The practice of voting compliments cooperative learning. Voting provides
students with opportunities to practice democratic behavior in the institution
that is expected to teach them the value of this form of government. Voting
makes known the feelings and opinions of students that deserve consideration
in education reform. Many adults presume to speak for adolescents, wanting
to persuasively assert their needs and rights. Still, some perceptions
can become known only by hearing from students themselves. They should
be polled on a regular basis about experiences at school, obstacles that
inhibit learning, and reactions to possible classroom changes. To illustrate,
school boards usually establish dress code policies without any input
from students. More than other methods, polling demonstrates to students
that the community and its schools care about how they feel and want to
take their opinions into account.
Along with detecting normative attitudes and beliefs of students, polling
can also identify problems of adolescents that require attention. Polls
can be designed to match the units of instruction for a course. When students
conduct a poll, it should be copied for the informants so they read the
questions while students write answers on their own copy. After individual
team members gather the data, a summarizer from each team can collaborate
to tally class results. Then, collective findings can be read aloud so
everyone records the outcomes on their poll before discussing implications.
Teams are more productive when their efforts are organized. One person
should be responsible for leading a group discussion, identify group goals,
assign tasks, keep time, monitor progress, and interact with the teacher
as the group representative. The organizer is expected to ensure that
conversations remain focused on the assigned topic, everyone is given
an opportunity to speak, length of remarks are limited to ensure balance
of views, and time spent on issues is allocated so that the assignments
are completed on schedule.
The emphasis on equality in cooperative learning groups can sometimes
result in conflict. Students usually rely on compromise and persuasion
as the means to reconcile their differences of opinion. However, when
a group is unable to reach consensus on an issue where it is needed, someone
has to break the deadlock and make a decision about the next steps. As
a last resort, the organizer is expected to serve as judge to resolves
disputes, which could jeopardize productivity of the team.
Team reviews for each unit of instruction contribute to individual learning.
The process begins outside class as each individual underlines the important
and interesting comments in the readings and lecture notes. Students reflect
upon these questions in preparing themselves for the group review:
(1) What are the main points and key issues presented in this lesson?
(2) Which ideas made a difference in the way I think about this topic?
(3) What insights from the lesson can be applied to my own situation?
(4) How does the lesson link with previous discussions and readings?
(5) What aspects seem confusing or require additional instruction?
The person acting as the review guide takes the lead by telling the page
and paragraph from the reading s/he will read from in response to the
first question. In turn, the other teammate answer the same question specifically
identifying references they draw upon. This process is used with each
of the review questions. The review guide may be called on to meet with
the teacher to discuss outcomes, give feedback to teammates, and make
known aspects of a lesson that students report they would like to better
Students need opportunities to evaluate decision-making. Specifically,
some skills that require practice include exploring views that may not
be liked at first, using logic to assess the thinking and work methods
of a team, and taking the time needed for reflection so as to avoid reaching
hasty decisions. In addition, evaluators should learn to build upon ideas
expressed by others, and discover different ways of looking at things
as well as resolving problems.
Teachers should share some aspects of evaluation with students. There
is a need to consider team observations about peer and self-performance
in group work. Students are the best source to identify colleagues who
influence their thinking and ways in which help is given to them. Based
on collective observations that are kept anonymous, each student receives
a profile containing confidential feedback about personal strengths and
limitations. Every student can fulfill the evaluator role when it is time
to record his or her formative and summative observations of group work.
In addition to evaluating teamwork skills, students need to have experience
with product evaluation. Teachers are the most qualified persons to judge
the quality of assignments but students can help by suggesting ways to
improve work presented by teams or individual team members. During a formative
critique the group or class accepts the purposes stated by the producer(s)
as their guide. Comments from peers can initially focus on assets of the
product and then shift to recommend possibilities for enhancement. Learning
to provide creative feedback calls for practice and can increase student
receptivity to constructive criticism.
The ability to improvise, to make the best of any situation, is a quality
that supports personal adjustment, mental health, and success throughout
life. Some aspects of creative thinking that call for improvisation include
looking at things in novel ways with an eye to detecting favorable possibilities,
asking questions about how specific conditions could be modified, and
generating alternatives to minimize the disadvantages associated with
a specific arrangement or event. As the students brainstorm, they can
share the improvisor role. Individuals can also be assigned improvisation
tasks to complete outside the class and report results to teammates. Scenarios
drawn from student experiences are powerful motivators to practice the
imaginative skills needed to become effective improvisors.
The purposes of a storyteller are to present imaginary or real life examples
that illustrate how some concept or method applies for a particular situation.
People like to listen to stories, they pay close attention to the procession
of events and often remember key elements of a tale for a longer period
than the related factual information. Whether storytellers read from a
book or written report, describe a videotape or movie, convey an incident
another person shared with them, or relate a personal recollection, their
stories can enable teammates to make connections which increase the value
of a lesson, grasp concepts that previously seemed abstract, and realize
why specific issues deserve more attention. The potential impact that
stories can have on motivation, comprehension, and relationships is difficult
to gauge but the magic is there for those who experience it.
Scholars studying the natural sciences propose theories that sometimes
lead to discoveries of immutable laws and principles. These theories are
then relied upon by future generations. In contrast, social science theories
vary in the duration of their applicability and usefulness to guide practice.
Because such theories are time-bound, the pace and scope of cultural change
influence viability. As a result, contemporary events must be taken into
account so a theory can be modified to remain in fit with the times or
be left behind. Unfortunately, teachers in training are expected to study
and adopt theories of learning and instruction that were proposed before
the advent of computers, the Internet, satellite television, personal
digital assistants, pagers, and cell phones. Consider an analogy. What
would happen if people turned television on and found that the news they
expect to provide awareness of current events present instead only reports
of events from the 1960s? Spectators would soon stop watching because
the stories portrayed do not reflect concerns of the present time.
Educators need to explore new theories of learning and instruction that
link the current array of unprecedented resources. They can benefit from
considering how such theories could transform their role from acting as
a solo performer in the classroom who provides direct instruction to also
enabling students to become active learners. In addition, they can facilitate
ways for relatives, neighbors, and other out-of-school advisors to make
a unique contribution to the way students perceive events. The Collaboration-Integration
Theory (CIT), implemented by Cooperative Learning Exercises and Roles
(CLEAR) helps teachers to transition to their emerging and more comprehensive
role of preparing students for success in an interdependent team-oriented
Cooperative Learning Exercises and Roles (CLEAR)
Summarizer-states team considerations, conclusions, and recommendations
Discussant-listens to teammates and builds on ideas expressed by others
Reader-shares views of outsiders and brings resources peers can examine
Generational Reporter- conveys the ideas and feelings of other age groups
Cultural Reporter-studies subculture and helps peers appreciate diversity
Challenger-reflects an opposing view to increase the factors in a dialogue
Voter-identifies anonymous viewpoints of a particular cohort by polling
Organizer-leads discussions, maintains balance, and tracks group progress
Review Guide-monitors information sharing on lessons by text references
Evaluator-provides assessment of peer and self group work performance
Improviser-looks into novel ways to detect possibilities and disadvantages
Storyteller-conveys examples that help recognize how to apply the lesson