Cooperative learning: Building knowledge as a team

Do you know what cooperative learning is? The different types? How it differs from collaborative learning? Get all the answers here!
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Natalia De la Peña Frade

Tiempo de lectura

7 minutes


April 29, 2024


More and more teachers and schools are incorporating cooperative learning strategies in today’s classrooms. This wise decision has more benefits than aloe vera! It helps lighten the teaching load, energizes classes, boosts motivation, and improves understanding of materials.

Note: Don’t confuse cooperative learning with collaborative learning. It’s not the same thing. If you stay to read this post, I’ll explain many things, such as how these two strategies are similar and the differences between them. Here we go!


Collaborative learning is the basis for many active methodologies. It involves organizing activities for students to carry out in groups and cooperating with each other to achieve a common goal. Some benefits are that it helps to energize classes, motivate students, and improve the understanding of concepts.

Cooperative learning is not the same as collaborative learning. There are several differences, the main one being that in the former, the teacher guides the students, assigns roles, and oversees the activity, while in the latter, the students distribute the work and complete it without the teacher’s involvement.

There are different types of cooperative learning which can contribute to achieving different objectives, but in general, they all strengthen students’ socialization.

What is cooperative learning?

Cooperative learning is an instructional method in which students work in small groups, under teacher supervision, and with a common educational objective. The aim (and usually the outcome) of cooperative learning is to allow each student to maximize their learning and that of the other members of the group.

It is a fundamental strategy in many active methodologies, such as project-based learning (PBL), challenge-based learning (CBL), and flipped classroom. Active methodologies encourage student participation, cooperation, and meaningful learning. These objectives fit perfectly with cooperative learning.

Making it work requires much more than simply dividing students into groups and telling them they have to cooperate. They need practice as well as help. Cooperative learning can only be considered to be working when these 5 fundamental elements are present:

  1. Positive interdependence between your students, 
  2. Individual and group accountability,
  3. Promotive interaction, i.e. the students share resources, support one another, and praise each other’s efforts to achieve the common objective,
  4. Collaborative skills, such as processing information in groups and group decision making, 
  5. The ability to conduct group evaluations and reflect on ways to improve group performance.

One’s success is everyone’s success’. Francisco Zariquiey

8 benefits of cooperative learning

  1. It improves student performance by achieving a deeper understanding of the material in less time.
  2. It improves social, communication, and problem-solving skills.
  3. Students acquire metacognitive skills, i.e., they become aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
  4. It breaks the monotony.
  5. It promotes a more dynamic learning environment. 
  6. It boosts motivation and participation
  7. It stimulates critical thinking.
  8. It increases opportunities to receive feedback.

Cooperative learning in the virtual world

New technologies are transforming education and helping to improve teaching and learning processes in many ways. Cooperative learning is no exception. Technology makes it possible to innovate in the way this strategy is implemented and manages to eliminate some of the limitations of the physical world. For example:

  • It’s easier to share information in the online world thanks to the number of tools that exist for this purpose. And it can be done even more quickly than in the offline world, through an LMS or Google Workspace, for example.
  • There are many online tools that allow you to create collaboratively and co-edit in real time.
  • It is possible to obtain data and monitor student progress at an individual and group level, thanks to tracking options in the online world.
  • It is very easy to provide self-assessment activities that help the students or the group become aware of their progress and encourage self-learning. 
  • By using technological tools in the learning process, students’ digital competencies are enhanced.

profesora trabajando en clase con su alumnado, con laptops en post sobre aprendizaje cooperativo


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Collaborative learning vs. cooperative learning

In case you’re still not sure, I can confirm: collaborative learning is not the same as cooperative learning. But since these two strategies have several things in common, it’s easy to confuse them. Both are educational strategies that are carried out in groups and enhance teamwork.

The difference between collaborating and cooperating is a small nuance.

  • Collaboration is working together towards a common goal.
  • Cooperation is helping others and working fairly and equally.

