Large Classes: A Teaching Guide Collaborating Cooperative Learning

A recent though not new movement in higher education has students work together in small groups to discuss or solve problems. This process is called collaborative learning or cooperative learning. In the "real" world, no matter what the intended profession, working with others is an important skill. Increasing opportunities for students to work together can help them develop this skill. In addition, small-group work encourages students who may be reluctant to participate in the large-class setting to become active learners. Cooperative learning also helps hold students' attention. Groups work best when they are given a short task that adds variety to a lecture.

What if I'm not comfortable using group work?

Incorporating collaborative learning efforts into a large class can cause a certain amount of chaos. While many students have worked in groups before, many have not. It can take some time for the instructor and students to become comfortable with group work. When group work fails, the problem can often be traced to the nature and structure of the activity rather than to the individuals involved in it. It can take time for students to view group experiences positively.

What are the goals for group activities?

Three kinds of group activities contribute to a variety of learning goals

    Cognitive Development Exercises In these exercises, teams are placed in a real or simulated situation and asked to solve a problem. Specifically, they are asked to diagnose, interpret, test, analyze, and make value judgments about the problem.

    Area Exploration:Groups are asked to do descriptive, historical, empirical, or experimental research on some topic. When the groups are ready, they prepare and deliver a presentation designed to teach the class what they have learned in their research

    Psychomotor Exercise:These exercises focus on developing a particular skill, such as editing, quick problem solving, etc. In groups, the students practice and are critiqued by their fellow group members. At the end of the exercise, volunteers may come up and demonstrate their skill.

What are some activities I can experiment with?

In a large lecture, students will most likely choose their own groups. Here are several tasks you can give these groups. Come up with an example, hypothesis, or application of the material from the lecture

    Compare responses to a series of statements and come to a consensus of opinions or answer

    Complete and compare answers to problems or a questionnaire

    Prepare for a test by determining the 10 major points of the unit or by coming up with questions

    Generate questions they think will be answered during the class or asked on the test

    Decide the most important points from a lecture -- then compare them with the instructor's

How can I design successful group activities?


The task that students are to complete should be discrete, specific, and clear. If the task is not clear, it is left to the group to determine what they have been asked to do. Specific tasks such as completing a worksheet, solving a problem, or answering specific questions will keep students focused. The phrasing of the assignment should make it necessary for each member to contribute, for instance, "List as many questions as your group can" or "Come to a unanimous decision about . . . ".


Just as the task should be specific, so too should the directions be clear enough for students to know what is expected of them. Example: "In your group of four or five, come up with five questions about this chapter and have the report from your group ready in the next ten minutes". Be sure to specify the following: Time limit Choose a time limit that is appropriate for the task and helps the group stay focused.

Group composition

A group of up to five students is usually recommended since a larger group can make it hard for all members to participate (and make it easier for those reluctant to participate to be passive). The easiest way to form groups is to ask students to work with the three or four people sitting closest to them. You can ensure that different groups form on different days by asking students to sit in a different place each class or to simply ask students to work with people they haven't worked with before. Other methods are to group students by birth month, residence on campus, or major, or to designate rows as "Odd" and "Even" and ask that Odds and Evens mix. Some instructors require students to leave their seats when forming groups.

Group Role

Much literature exists on the roles to assign to group members. The basic roles are facilitator, recorder and reporter. The facilitator monitors the group and makes sure that it stays on task. The recorder takes notes on the discussion a.or the solutions to the problems posed. There porter is responsible for sharing the group's answers with the class. A role of "process observer" may be added to evaluate how effectively the group works together.

Group Product

Group tasks should lead to the creation of a group product such as a list of questions which is then shared with the other groups. At first, you may simply want to collect the products and comment on them during the next class, perhaps even assigning grades. If possible, you may want to have the group reporters share their experience with the class and explain how the problem was solved, what questions were raised, what points were discussed, and what results were achieved. For more information on Collaborati.Cooperative Learning, see CTE's Resource Packet on Cooperative Learning. Kadel, S. & Keehner, J. Collaborative learning: A sourcebook for higher education. Vol. II. University Park, PA: NCTLA, 1994.

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