Engaging reluctant students in cooperative group work

Celeste Brody investigates the familiar problem of helping students who appear uncooperative to participate in a group learning environment

Teachers frequently ask “How do I engage students who refuse to participate in cooperative learning group work?” There are no clear-cut solutions for students who resist through passive refusal, chronic absenteeism, or poor emotional/ social control. Cooperative learning sets a particularly high bar for group work: it is a method of instruction that organizes students to work in groups toward a common goal or outcome, or share a common problem or task. Students can only succeed in completing the work through behavior that demonstrates interdependence while their contributions and efforts are held accountable.

What we know
● Understanding the reasons why students appear apathetic or resistant to participate in cooperative group work – such as low status, poor emotional/social control, or unrealistic expectations of self – helps a teacher tailor strategies to the situation and the needs.
● Class agreements and norms for pro-social behavior are a critical pre-condition for all successful cooperative group work. Students need to be able to describe what these look like and sound like so they can perform well.
● The social/communication processes associated with effective cooperative group work need to be taught and then assessed in students. These contribute to students’ academic and social/emotional competence.
● Cooperative learning tasks that are complex and require all students to bring their abilities to bear on solutions are the best at challenging and involving students, even the reluctant or resistant ones.

The processes associated with cooperative learning provide teachers with tools for creating learning environments where most of the students are engaged. But the advice of conflict-resolution specialist Bill Kreidler rings true in almost every classroom: Whatever strategy you apply to a situation will not work with all of the students all of the time. If eight out of 10 of your students and their groups function smoothly, rest assured that you are doing very well. This frees you to put your creative problem solving to the other two students or groups that need more assistance, direction, and guidance. But how can teachers better engage reluctant students and all students with diverse needs and capabilities?

Do you know the reasons for student resistance to cooperative learning?

Does the student have negative prior experiences with cooperative learning or group work in general? This is common in older students who have been subjected to student peers who renege on their responsibilities in group work. It could also be that students do not know how to work within a group where there is a wide range of competence in the basic skills of reading or speaking.

Do you see evidence of low status in student apathy or withdrawal from participation? Low status students – frequently English-language learners, cultural minorities or students unpopular for social reasons – may exhibit indifference or reluctance to participate because they do not have equal access to the task or materials at hand. Then there is the student who holds unrealistic expectations about his or her abilities to work alone, sometimes fueled by parental views of their child’s exceptionalism.

  • Can the student tell you why they refuse or resist taking part?
  • Do you see evidence of low status in student behavior such as not having access to the task or materials and withdrawing from participation?
  • Does a student have special needs – such as autism-spectrum disorder – that require adaptations using helping peers or shorter time periods for peer interactions?
  • Have you explained your learning goals to parents so that they can become effective advocates for you with their child?

Have you focused on the classroom as a learning community by setting prosocial norms and class agreements?

This may be the most important single condition that affects positive student interaction and willingness to participate in group work. It is worth investing time in creating and practicing class agreements and norms for pro-social behavior. Fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion promotes self-awareness and self-regulation. Students need to understand how agreements will contribute to a safe and productive learning environment, and what these behaviors look like and sound like. Teachers can then use these to assess how well the class and individual students are progressing towards more positive and productive interactions.

Favorite class agreements that teachers devise with students include such statements as:

  • I encourage everyone to participate.
  • I listen when others are talking.
  • I help others without doing the work for them.
  • I ask for help when I need it.
  • I respect others.

Do you use informal pair exercises where the emphasis is on learning success and working with as many different students as possible?

Can students work with anyone in the class in short informal group exercises? Remind them that they will have the opportunity to reflect on how well the process went: “Try this. Let’s see how it works.” Three simple questions adapt well to reflection in pair work:

  • What did we do?
  • How well did we do it?
  • What could we do differently (better) next time?

If most of your students are still unable to exhibit basic communication skills, the class is not ready for more demanding project work. In some instances, a teacher may spend all year working students in pairs, focusing on these cooperative learning basics – getting into groups quickly, using quiet voices, active listening, taking turns, and showing appreciation for the contributions of self and others.

Do you re-acquaint students when groups change membership?

We often assume that students carry along their basic group work skills from one group to the next. But the ability to do that takes experience. “Getting re-acquainted” should be done when new groups are formed. Students change over the course of the year. They can get into ruts and limit expectations of themselves and one another. Setting the climate for taking risks is central to cultivating curiosity and requires that students see differences positively.

Have you created tasks that cannot be done alone?

The most challenging aspect of cooperative group work for a teacher may be designing a group-worthy task, even a task for pairs, where there are no fixed answers but where everyone is needed with their best thinking and skills to accomplish the task. Complex tasks are necessary for engaging different student abilities and competencies and they often involve using consensus, brainstorming, and best thinking to include contributions from everyone.

Do you assess the learning of social/ communication skills?

Teachers need to assess the process of working together. “Process criteria” need to be clear at the onset of the activity. If so, a teacher is on solid ground if she does not give an A grade to a student who insists on working alone (or had to be asked to work alone), because the student did not demonstrate competency on one of the dimensions of the task – using effective communication skills.

  • Do students know the criteria for engaging in cooperative group work?
  • Do students reflect on their own behavior and progress?

Does a particular student need individual help in working with and getting along with peers?

A few students need more assistance than a single teacher can provide. Students with special learning differences often need additional guidance. Some students benefit from specific coaching to develop their abilities in recognizing social cues. There are students who have particular difficulty in recognizing that they need help, and in asking for it.


Wherever we can, we want to empower students to work with us, to find the teacher within him or herself and help reinforce positive norms and behaviors that can draw in students who are on the margins or are reluctant to participate. Cooperative learning can do this when we create the norms, agreements and conditions for all students to participate.

Author’s note This article is based on a piece published in the IASCE Newsletter, Sept. 2009, Vol. 28, No.2.

About the author

Celeste M Brody PhD is a teacher educator and a small-group learning specialist. She is a Fulbright Scholar to Thailand in the area of faculty development and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education.

Further reading

Gibbs J and Ushijima T (2008), Engaging All by Creating High School Learning Communities. Windsor, CA: CenterSource.

Cohen EG and Lotan RA (2014), Designing Groupwork. Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, 3rd edition. NY: Teachers College Press.

Baloche L (1998), The Cooperative Classroom: Empowering Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


December 2015