John Hamm's Teaching Portfolio

Making Group Processes a Positive Experience

Making Group Processes A Positive Experience for Students and Teachers

John Hamm
April, 2009


I. Introduction
A. Problem Statement
B. Purpose of Research and Methodology
C. Definition of Terms

II. Results of Research
A. Goals and Independent Responsibility
B. Group and Individual Rewards
C. Fair Methods of Evaluation
D. The Cooperative School
E. Conclusion

III. Bibliography

I. Introduction

A. Problem Statement
Group Work: Loved by teachers, loathed by students. But this does not have to be the case. What is it about group work that creates such resistance among students? Do we really not like to work in groups? Our social nature would seem to argue otherwise. Yet whenever a teacher announces a new group project, an audible groan sweeps across the classroom. Despite this, teachers continue to use group processes to supplement their teaching. If this is going to be the case, teachers should become aware of the large amount of research that explores group processes, means of motivation, and effective methods of evaluation. There are easy things one can do to reduce the groans of resentment, and increase student motivation to work together.

B. Purpose and Methodology
The purpose of this article is to provide a status review of techniques that can make cooperative teaching a successful part of daily classroom activity. This research was conducted through a quantitative review of articles regarding group processes spanning over ten years.

C. Definition of Terms
Cooperative Groups: Groups of two or more students who are grouped to accomplish a meaningful task that requires each student to contribute in a measurable way.
Cooperative Learning: The testable result of students working in cooperative groups toward a common goal with individual responsibilities.
Cooperative School: A school that requires teachers to use cooperative methodology in their daily lessons with the goal of successful learning for all students.
Fair Evaluation: Students are evaluated and assessed based on their own measurable and independent contributions to the group.

Results of the Research

A. Designing the Project: Goals and Independent Responsibilities
One of the fatal errors teachers make is to design a cooperative project or lesson with no goal. In a perfect world students would happily work together in an altruistic manner or for a purely intrinsic desire for knowledge. However, students are well aware of when they have meaningful goals to work toward and when they do not. Robert Slavin notes in his article, Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement, that there is “a widespread belief that all forms of cooperative learning are instructionally effective. This is emphatically not the case” (31). Projects that do not have a goal that motivates the students are rarely effective.

The goal must be something that is important to the students. A goal could be as simple as offering more time on the playground, earning certificates for working well together, or as traditional as earning good grades. In any case, Slavin’s research found that, “Group goals are necessary to motivate students to help one another learn; they give students a stake in one another’s success” (31).

There is an important aspect to achieving success with goals that must be understood. If the teacher’s goal is to have all students work together in a manner that benefits everyone in the group, the goal must “depend on the individual learning of all group members” (Slavin 31). If the entire goal is individually oriented, or entirely group oriented (i.e. group grades), then students may ignore or refuse to take time to make sure lower performing students are learning the lesson. To avoid this, some aspect of the group goal should be reflective of each student learning the lesson, thereby motivating the higher achieving students to help everyone in the group.

Tied closely to goals is independent responsibility and accountability. When students know that they are being graded as a group, for some there is no need to put forth effort, and for others there is a great need to succeed. This causes undue tension in the group and resentment toward unmotivated students. One solution for this is to give each student something to be responsible for in the group that they know they will be held accountable for. Simply giving a student ownership in a task is often a great motivator. Slavin suggests that teachers use Group Investigation, “in which students take on subtasks within an overall group task” (32). Once the individual goal is accomplished, students report to the team and collaborate on achieving the group goal.

B. Techniques for success: Group and Individual Rewards
The goals that a group works toward should be closely related to the rewards that they will earn for success. In another article by Slavin (a prolific writer on this topic), titled Group Rewards Make Groupwork Work, he found that, “The positive effects of cooperative learning on student achievement depend on the use of group rewards based on the individual learning of group members” (89). In other words, the group goal should be to demonstrate that all individuals have learned the concept, the result of this being a group reward for working positively together.

Rewards of any kind have been attacked by those who believe students should be entirely motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn, say, trigonometry. Somehow celebrating a student’s success with rewards has become tied to competition, which is also frequently viewed as negative. If one dislikes social competition in the classroom, that is fine, but that should not be corollated with denying meaningful extrinsic rewards, in other words, positive reinforcement.

As noted in the previous section, students who know they will be rewarded in their group, regardless of whether they learned their trig formulas, have little motivation to learn them. Likewise, Slavin found that, “Rewards increase motivation when the task involved is one that students would not do on their own without rewards” (90). If a student knows that their group will only be rewarded (and indirectly they will be rewarded) if each student can show they learned a trigonometry formula on a quiz, they may be infinitely more motivated to make sure the group goal is accomplished.

There are a variety of goals that a teacher can give. This is somewhat limited only by the teacher’s imagination, although the reward should certainly be something the student values. Often young students do not need large rewards. Simple certificates that they can display in their binder or on the wall can go a long way toward developing self esteem and pride in their work. In addition, this type of positive reinforcement should encourage them to participate in future group work. Can one really argue that recognition for a job well done will lead to less motivation?

