How a Dream Team Works: Perspectives on Cooperative Learning

Dream-teamWhen was the last time you were part of a ‘group project?’ Were you the leader? The slacker? Somewhere in between?

At DePaul, it’s pretty common to see groups of students engaging in discussions that consist of more than the latest gossip or weekend stories. While lecture-based courses are still prevalent depending on one’s area of study, it seems that the vast majority of students are required to engage in group activities as part of their curriculum for any given quarter.

In ‘What’s Happening to Cooperative Learning?,‘ Kerry Walsh, a researcher for Education News, considers the proven benefits that have caused group-based activities to gain prominence in educational as well as corporate contexts. She identifies “five fundamental concepts” of cooperative learning that distinguish it from other educational approaches: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing. Looking at these characteristics, one can see examples of cooperative learning at DePaul University across disciplines.

Many colleges and departments at DePaul pride themselves on discussion-based courses where the professor’s role shifts from leader to moderator. The goal is to foster opportunities for discussion that welcome a variety of student perspectives in a respectful and forgiving environment. While student engagement and participation vary according to the professor’s approach to discussion, Walsh’s five concepts are evident in many such courses that I have taken. To be fair, I have also been in a few ‘discussion-based’ classes that fell short of that classification simply because student participation was infrequent.

It seems that the degree to which courses establish a cooperative environment often hinges on the accountability concept. Many professors encourage student participation in discussion, but seem to have difficulty maintaining it because it constitutes a relatively small portion of one’s grade in the course. In contrast, the professors who intentionally make it difficult for a student to excel in the class without such participation are the ones who can depend on a productive discussion each day. Also, professors who seek to establish in-class discussion as a routine for their students usually emphasize the idea that Walsh describes in her positive interdependence concept:

“Students must understand that they essentially sink or swim together. Each member of the group must participate fully, or the entire group will fail.”

I found Welsh’s observation to be poignant simply because it bears striking similarities to expectations articulated by professors on the first day of discussion-based classes. The professor of the honors senior seminar course I am currently enrolled in explained the importance of discussion in much the same way. While students don’t necessarily have distinct roles in such cases because productive discussion is a less practical goal than say, a group research project, the degree to which they invest themselves directly impacts the success of the endeavor. Finally, the interpersonal and group processing aspects of cooperative learning are evident in the common expectations that students will value each other as teammates regardless of ideological differences and reflect on their development as the discussion incorporates new reading materials and topics.

In the context of our work at the UCWbL, I don’t see our peer tutoring and fellowing work with DePaul writers as cooperative so much as it is collaborative. I think there is a distinction to be made here simply because Walsh’s description of cooperative learning is so focused on the group aspect ie. more than two participants. That said, I think other programs and activities fostered by the UCWbL are illustrative of Walsh’s five concepts. Take our teamwork as an example. Whether we’re talking about the Research Team, UCWbL Films Team, or even the Web/Tech Team for whom I am writing this blog post right now, we can clearly identify the use of the concepts, particularly positive interdependence, accountability, and group processing.

From team to team, we can see UCWbL employees working on individual tasks that contribute to a larger goal. Team members meet at the beginning of each quarter to discuss long-term projects and check-in with team leaders to report individual progress. Lack of participation from one or more members can of course deter the team from accomplishing its goals. Employees are held accountable by the fact that this work is part of their monthly stipend as well as by the vigilance of the leader, though most teams approach their work as equal contributors. The leader may have additional responsibilities, but he/she greatly depends on the group for success.