As a teaching strategy that fosters collaborative student participation, collaborative learning promotes the idea of happy students working together in harmony to discover knowledge. Simply put, cooperative learning involves groups of three or more students working collaboratively to complete a task or project. In classrooms, teachers might use this strategy for occasional projects throughout the year or incorporate cooperative learning into their daily classroom routines. Proponents of the strategy point to benefits such as oral skill development, improved student communication and student responsibility for learning. However, cooperative learning can encounter several disadvantages.
Group Dynamic Dilemmas
One of the greatest challenges of cooperative learning is its reliance on a positive group dynamic to function at its highest efficiency. Conflict between individuals can diminish or stall a group’s ability to work together, which raises a significant problem when group members are too young to have fully formed conflict-resolution skills. Student relationships are often fraught with playground drama that immature students can't leave outside of the classroom. Mismatched personalities can cause unsatisfactory cooperative learning even when no conflict or drama is present as students with dominant personalities might move into leadership roles whether or not they are best suited to steer the project at hand.
Uneven Workloads and Evaluations
Beyond personality conflicts, cooperative learning can also result in an uneven distribution of the workload. At its best, cooperative learning encourages students to support and inspire one another, with all involved experiencing an equitable growth in knowledge. Unfortunately, in some instances, more advanced students simply take over the majority of the project for the sake of ease and speed rather than helping struggling students learn. Conversely, indolent students might deliberately rely on more diligent group members to complete the work and avoid exerting any effort themselves. In both cases, the result is not only an uneven workload but also uneven learning that can lead to some students falling behind. The same holds true for student evaluations, as it is often impossible to evaluate group members individually. This can result in all group members receiving the same grade or credit regardless of how much they contributed.
Classroom Management Challenges
While many of cooperative learning’s disadvantages affect the students, the strategy can also provide difficulties for educators. For students to work together, they must talk to one another. Any teacher who has managed a classroom of 20 to 30 students knows that kids with permission to converse with one another invariably speak increasingly louder, which can become a distraction from the learning process. It is also impossible for one teacher to constantly monitor each group, which can result in off-topic chatter. Students working in groups might also leave their seats to review materials together. Without strict discipline, cooperative learning can reduce an organized classroom to utter chaos.
A former art instructor, high school counselor and party planner, Christine Bartsch writes fashion, travel, interior design, education and entertainment content. Bartsch earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in communications/psychology/fine arts from Wisconsin Lutheran College and a creative writing Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University. She's written scripts for film/television productions and worked as the senior writer at a video game company.