Engaging pupils in science with co-operative learning

Co-operative learning can actively engage pupils in school science, stimulating curiosity and improving attitudes and motivation. Allen Thurston discusses the roles teachers and pupils can play to maximise its potential

THE INCREASING NEED for a scientifically literate public has coincided with fewer adolescents pursuing science in school. Society faces major issues such as climate change and ethical debates on stem-cell research. Politicians must seek to engage the public, and therefore it is more important than ever that schools enable pupils to become scientifically literate. Only through this process can they participate meaningfully in these debates.

What we know
● Co-operative learning in science can promote science achievement.
● Co-operative learning in science works best in mixed groups of between four and six pupils.
● Pupils who learn science through co-operative learning in elementary school become more engaged with science in high school.

Co-operative learning may present a useful pedagogical tool to actively engage pupils with science. It stimulates curiosity, encourages independent learning, enhances attitudes, and increases motivation, while providing support and scaffolding to help pupils master challenging concepts.

What are the benefits of co-operative learning in science?

Science can lend itself to classroom co-operative learning, and research shows that pupil achievement can be raised through its use. For example, two UK research projects – SCOTSPRING and Group Work Transition – examined the cognitive, affective, and social benefits of co-operative learning in science for pupils aged 10–14 over a period of three years. The research found that co-operative learning in science could enhance achievement. Attitudes towards science were enhanced, and the quantity and quality of talk also improved. Finally, pupils who learned science through co-operative group work in primary school engaged with science better once in secondary school.

Why does co-operative learning work?

An essential element of co-operative learning contexts is the quality of talk that takes place. Co-operation enables learners to reconstruct and elaborate their ideas through peer dialogue and can facilitate joint construction of knowledge in learning contexts. Pupils explore fresh ideas and resolve these with existing knowledge. Co-operative learning groups composed of pupils who give more explanations are more effective at raising science achievement. Co-operative learning also provides a context within which pupils can form stronger social connections.

Ways of organising co-operative learning in science

Classroom working arrangements put in place by the teacher heavily influence the effectiveness of co-operative learning. In settings where the teacher does not plan effectively and ensure that tasks require group collaboration, the result can be individualised working with little or no co-operative activity.

Group roles and the skills of co-operative learning

Co-operative learning is typically characterised by face-to-face interaction in teams of pupils of mixed ability levels. The team works towards a single goal or product. The work should be structured to require discussion of some opposing points of view (cognitive conflict). Improved thinking should emerge from the need to reconcile these conflicts. Co-operative learning also features “positive interdependence” – all members of the team should be aware that they need each other to achieve their joint goal. Positive interdependence can be built into tasks by “jigsawing” information (each member completes a specific role and then information is shared during the task) and assigning group roles (eg, reporter, timekeeper, scribe, chair, spokesperson). Within the group, some element of individual accountability is also important as this can ensure that all pupils remain motivated and actively engaged with the task. Sometimes members are called upon to discuss or summarise the progress of other members.

Co-operative learning skills include social, communication, and organisational skills (staying on task, summarising, recoding ideas) as well as team/group morale-building skills (eg, encouraging each other). These skills can normally be developed during co-operative learning. One way to do this is to focus on particular social, communication, or organizational skills during each lesson. Pupils need to be aware of what is required of them during the session. This can be done effectively by using a briefing session prior to lessons, and by reflecting and evaluating activities in a de-briefing at the end. The de-briefing will provide time and space for reflection – allowing pupils to analyse how well their group is working together. Such self-evaluation can enable self-improvement.

Key questions for teachers

When planning to undertake co-operative learning in science, teachers may wish to ask some or all of the following questions:

What are the objectives of your co-operative learning initiative? Projects may have cognitive, social, and emotional goals. These may include formal academic achievement, affective and attitudinal gains, social and emotional gains, self-concept gains, or any combination of these.

What curriculum content are you planning to cover? Science that involves practical investigatory work may work best for co-operative learning.

How will you form groups? With a few exceptions, research favours groups that are mixed in ability, gender, and ethnicity. Pupil self-selection of groups is not usually successful. Groups take some time to learn how to work effectively together. Try not to split groups just as they are beginning to function well. Conflict is not a reason to change a group, unless it is really severe.

What size should your groups be? The effectiveness of co-operative learning can be influenced by the size of groups. In smaller groups, members participate more, managing social processes is less complex, and groups can work quicker. Groups usually have between four and six members, although starting with groups of four might be best.

What spatial issues need to be planned for? The team members need to be able to sit close and face each other to discuss, and may need space for spreading out materials. Provide one set of resources (eg, one pen and one piece of paper) to help collaboration.

The teacher’s role in promoting co-operative learning

In co-operative learning, the teacher is often described as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”. Pupils should take responsibility for their own learning and be less reliant on the teacher, although additional support is likely to be required in the early stages. Teachers should gradually decrease direct intervention in activities and encourage pupils to maintain the process themselves.

The role of the teacher is to monitor and coach groups. This can be achieved by:

  • Helping pupils understand instructions: Get pupils to repeat instructions to each other in their own words before starting tasks.
  • Ensuring practical working noise levels: The closer together pupils are seated, the quieter their voices can be. Remind the class that speaking louder does not make you right. Train and coach pupils in turn-taking.
  • Helping with the time management of groups: Give teams timelines and deadlines at the outset of tasks and reinforce these with reminders of time remaining and expected progress.
  • Keeping all the group members involved: Assign group roles and assess how roles are performed. Get team members to assess each other.
  • Guiding groups when they encounter difficulties: Model and reinforce good social and communication skills and coach individuals and groups in using co-operative skills.


Co-operative learning can provide a useful tool to engage pupils with school science and raise achievement. Adopting co-operative learning does involve a shift in classroom power and dynamics and teachers must carefully consider how best to facilitate this, and guide their classes. Research evidence suggests that the benefits to learning and teaching that can ensue from such a change would be a reward for the effort made.

About the author

Allen Thurston is a Reader at the Institute for Effective Education, University of York. He conducts work on peer interaction and learning in the areas of science, literacy, numeracy, second language learning, and social inclusion. In co-operative learning, the teacher is often described as a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’. Pupils should take responsibility for their own learning and be less reliant on the teacher

Further reading

Howe C, Tolmie A, Thurston A, Christie D, Topping K, Livingston K, Jessiman E, & Donaldson C (2007), Group Work in Elementary Science: Organisational Principles for Classroom Teaching, Learning & Instruction, 17(5), 549–563.

Thurston A, Topping KJ, Tolmie AK, Christie D, Karagiannidou E, & Murray P (2010), Cooperative Learning in Science: Follow-up from Primary to High School, International Journal of Science Education, 32(4), 501–522.


June 2010