What’s in a name? Recognizing the distinction between cooperative and collaborative instruction

Walk into a classroom and you are likely to see small groups of students working together. Group learning has become as ubiquitous to modern instruction as rote recitation was during most of the last century. This pedagogical shift makes perfect sense. Classrooms are more diverse than ever, and group-oriented instruction provides a means for addressing both learning and cultural differences while maintaining focus on the curriculum. Despite this prevalence, there is confusion around what constitutes effective group instruction.

In general, group-oriented instruction is divided into two categories – cooperative learning and collaborative learning. A cooperative lesson is designed such that group members work toward a shared learning goal (positive interdependence) while being held accountable for their own learning through individual assessments or comprehension checks (individual accountability). Furthermore, cooperative groups receive explicit instruction in how to effectively work together (group processing skills). Collaborative learning, on the other hand, lacks these elements. A collaborative lesson may simply have students work together with thought to neither the goal structure nor mechanisms for individual accountability. Unfortunately, most group-oriented instruction is collaborative, not cooperative.  Without these critical elements, group-oriented instruction is often ineffective, plagued by intra-group competition and unequal distribution of labor (and learning!)

A number of well-developed instructional methods such as Learning Together, Jigsaw, and Student Teams-Achievement Division meet the level of cooperative learning; for an overview of the basic concepts involved, see this site. Whether you use one of these techniques or design your own, learning to recognize the difference between cooperative and collaborative instruction can make all the difference.

Charles Igel is a Researcher within McREL’s Research and Evaluation department.


  • george czapskie says:

    I use in my classroom in the shop area.It works great on shop projects.

  • Jess Schlichtemeier says:

    I try to incorporate as much cooperative instruction in my classroom, but our state standard for group work/discussion is more collaborative which makes me do this kind of group work so my students will do well on the assessment.

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