Implementing cooperative learning in foreign language classrooms

2020-11-18 08:54:13 速读·下旬 2020年8期

◆Abstract:Studies on cooperative learning have been conducted extensively in the foreign language teaching literature. It is advocated by many researchers as an effective teaching method to improve learners language and interpersonal skills, as well as their motivation toward English learning. However, the management of learning process is more complicated and problematic than many teachers first perceived. Therefore, this study aims to raise some awareness regarding cooperative learning by analyzing its strength and weakness.

◆Key words:cooperative learning;English teaching;teaching approach


The idea of cooperative learning has been around for decades,and it is seen as an undeniably effective and powerful teaching strategy. Compared to conventional mode of classroom organization, where teachers give direct instruction followed by a whole class question-and-answer session. cooperative learning is characterized by positive interdependence, which requires students to work collaboratively and actively to accomplish group goal. A large number of researches on cooperative learning at all levels of education show many benefits including enhancing learners academic performance, self-esteem and encouraging greater engagement (Slavin et al.,2003). According to Gillies (2007), students should be provided with the opportunity to build their understanding by interacting in groups and empirical investigation.

However, not all researchers found learning in groups beneficial in language teaching. Clinton & Kohlmeyer (2005) found in their experimental study that there were no differences in quizzes results between students in traditional teaching setting and those in lab environment. Besides, in actual teaching practice, many instructors seem to be reluctant to organize teaching activities in groups.

Therefore, the present research aims to explore the benefits of implementing cooperative leaning in college English classroom, and more importantly, some of the common issues teachers may encounter while teaching, as well as some strategies for success.

An effective and successful teaching strategy in language teaching

The idea of cooperative learning is originated from the social interdependence theories of Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch. Although different cooperative learning methods are mentioned frequently in recent years, it is possible to identify some common ground. It is believed that the key elements of structuring cooperative learning are positive interdependence and individual responsibility/accountability (Gillies, 2007). The former allows students to perceive clearly that their goal is positively connected to that of other group members. They need to become aware of the importance of their complementarity in achieving the goal. Additionally, individual responsibility should also be introduced to ensure possible contribution of all members in a team. So, teachers are required to organize activities within a framework enabling learners to take an active part by setting parameters and often assigning specific roles (Johnson, et al.,1994). In this way, while students are working collaboratively to achieve the group goal, each of them is also held individually accountable for participating.

Last three decades have seen an increasing amount of literature advancing arguments in favor of implementing cooperative learning in language classroom. According to Jia (2003), Hedge (2000), increased academic performance often occurred as a result of the cooperative learning environment. From a social-constructivist view of learning, cooperative learning creates a natural and interactive atmosphere, where the need of communication is maximized. Language learning is a highly interactive process, thus interacting in groups assists students in terms of negotiating for more comprehensible input and modifying their output to make it more understandable to other group members. After employing cooperative learning technique in tertiary ELT in China, Ning (2011) found in her experimental research that the cooperative cohort performed better (on average) than the traditional cohort in exams on speaking, listening, and reading.

Despite its positive effect on students learning achievement, there is also positive spin-off from team-based learning in the form of an increase in the students interpersonal skills, such as communication skills, conflict management, leadership and the ability of working in a team. In a cooperative learning group, it is crucial for team members to learn how to speak productively with one another so as to keep the members on the track and enhances efficient teamwork. Besides, as students are making towards their goals, there is always a need to handle conflict by focusing on positive results while minimizing negative ones.

Challenges of cooperative learning

Although cooperative learning is applied as an effective teaching tool to enhance students learning from different aspects, it does not come without issues, and they are likely to cause the process to be more complicated than first perceived.

One of the greatest challenges of cooperative learning comes from not being able to implement the method in a structured way. Cooperative learning does not simply mean assigning students to different study groups and expecting results. Since students often struggle with what to do and disorder can easily occur as group members work through the requirements of the task, especially when they hold conflicting opinions. If students do not get clear instructions or fail to understand their individual accountability in completing the work, the effectiveness of cooperative learning shall be greatly undermined. Therefore, it is essential for teachers to plan class activities carefully in advance to ensure the learning process is based on cooperative learning and students are well-informed of their responsibilities.

Mismatched personalities and English proficiency levels can be obstacles that hinder successful cooperation in learning. Effective cooperative learning relies heavily on the function of a positive group dynamic. However, in actual classroom, it is not uncommon to find members of the group act as free riders, who are not willing to pull their weight in the task but derive a benefit from group activity. It is partly because they lack the ability of expressing their ideas in English throughout the task. But for those who have an intense involvement with task, the uneven distribution of the workload may ultimately lead to their resistance to working in groups. As for teachers of a class with 40 or more students, it is often an uneasy task to constantly monitor each group and gage who is loafing while groups are taking place. In addition, there are also some students, as Alsanie and Sabir (2019) found in their research, declared a great deal of discomfort when working with other students because of the feeling of shy to speak English and fear of making mistakes in front of others.

The process of evaluation is another frequently mentioned challenge teachers experience with cooperative learning. When evaluation is completed as a whole, teachers may struggle to grade a group knowing that students may have not contributed evenly to the final result. On the other hand, peer evaluation is seen as a good alternative which provides a chance for students to learn from each other and discourage the problem of ‘free rider, but it is also not as easy as it sounds. The reliability of grades given by students can be greatly affected by personal bias, peer pressure and friendship etc. Besides, studies showed that there is a tendency for students to award everyone the same grade (Shawver,2020).

last but not least, having students learning in a cooperative manner is often more time-consuming than expected. Excessive talking and disorder can frequently occur to slow down pace of activities. It means sometimes teachers are forced to leave out other materials which they planned to cover before.


Apparently,providing teachers with professional training and continuous structural support to help them develop curriculum units which embody cooperative learning approaches to teaching is the first step to break down barriers to successful implementation of cooperative learning. If teachers themselves lack the knowledge of the features of the pedagogical approach, how can they adopt cooperative learning effectively in practice? Problems like grouping technique,student discipline,staying on- task could be better solved when teachers are well trained.

Besides,training students on their roles for success should also be at the center of cooperative learning. Assigning blames seems not to be an ideal way to tackle with problems like free-riding. Instead, teachers could build at least some degree of individual accountability and individual grading into the evaluation of the groups overall performance. Individual accountability is one of the 5 essential elements that Johnson et al. (1994) made that define cooperative learning and to make cooperative learning successful. It means each member of the group must accept responsibility for fulfilling his or her role, helping the team reach its learning goals. To enhance individual accountability, teachers are required to determine what each individual had learned, as well as what the group had completed, for example, written quizzes or examinations at the culmination of the work or random oral quizzes of students to check how each of them was doing within the group (Kagan,1994).


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