5 ways to better use co-operative learning

Make group work more productive and meaningful.

By Samiha Khanna

When employers seeking the brightest college graduates meet with faculty members such as John Doran at University College Cork in Ireland, they always enquire about a part of the accounting curriculum not addressed in the textbooks or on exams: They want to know how well their prospective employees work with their peers.

“There’s a demand coming from the outside,” said Doran, an accounting lecturer. “What employers are looking for are transferable skills — working as part of a team, sharing your work schedule with other people. This has fed back into making the college curriculum more relevant to employers.”

Often, professors try fostering these skills through co-operative learning. However, co-operative learning is not always easy to implement. Many students loathe group assignments, and many professors struggle to manage them successfully. Some scholars have debated whether requiring students to work in groups and have their grades affected by their peers’ contributions is even ethical, as suggested in a 2018 special issue of Accounting Education focused on co-operative learning.

There are several tactics that faculty can try, though, to minimise the potential pitfalls of co-operative learning and help students reap the benefits of working with their peers. 

Recognise that co-operative learning is not just group work. Sometimes, students and faculty dislike co-operative learning because professors don’t fully understand what makes for a truly collaborative environment, said Joan Ballantine, Ph.D., a professor of accounting at Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus in Northern Ireland.

“There’s a huge misconception about what co-operative learning actually is,” said Ballantine, who has published on co-operative learning in Education + Training. The terms “group learning” and “co-operative learning” are not the same, she said.

“Group work can be defined as getting a group together and giving them a task, and letting them get on with it. Co-operative learning is at the other end of the continuum — it’s more structured, more thought is given to how to put the groups together, how they should engage, and there’s more monitoring of the group process,” she said. “Just thinking you can put students into a group and telling them to get on with it, in my view, is not satisfactory.”

In putting co-operative learning into practice, Ballantine and her colleagues follow the widely cited research of David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, who established that co-operative learning must be guided by five essential elements: interdependence amongst group members to achieve a common interest or goal; individual accountability; social and small-group skills; face-to-face interaction; and group processing, or allowing time for the group to reflect on how it is working together.

Develop a structure for monitoring groups. To fulfil those five elements, it’s necessary to actively monitor how groups are progressing while still encouraging independence, the professors said.

“I’m very proactive,” Ballantine said. “I start each lecture by talking to them about their groups and asking them how they are performing. I ask about their meetings: ‘Did you have an agenda, did you split the work up?’ They don’t understand why I’m asking those questions, but it’s really for them to tell me if the group is not functioning properly.”

She also asks groups to complete peer evaluations, which allow students to share information about how all group members contributed, and to highlight any teammates who did not do a fair share of work.

Evelien Opdecam, Ph.D., assistant professor at Ghent University in Ghent, Belgium, suggests that each group turn in a team card at the end of each class giving their group a score for the day — a group that gives its work that day two stars out of five will alert professors that something is off track. She also asks teams to submit comments or problems.

Strive for balanced groups. If students are asked to choose their own groups, they typically will assemble a team of friends because they want to create a safe environment for themselves, Opdecam said. She recommended ensuring that groups are diverse in terms of demographics and academic performance, pairing strong students with those who have lower scores.

At University College Cork, Doran and Margaret Healy, Ph.D., a lecturer in the department of accounting and finance, use a variety of strategies to organise groups. In some cases, they allow students to self-select groups but also encourage them to look at the skill sets on their teams and trade members with other groups to achieve balance. Putting this responsibility in the students’ hands gives them a sense of ownership over group dynamics and may motivate them to smooth any conflicts that arise on their own before seeking help from professors, Doran said.

Instructors at Ghent, including Opdecam and associate professor of accounting Patricia Everaert, Ph.D., have found a way to allow students to self-select while also balancing groups’ skills — they allow students to connect in pairs or groups of three, then combine those groups to achieve balanced teams of five or six. 

Reconsider how (and whether) you evaluate group work. An essential element of co-operative learning, according to David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, is a common goal or incentive — but that incentive doesn’t always appear in the form of a grade or score for a group project.

For instance, in some undergraduate accounting courses at Ghent University, students can enrol in group-based learning, where they work together to review course material but do not get course credit and are not asked to “deliver a product”, Everaert said. Their “incentive”, instead, is to prepare for the final exam, Opdecam said.  

Some faculty who assign group projects ask students to evaluate or even grade their peers. The Ghent professors view peer grading unfavourably. “From the literature, we know that grading of group assignments leads to frustration,” Opdecam said. “Students think it’s not fair, and it’s difficult to divide the work. In that way, we avoid these frustrations.”

Realise that co-operative learning isn’t a shortcut. A common myth about co-operative learning, as noted by Everaert and Opdecam in the 2018 special issue of Accounting Education, is that it reduces the amount of work that students must do, or somehow reduces work for professors because they have fewer projects to grade.

Often, neither is true, they said. Planning a course that uses co-operative learning might actually require a lot more preparation.

“It’s a more difficult way of teaching than simply explaining [the material] yourself, when you have everything under control, and at the end of a lecture, you arrive where you want to be,” Everaert said.

But in spite of the extra time it might require, the effort is worthwhile, Opdecam said.

“A lecture is communicating in one direction,” she said. “If they are working in small teams, it gives you more time to have personal contact with students. It’s a nice feeling when you go home. It’s very satisfying as a teacher.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.