Cooperative Learning vs. Small Group Method

Cooperative Learning Tags - assigning students with roles for an activity.

Photo: Cooperative Learning by ielesvinyes

I am taking a course, Constructivism Strategies for E-Learning, through the Department of Educational Technology here at UBC, and we’ve been exploring different instructional strategies. It’s funny, but I thought I knew what “cooperative learning” was, but there are so many different definitions of it! I found the exercise in comparing strategies valuable, and decided to share my thoughts.

Cooperative learning and SGAM (small group activity method) are similar in that students discover content and teach it to one another and to the class, with the teacher is “guide on the side.”  The focus of the description of each focuses on the specific set up of the classroom activity, such as number of students in each group, how long each portion of an activity is, etc.

Cooperative learning differs from, and seems more effective than SGAM in that groups in cooperative learning are sustained over longer periods – perhaps working on a problem/project for a whole unit or a whole year, while in SGAM the description seemed only concerned with a 30 minute to 1 hour period. In addition, in SGAM, students are working with others, but the sources we were led to did not seem to be mention a focus on teaching students the skills necessary to work effectively in teams, such as listening effectively, interjecting politely and ensuring everyone has a voice.

Both cooperative learning and SGAM are problematic in that they seem to undermine some key aspects of constructivism. For instance, in cooperative learning, diversity of students is addressed but there is no provision for students to have individual thinking time – or at least this is not documented. I don’t think that a student should simply work alone and they need to learn how to work with others, but what if a student learns best by processing content alone first, then sharing their ideas? How do these students access learning?

Cooperative learning and SGAM each have students working in groups which addresses the social nature of learning and all the aspects of the works of Piaget and Vygotsky that speak to this. However, cooperative learning and SGAM are too prescriptive, which seems to contradict the “guide on the side” persona that the teacher is invited to take. Depending on the amount of control exercised by the teacher, the ownership over learning and the complex process of knowledge construction could be compromised. Hopefully, teachers wouldn’t be too invasive with their interventions and hopefully they wouldn’t just set up the class in groups and give an activity and assume the learning happens as long as the students talk it out. The question that teachers need to ask themselves constantly is where the balance lies between being too controlling and too “hands-off”?

4 thoughts on “Cooperative Learning vs. Small Group Method

  1. The “too prescriptive” nature of how cooperative learning is normally used is certainly an observation that I’ve had many times. Too often teachers focus on ensuring that students are using the right mechanics in groups (cooperate, talk nicely, etc..) as if the only expected outcome of working in groups is cooperative behaviour. Your observation about the need for students to have independent thinking time is also true. As far as I know the most effective groups are one in which people think about the problem independently, and then come together to analyze and discuss proposed solutions. I’m sure this applies to learning as well.


    • Hey David,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Naini’s comment (below) caused me to think a bit about when to give think time and when not to. Generally, I would give think time because students need to process their own thoughts first, constructing what understanding they can from their experience, then have time to discuss with others, thereby socially moderating their ideas. Plus, this keeps students from learning dependence behaviours where they sit and watch the discussion play out like an inactive observer, and don’t push themselves to really decide where they stand on an issue or what they think about a concept. However, there are some instances where it’s better to have students jump in with responses, especially if their first thoughts are what you’re looking for. Also, why not have students discuss as a pair first before sharing as a group? Often this works to build up a students’ comfort with an idea having a smaller audience before putting it to the group, and then to the wider class.


  2. Naini Singh here. I enjoyed reading your post. I was wondering whether, before setting up cooperative groups or small group seettings…we could give the students think time and then move on. What do you think?


    • Hello Naini,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what you mean by “before” – whether you’re thinking in a 1 hour lesson, giving students a few minutes of think time, or whether you were thinking bigger picture, as in time at the beginning of the year for preparation before enacting cooperative groups. Regarding the former, which is what I think you meant, there are some activities where you want them to have think time, and others that one would want students to dive right in. I would suggest mixing it up. That way, students who think quick enjoy diving right in when that’s how you structure it, and students who need some time to put their thoughts together benefit from that when you provide it. Our aim, I think, is to show students ways to learn and to give them a variety of experiences to teach adaptability… while, of course, we’re teaching math, geography, PE, etc…
      Hope that helps,


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