Cooperative Learning Strategies & Engaging Social Intelligence

By: Jeremy Haynes

Cooperative learning strategies are the backbone of the active learning classroom. If you’ve ever spent more than a minute on a university campus then you’ve no doubt noticed that there is a significant social element at play in undergraduate education. Developing a social intelligence is a critical part of the post-secondary experience…it’s also the only part of that experience that doesn’t come with a syllabus…not that students would look there.

Regardless of the size of your classroom or the number of students in it, there is literally no end to the benefits of integrating cooperative learning strategies into your pedagogy. Maybe you’re trying to stop floods of emails around assessment time (all with a variation of the question: “What was that thing I missed?”). Or, maybe you’re trying to build a classroom culture in a massive first-year survey course. In either case, cooperative learning provides students with the peer-based supports and logistical avenues necessary for active learning with a balance between the academic and the social.

So the next time the smartphones start coming out in lecture. Or the next time you hear the many “iMac clicks” that follows the loading of a YouTube video somewhere in the audience, consider it a warning that your integration of cooperative learning is being tested.

Cooperative learning is a way to integrate the social with the academic; but what’s more, cooperative learning strategies harness the greatest part of human evolutionary behaviour: sociality. If humans are anything, we are social animals. So whether you are taking-down a woolly mammoth or trying to study for the mid-term, humans are always more successful when they exercise cooperation.

Cooperative Learning: So Intuitive, So Simple, So Effective

So how do we as instructors integrate social intelligence learning into the classroom without simply turning the lecture or seminar into a “social hour”? Part of this means finding the right fit for your class and part of this means trial and error. But, if you apply even a couple of the five core elements of cooperative learning (full PDF here) then you can tap into this catalytic power with flexibility and finesse.

1. Positive Interdependence

In short, this element of cooperative learning is what will transform your tutorial group from a task of the classroom to a living network of supports and aids. If students only feel like they can call on their group during or around class then they aren’t fostering a positive interdependence and are ultimately not cultivating the skills for building social networks in the future.

Interdependence can, simply, be a state of being where the group has a common goal (get the grade, finish the assignment, etc)…POSITIVE interdependence demonstrates to students that the potential benefits of working in groups extends beyond the classroom.

2. Face-to-Face Interaction

Believe it or not, it is possible to go all four years of an undergraduate degree without ever making friends or meeting anyone new. If you live off-campus, commute, or are just shy then you might never have the chance to engage with people socially outside of the classroom.

Face-to-face interaction reminds students that they are working with other human beings, peers, who learn differently, possess different social intelligences, and are working toward multiple goals. The lack of anonymity that comes with cooperative learning strategies forces students to see each other as more than just peers…it forces them to see each other as people.

3. Individual and Group Accountability

If you’ve ever been in a group-study situation where one or more of the members are missing or not tuned-in, then you already know the dangers of forcing group-work without a framework for cooperation.

Making students accountable, through a peer-review or performance review process can help to ensure that those students committed to the cooperative exercise are rewarded (in more than the inherent pedagogical sense). Moreover, absenteeism or destructive behaviour is mitigated by an individual accountability and the network that the group fosters has the potential grow.

4. Social Skills

This is the element of cooperative learning that is going pay dividends around assessment time and it is the part of your cooperative learning strategy that will most help students outside the classroom. Social skills like trust-building can help to strengthen bonds between group members. When students inevitably encounter conflict they are forced to use and develop their communication and leadership skills. It’s not always going to be pretty but these are the real moments of learning in a cooperative environment.

Regardless of whether a student steps up to become the Stephen Harper of their group (ruling with an iron fist), or if all the group members get along from the word “go,” there is no shortage of opportunities for students to continue to develop and apply their social skills at all levels. Cooperative learning forces the exercise and refinement of these skills, regardless of academic success. If students are to see academic success in the long-term, they must first cultivate the necessary skills.

5. Group Processing

Having students continuously reflect on the process of cooperative learning is a key part of developing the kind of social awareness that will help students to cultivate confidence and interpersonal skills. By reflecting on successes, working through failures, and adapting strategies during group work students can begin to understand the balance between academic content and logistical benefit.

For instructors, group processing is an essential part of endowing students with a sense of personal investment in their own learning and that of others. Furthermore, the reflections provided in group processing allows students to engage in the kind of active learning that encourages the application of the above skills in varied and changing settings. Group processing builds stronger individuals and groups by ultimately demonstrating the differences between active and passive learning.

Something to Try for Yourself

Think of a jigsaw puzzle. Sitting in 500 little pieces is one coherent image: your course content. As an instructor, you can hand students one piece at a time and then spend the rest of your lecture telling them HOW it fits together. A cooperative learning strategy gives students many pieces of the puzzle all at once and asks these groups to not only process the pieces that they have, but also identify what is missing before trying to fit them together.


In this activity, one representative is elected by the group to meet with the instructor and “learn” the course information for that lecture. After the elected representatives have worked as a group to establish the essential parts of the lesson they return to their individual groups and proceed to “teach” this information to the group.

  1. Through the essential elements (listed above) students collectively work through the provided information, attacking it from multiple perspectives and levels of understanding.
  2. Questions are resolved internally to the group and remaining questions are brought back to the collective of the class to be cleared-up by the instructor.
  3. Once groups have learned the information they are required to share this information with the entire class where missing pieces are identified and misunderstandings are cleared-up.

Cooperative learning strategies are part of a pedagogy concerned with teaching students how to learn. When we engage students through different branches of social and independent learning there’s opportunity to enhance a predisposition for adaptability and creativity.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click here.

Originally published at on August 10, 2015.