CL1 - Stories: Getting Started with Cooperative Learning



Getting Started with Cooperative Learning
- by Karl A. Smith

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"...we try to follow Wilbert McKeachie's advice on lecturing: 'I lecture only when I'm convinced it will do more good than harm.'"

A Reality Check
We know that it's very easy to slip into the traditional mode of lecture, but in our classes we try to follow Wilbert McKeachie's advice on lecturing: "I lecture only when I'm convinced it will do more good than harm." While conducting a workshop on cooperative learning for a combined group of faculty and students at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, one of us (Karl) was convinced that a short lecture (given in the informal cooperative learning format) on the latest research on learning would be very useful and effective. He asked a focus question at the start, lectured for about 12 minutes, and asked the participants to prepare a summary of the main points and to formulate at least one question. When he finished the short lecture, and asked for a summary, people didn't know what to write. One student jokingly asked, "Karl, what did you say between 'Here's the research' and 'your task is to create a summary?'"

It got a big laugh, but when they took a break, several of the faculty came to him and said, "I didn't know what you were talking about. The concepts were somewhat new to me, you were enthusiastic and spoke slowly and clearly, but I really didn't understand what you were talking about." After the break, Karl apologized to the group for wasting their time. It was painful for him since he thought he had given an excellent lecture. A couple of faculty came to his defense. They said, "Well, you know, it was a pretty good lecture. It was just kind of new to us." But then a student in the back said, "I understood a little at the beginning, but a lot of lectures are like this for me."

And a student in the front said (with emphasis), "This is what it's like for me every day."

The look on the faces of those faculty! Karl wished he had taken a photograph. For the first time in a long time, it appeared they understood what it's like to be a student out there, trying to make sense out of these lectures, and not understanding, and being frustrated with not understanding.

This is what it's like for many students in college.

Cooperative learning can help you break the pattern. In order to maximize their achievement, especially when studying conceptually complex and content-dense materials, students should not be allowed to be passive while they are learning. One way to get students more actively involved in this process is to structure cooperative interaction into classes so that students have to explain what they are learning to each other, learn each other's point of view, give and receive support from classmates, and help each other dig below the superficial level of understanding of the material they are learning. It is vital for students to have peer support and to be active learners, not only so that more students learn the material, but so that they get to know other students in class and build a sense of community that centers on the academic side of the school.

It is equally important that when seniors graduate they have developed skills in talking through material with peers, listening with real skill, knowing how to build trust in a working relationship, and providing leadership to group efforts. Without developing and practicing the social skills required to work cooperatively with others, how can faculty honestly claim that they have prepared students for a world where they will need to coordinate their efforts with others on the job, skillfully balance personal relationships, and be a contributing member of a community and society?

Reprinted with permission from:
Cooperative Learning for New College Teachers by Karl A. Smith and Alisha A. Waller, in New Paradigms for College Teaching, Wm. E. Campbell and Karl A. Smith, Eds. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company, 1997.

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