Let’s see if this table can help clear it up further:

Students work together on shared tasks to achieve a common goalStudents work on separate tasks to achieve a common goal
Organized by the teacher, who designs the activity, distributes the groups, sets the rules, and distributes the tasksSelf-directed: students organize their work
Based on interaction between group membersBased on collaboration between group members
Structured in tasks and projectsDesigned so that students research a topic on their own
Students need to work together in person, simultaneously (can also be virtually)Students can work separately and combine their contributions at the end
Individual and group work is evaluatedThe final product is evaluated as a common result

Differences between cooperative and collaborative learning

Now let’s look at an example:

  • When a teacher instructs their class to divide into groups and work on a topic, such as the water cycle, for example this is collaborative learning. Students create the groups and divide the work however they like. Each student progresses on their own and then they add their content to the group project, which is handed in to the teacher. The work is evaluated with a grade, which is the same for all members of the group. 
  • If the teacher wants to implement cooperative learning, they need to put the students in groups. Then, each group is assigned a phase of the water cycle (evaporation, condensation), and each group member is assigned a role (researcher, editor, presenter…). The groups work in a coordinated way on a joint report and, at the end of the class, the reports are exchanged for feedback. 

In the next class, the teams work on improving their reports based on the feedback they have received from the other groups. Finally, the groups present their work to the class, reflecting on how the stages of the water cycle relate to each other. When they deliver the final result, they get an individual grade and a group grade.

Which is better, collaborative learning or cooperative learning?

Well, in reality, one is not better than the other. It depends on the topic, the objectives you want to achieve, and many other factors. Almost all education experts agree that the best idea is to combine several strategies.

As we can see from the example, both types of learning encourage teamwork

In the case of collaborative learning, all students will work on their research skills, whereas in cooperative learning only the students who have been assigned that role will work on these skills. The same goes for writing and presentation skills. 

Each student can work on all skills if rotating roles are established, although this may complicate the task. 

But now for the crux of the matter: what is the fundamental academic objective of this activity? An in-depth understanding of the water cycle. With that in mind, it is clear that cooperative learning contributes more to this objective, since the final reflection on how the stages relate to each other allows the students to have a vision of the whole cycle and to better remember that information. 

Other benefits such as learning to integrate information from different sources, learning together, and enhancing communication skills are further reinforced in cooperative learning.

Types of cooperative learning

There are several ways to apply cooperative learning, from activities that last only a few minutes to lively discussions or groups that can lead to friendships that can last a lifetime. Choose the one that best suits your objectives.

  1. Formal cooperative learning: This involves having your students work in groups to achieve a common goal. Groups can last from a single class to several weeks. It is applicable to any subject, any academic objective, and any task, and is the basis of cooperative learning.  

Choose this dynamic to ensure the active participation of your students.

  1. Informal cooperative learning: This can last from a few minutes to an entire class, and is used to allow students to focus on the material and to facilitate learning. It doesn’t require planning or an elaborate structure. 

Choose this type of cooperative learning to lighten the teaching load of a subject on an ad hoc basis. 

  1. Cooperative base groups: These are heterogeneous groups that are established for at least the whole school year. In these groups, the main objective is to provide support, help, encouragement, and assistance to fellow students, so that they can progress academically. They usually result in stable and committed relationships beyond the context in which the groups were created.

Choose this dynamic if you want to enhance the interrelationship between your students.  

  1. Constructive controversy: This is usually carried out in double pairs so that each pair defends at least two opposing positions. This dynamic is very useful for helping students learn to listen, defend their ideas, and reach a consensus with their peers. As a result, the team learns to compromise and reach decisions that benefit everyone.  

Choose this dynamic if you want to encourage orderly debates and discussions in your class.

Things to bear in mind if you want to implement this strategy

Cooperative learning dynamics usually work with groups of 3 to 5 students. 

In addition, in order for it to work well, both teachers and students need to practice. Working cooperatively is not something that happens overnight.

Teacher supervision is essential. The teacher will need to oversee the task to prevent fights from breaking out and make sure everyone is participating and no one is trying to work individually. 

When evaluating the work, the teacher will provide individual and group feedback. It is important to emphasize group feedback in order to give more weight to collaborative work and make the strategy more impactful.

The longer this strategy is employed, the greater the impact. The authors of ‘Cooperative Learning in the Classroom’ recommend using it 60% to 80% of the time. It may be a little difficult at first, but as the teacher gains practice, implementing cooperative learning dynamics will become second nature.

And finally, ideally, the teaching team should establish cooperative dynamics between them and help each other to implement cooperative learning. Not only because it will be easier and more enriching, but also because we should lead by example!

Do you use cooperative learning in your classes? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.

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Natalia De la Peña Frade
Content creator: I try to write things you like to read

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