C. Fair Methods of Evaluation
Assigning a single grade to the entire group is probably the most common mistake that teachers make. If there is one thing that causes resentment and resistance to cooperative group work it is this. Let us begin by looking at the ways that teachers justify group grades so that we might offer some more productive solutions.

Kagan gives seven traditional justifications for giving group grades in his article, Group Grades Miss the Mark. Some argue that group grades and group work reflect the real world and the workplace that most students can expect to function in after graduation. However, Kagan makes a good point in arguing that just because there is discrimination in the workplace, “doesn’t justify unfair practices in the classroom” (68). If our goal is to provide fair and objective assessment of each student’s actual abilities, then group grades do not reflect this philosophy.

Other arguments revolve around easing the teacher’s work load, the fact that grades are essentially subjective at the core, and that these grades might account for only a small portion of the over all grade. In any case, the response is the same: “Group grades tell us nothing reliable about individual performance” (Kagan 69). One of the most compelling arguments that should sway a teacher if nothing else, is this:

“Group grades may be challenged in court. Because grades are often the basis for scholarships and admission to colleges and universities, any system that gives different grades to students whose achievement is comparable is not merely unfair, it may not hold up to legal scrutiny” (Kagan 71).

Surely the last thing a teacher needs is a legal suit where one will have to explain to a jury how one was simply trying to ease one’s own workload, or one was intentionally trying to imitate real world discrimination in the classroom.

There are numerous adjustments a teacher can make to group grading to reflect fair and objective assessment of the student’s learning. Kagan suggests, “We need to reexamine three things: the content, the instructional method, and the recognition system” (71). If a teacher will review their objectives for the project it will be easier to find ways to grade individual students. Most of the traditional summative assessments apply here (yes, those assessments that reflect individual learning), such as quizzes, written responses, presentations, and reports. As was noted before, these can be separate parts to a whole that each student is responsible for, and can be graded based on an objective rubric.

There is one other option that educators often forget about. Paul King and Ralph Behnke discuss this issue in their article, Problems Associated with Evaluating Student Performance in Groups. They make the very simple claim that, “All classroom activities need not be graded” (59). A revelation! Just because students work in groups does not mean they need to receive a group grade. A teacher can still ask for informal assessments from the students to learn if they honestly thought the project was useful. Students may be much more honest if they know a grade is not involved.

D. The Cooperative School
Many schools have incorporated group learning into the fundamental school structure. Instead of allowing teachers to voluntarily use group learning, these schools work toward making group learning a central process for everyone. Slavin describes several schools that have adopted his cooperative processes in his article, Comprehensive Approaches to Cooperative Learning.

He claims that his program, “Success for All,” is designed to “ensure the success of all children in inner city elementary schools” and that, “these schools have significantly outperformed matched control groups in reading” (75). The main programs are called, “Root and Wings,” subdivided into “Math Roots/Wings,” “World Lab,” and “Reading Roots/Wings”. These programs involve significant amounts of tutoring by certified teachers in small groups. Students in a group are generally at the same ability level despite age, and may move to different teachers during the day. In addition, these programs “reach out to involve parents with their children’s schooling and solves any non-academic problems students may have” (77). Teaming with parents and the community has helped ensure success by focusing on the student’s needs.

The teachers in these programs are highly supported. Running a school around cooperative learning methods requires much support for teachers and administrators. Slavin says that, “A full time building facilitator works in the school to visit in teachers’ classes, give feedback, help with assessment of student progress, and perform other functions designed to constantly improve the quality of implementation and outcome” (75).

These schools stick close to the principles that Slavin and others have found to be most effective, namely: “Research based instruction and curriculum, extensive professional development, one to one tutoring for students having reading problems, frequent assessment, and family support services” (78). Slavin admits that this program is difficult to implement and takes serious commitment to provide the best for the students. However, the results recorded by the cooperative schools are more than promising compared to traditional methods of instruction.

E. Conclusion
Cooperative learning can be an effective teaching method, provided teachers follow basic rules: Individual responsibility and group goals, rewards for one and all, and fair assessment of individual progress. By applying these concepts a teacher can turn groans of resentment into a positive spirit of cooperative learning where students work together to guarantee that all members have a personal stake and are learning the lesson.


Kagan, S. (1995). Group grades miss the mark. Educational Leadership. May, 68-71.
King, P. and Behnke, R. (2005). Problems associated with evaluating student performance in groups. College Teaching, V53-2, 57-61.
Slavin. R. (1988). Cooperative learning and student achievement. Educational Leadership, Oct, 31-33.
Slavin, R. (1991). Group rewards make groupwork work. Educational Leadership, Feb, 89-91.
Slavin, R. (1999). Comprehensive approaches to cooperative learning. Theory Into Practice, V38-2, 74-79.


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