Kagan Cooperative Learning Chapter 1

Boosting Achievement


There is pressure to boost achievement. How does cooperative learning align with direct instruction and the need to boost test scores?


There are two false assumptions embedded in this question! The assumptions among too many educators are 1) we need more direct instruction if we are to boost test scores; and 2) cooperative learning is somehow antithetical to direct instruction.

To correct the misconception that more direct instruction will boost achievement and test scores, we need only look at the hard data. In their summary of various meta-analyses of nearly a thousand research studies, Marzano and associates1 found dramatic increases in achievement to the extent teachers used cooperative learning. We present and analyze this and other achievement data in Chapter 3: What Does the Research Say?

To correct the idea that cooperative learning is antithetical to direct instruction, we need only look at how cooperative learning structures are actually used by experienced teachers. The most frequent use of cooperative learning structures is to have students reflect on or review ideas presented in direct instruction or to practice skills presented in direct instruction. For example, the teacher has used direct instruction to define and give examples of literary techniques. Following the direct instruction, the teacher may have students pair up to do a RallyRobin, taking turns pointing out and naming literary techniques in a poem they are analyzing. Or the teacher may use Sage-N-Scribe or one of the other mastery structures to have students coach each other as they recognize or produce literary techniques. Cooperative learning complements rather than replaces direct instruction; it is used to cement learning that occurs via direct instruction.

When learning depends on expert presentation of information or skills, cooperative learning without direct instruction can be the blind leading the blind. However, direct instruction with no cooperative learning can be information in one ear and out the other!


There is a lot of pressure to cover the curriculum. How can I cover the curriculum if I allow time for student discussions, teambuilding, classbuilding, and even silly sport energizers?


If we want to cover as much curriculum as possible, we need to stand in front of our class, talk fast, and allow no interruptions, student questions, or student discussion. We will cover the most curriculum possible that way, but students will understand, enjoy, and retain little.

The goal of covering the curriculum is noble only if it includes teaching with understanding and appreciation. And if we want our students to understand and appreciate our curriculum, we need to stop talking on a regular basis and let them talk. It is through student discourse and the interaction of different ideas that students construct meaning. Often it is through peer tutoring and coaching that skills are cemented. Actually, we retain a great deal more of what we say than what we hear; there is an inverse relation between teacher talk and student learning!

But there is more to the story. In today’s world, information is fast outdated. It is estimated that the half-life of knowledge for a graduating engineer or psychologist is less than five years.2 That is, half the information they acquire in school will be outdated within five years! The implication of this is profound: If we are to provide our students with skills for success, we must imbue a love of learning. If they are to be successful, our students must become lifelong learners. If they get 100% on our tests, but hate the subject matter and do not leave our class hungry to learn more, we have failed them! The classbuilding, teambuilding, and energizers create a positive class climate conducive to that fundamental goal: creating a love of learning.

The energizers serve another function. Have you ever been in a lecture and found your mind wandering while the presenter kept talking? We can only take in so much before we need to process what has been said. We can only sit so long before we become exhausted from inhibiting our impulses to move. By inclusion of frequent processing time, brain-breaks, and energizers, a good teacher keeps the energy in the room high and minds focused. What is better: 1) Presenting the curriculum 100% of the time with little student energy and enthusiasm and their minds half focused? Or, 2) Presenting the curriculum 80% of the time with high student energy and focused alertness? Retention for content, as well as a love for learning, is increased by teambuilding, classbuilding, frequent brain breaks, and energizers.


In our school, we can only use innovations with a scientific research base. Does cooperative learning have a scientific research base?


YES! Cooperative learning has perhaps the strongest empirical research base of any educational innovation. Over 1,000 studies demonstrate the positive effects of cooperative learning on academic achievement, social/emotional development, cognitive development, liking for school and class, as well as a host of other positive outcomes. See Chapter 3: What Does Research Show?