Cooperative Learning vs. Group Work

Cooperative Learning and Group Work

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In this mini lesson, we are going to focus on the differences between cooperative learning and group work. While Cooperative Learning is, in a sense, students working together in a group, group work does not imply cooperative learning. We have touched upon the basic concepts associated with Cooperative Learning. Many people confuse cooperative learning and group work, and think that if they place students in groups, cooperative learning is going to occur. As we know, cooperative learning involves more than just placing students into groups and having them to do work together. We are going to focus on the main differences between Cooperative Learning and Group Work. Review the notes you have taken in the google doc so far, to remind yourself of the big points we've learned so far in this course. Once you have reviewed, and have the Google Doc opened, please continue on with this section.

If needed, here is the link to the Google Doc: Link to Google Doc

Imagine These Scenarios

Let's get started by imagining some scenarios and trying to pull apart the differences between the two. Based on what you know so far, think about which is an example of cooperative learning, and which is an example of group work. Refer to the google doc to begin listing some similarities and differences that you find between the two scenarios. It may be helpful to think about scenarios in terms of your classroom or content area, in order to make a connection to what we are learning.

Students in a 4th grade class have just spent the first 20 minutes of their English time listening to their teacher (let's call her Mrs. Williams) talk about different types of fiction and non-fiction. During this time, Mrs. Williams stood in the front of the classroom, and held up books one at time. Mrs. Williams held up a book, and briefly discussed what they were about, whether it was real or not real, and what type of information the books contained. Once Mrs. Williams showed a variety of books to the students and labeled them as either fiction or non-fiction, she gave her students a worksheet. On this worksheet, students were to get into groups and identify the main aspects of fiction & non-fiction books, and list some characteristics of types of non-fiction pictures. Mrs. Williams thought to herself, "Great! I am getting my students to work in groups. They must be so excited to work with one another." While Mrs. Williams sat in the front of the room, waiting to see if any students had any questions, she noticed that her classroom was silent. She heard a few conversations around the room, but most of them were about what her students were eating for lunch, or, all too common, "Hey, what did you put down for the first one?" or, "I can't figure this out can you just tell me what you wrote." Mrs. Williams panicked- rather than working together, she noticed her students were either off topic, or letting one student in the group do all the work. Other students were simply copying off of the others paper, and were not getting the opportunity to learn deeply from this worksheet. There was no way for her to ensure that each student was doing equal work, and some group members were finishing before others. Mrs. Williams thought, "This is group work! Why aren't they working together?" Mrs. Williams had the students write the names of their group members on the papers, and when she was grading them, she was curious to see that there is was no evidence of students working together. In each group, there seemed to be one or two strong leaders, with the rest of the students either copying word for word, or, not having any work done at all. The final product to the students didn't matter. What their group members did didn't matter, as long as they got their part done.

Now imagine the same lesson in the same 4th grade classroom. This time, before even starting the lesson Mrs. Williams had her students go to their tables with their pre-assigned groups. The students in these groups had been working together for about two weeks now, so they were comfortable with each other and knew where to go when they were told to go to their table number. Around the classroom, there were book bins set up. Each book bin was labeled and filled with books. Mrs. Williams told the students that there were going to be working with their teams to create a poster about different types of Fiction Literature. The bins around the room were labeled, "Realistic Fiction," "Historical Fiction," "Science Fiction," and "Mystery/Adventure." In each bin, there was a brief blurb about the type of books that were in the bin. Additionally, in the table bucket there were instructions for what the students would be responsible for doing, and the same brief blurb about the fiction genres. Each student was assigned one genre in their group and did some research on the books in the bin. Students had an opportunity to talk to other students in other groups who were assigned the same genre. For the first day of this lesson, students explored the books, then reported back to their groups what they learned. During this time, the students became the teachers. They were responsible for teaching others in their group what they learned. On the second day, students began working on the key points associated with their genre, including examples of books that fit into their genre. On the third day, the group came together and created a poster titled, "Fiction Genres." Each group member was responsible for a section of the poster, and for teach their group members about the genre. When it came time to discuss the posters with the class, Mrs. Williams had a student present on a section that they didn't do- meaning, they were each responsible for knowing the whole poster. During the days when this lesson was ongoing, Mrs. Williams saw her students working together, engaging with one another, and helping each other out. Her classroom was noisy- but her students were excited. Mrs. Williams circulated group to group, asking them questions about what they were learning and guiding them toward further inquiry. In the end, each member of the group had a solid understanding of types of fiction literature, and students were developing social skills that allowed them to work together.

Think about these two scenarios. What is the same about them? What is different? Which one shows cooperative learning, and which one is simply group work? Please jot down your ideas in the google doc provided.

What do you think?

Based on your reading of the two scenarios above, were you able to see a difference between Cooperative Learning and Group Work? While their is an appropriate time to use group work, it is certainly not the same as cooperative learning. Just sticking students into a group and asked them to work together to complete a worksheet, isn't ensure that students are going to do the worksheet together. Additionally, students probably will not see the benefit in working together, if the end goal doesn't require the whole group to work together. Students need to be aware that the work they are doing is important. With Cooperative Learning, it needs to be made clear that the group will not be successful without contribution from every student. Finally, the finished product that the students are "handing in" needs to demonstrate that cooperative learning occurred.

Please take a moment to review this chart about differences between cooperative learning and group work.

Cooperative learning vs Group Work

Before Moving On...

Congratulations! You completed the last mini lesson of unit one. In this lesson, we focused on the differences between cooperative learning and group work. This way, we could get our mind clear of thinking that the two terms could be used interchangeably. Now that you have completed this unit, you should have the first three sections of the google doc filled out. Ensure that you have completed this before moving on to Unit 2.

By now, you should be able to:

- Have an understanding of what cooperative learning is and what it looks like

- Have a basic understanding of the important aspects associated with cooperative learning

- Understand the differences between cooperative learning and group work

Please complete this assessment on Unit 1 before moving on to Unit 2. If there were any topics that you struggled with, please go back and review, as this unit is going to serve as a building block for the following units.

Unit 1 Assessment

Return to Lesson 2 or Move on to Unit 2: Why Should I Use Cooperative Learning?

Return to Minicourse Homepage


To further your understanding of differences between cooperative learning and group work, please explore the following links:

Cooperative Learning: More than Group work

Cooperative Learning vs. Traditional Groups

Chart summarizing differences

Information for this lesson gathered from:

Tradition versus Cooperative Learning. (1997, March 5). Traditional versus cooperative learning. Retrieved from: