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.

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December 2015