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    Mistakes in Online Cooperative Learning
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Teach Online:
Mistakes in Online Cooperative Learning

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Fifteen Common Mistakes In Online Cooperative Learning — And What To Do About Them

Cooperative educational methods are frequently advocated due, in large part, to the extensive research base supporting their effectiveness. However, they are just as frequently implemented without adequate planning. Here are some suggestions for improving learning within a cooperative framework adapted for the online teaching and learning environment:

  1. Not designing online cooperative activities with care.
    Many instructors confuse group work with cooperative learning. They put students in groups, tell them to work together, and wonder why the groups aren’t successful. But cooperative learning groups have five essential elements (positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills and processing) built carefully into every activity to help online students to learn well together. Include these elements in your online cooperative activities.
  2. The online group size too large!
    In any learning environment it takes a lot of skill for students to manage a group with more than 5. Online, keep group sizes small: less than 5 online seems to work best. Smaller groups are more effective and take less time.
  3. Not preparing online students to work in cooperative groups.
    Explain to students why you are using cooperative learning, do a low stakes cooperative online learning activity, then have them explain how it can help them. Initially, do short get-acquainted and review activities.
  4. Not providing online students scaffolds to develop appropriate online interaction skills.
    Ask students to co-create a list of appropriate online group behaviors. Examples: do your share, keep your commitments (time, schedule, role) contribute ideas, help others learn, encourage everyone to interact/engage, read and respond with care, demonstrate respect others and their ideas. Display the list and remind students to use them. Add to the list as needed.
  5. Letting students choose their own groups online.
    We would all choose our friends to work with if given the choice. Friends often get off-task. Students need to develop positive working relationships with all course members. Online it may also take a good deal of time for students to self-organize without additional guidance and scaffolding from the instructor. Assigning online students to groups may make the activity more efficient/effective. Consider changing groups often enough so no-one gets stuck for long periods with the same or difficult class members.
  6. Not providing online cooperative activities often enough for students to develop cooperative skills.
    Students need time in authentic online group activities to develop the skills necessary. Have students participate ins cooperative activities from the outset and have a group activity that runs throughout the course to reinforce positive online cooperative habits. If nothing else, consider having them share what they have learned with a peer at the end of each online module, for example.
  7. Assuming that cooperative groups can handle complex tasks before learning how to complete simple ones successfully.
    Students must learn how to learn online together. Start with a simple low stakes activity and progress to more significant ones as your online students master the necessary technology and the skills. Have frequent class discussions on what helps the groups do well.
  8. Emphasizing paper or project completion as the group goal.
    With completion as the only goal, there’s nothing to stop one student from doing all the work and the others from “hitchhiking.” Online assignments should ensure individual accountability is possible (for example, an individual assessment, a presentation, a follow-up assignment that is completed individually).
  9. Having an unclear learning goal.
    A clear group learning goal is one whose achievement is easily measured. For example: Every member in the group explains the work work of the group from their perspective, each group member passes a quiz on the topic, each group member writes a reflection describing what they learned from the activity and what they learned from each of the other members in the group, etc.
  10. Assuming that online students will magically develop needed social skills.
    Online students have to learn to coordinate their work with others and keep everyone included in the learning. Do this by helping them see the need for skills, demonstrating what to do, having them practice as you observe, and then giving them feedback and coaching until their cooperative skills are automatic.
  11. Not understanding the power of positive relationships on achievement.
    Start every online group activity with something that helps them build relationships. Increase the difficulty of the activities as students gain confidence in their ability to work together online.
  12. Not carefully monitoring the online groups while they are working.
    Be among the online groups – correcting misconceptions, helping students understand, and reinforcing good teamwork skills. Monitor the groups  by observing interactions and encouraging appropriate learning and teamwork skills. Help the online groups ensure mastery by every student. Keep individuals on their toes by asking them at random to explain their group’s work.
  13. Giving group grades.
    Give group grades only when absolutely necessary, and when a group grade will be absolutely fair for each member in the group. Assess learning with individual quizzes, presentations, reflections, or papers. Provide rubrics to assist students to peer and self evaluate. Have students peer and self assess by comparing what they/their peers can do against criteria.
  14. Designing a Jigsaw activity with material that is too difficult for individuals to learn.
    The jigsaw technique adapted for the online environment is one where each learner in the group masters part of the material and then teaches it to their group members. If individual learners aren’t able to master the material they need to teach, the learners are not ready to do an online jigsaw activity. Instead, use cooperative guided practice and check learning with individual quizzes or assignments.
  15. Assuming that implementing cooperative learning is easy.
    Cooperative learning is complex, procedural learning, like learning to play a new sport. Plan to reflect on what went well and what needs improvement, and plan to iterate. You will need to practice, and improve over time and with experience.

Source: adapted for the online environment by Alexandra M. Pickett from Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Holubec, E. Common mistakes in using cooperative learning – and what to do about them? The Newsletter of the Cooperative Learning Institute, Vol. 34, No. 1, March, 2020.


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