Secured Cart banner
Kagan Gift Certificates

Kagan Cooperative Learning Chapter 1

Difficult Students


Some students refuse to work with others or can’t work with others. What should I do with them?

There are a host of behaviors students can bring to cooperative learning that create challenges. Some students refuse to work with others, some are rejected, some are hostile, others are bossy, yet others are shy or have special behavioral, cognitive, and/or emotional needs. We dedicate a whole section of the Social Skills chapter to troubleshooting the most frequently encountered social skills problems and offer specific ways to deal with each. See Chapter 11: Social Skills.

With regard to the “Refusenik,” the student who refuses to work with others, our answer is pretty simple: You cannot make a student cooperate, but you certainly can make it attractive for that student to cooperate. And if you make it attractive enough, sooner or later the reluctant and even the openly obstinate student will eventually join in to work with others. There are many ways you can make cooperation attractive for the reluctant or resistant student. Give a choice between working alone or in groups and provide tasks that can be finished much more quickly and accurately in groups, and couple that with an attractive activity that can be done only when the task is done. Provide encouraging gambits for teammates to use such as, “We could really use your help” or “We really appreciate your contribution.” Begin with tasks well within the capacity of the hesitant student. Choose tasks that align with a special interest or ability of the reluctant student.


Some of my students are window watchers. They don’t like school. They don’t even work alone. How can I get them to work in teams?


We are not talking about the student who is hesitant to work with others; we are talking about the student who is hesitant to work! We are in the realm of motivation theory.

Some students are far more motivated to work as an important member of a team than to work alone. Almost all students are motivated by peer approval, and they see performance for the team as a way to gain that approval. This may be why we have quite a few students who blossom when we shift to cooperative learning.

In general, motivation is enhanced as tasks are made more interesting and relevant, and we prefer that approach to using extrinsic rewards to try to bribe students to do meaningless or boring tasks. Thus, if students are not motivated, the first place we look is at the tasks we are asking them to perform. Can assignments be made more developmentally appropriate—not too easy, not too hard? Students respond well to a challenge if they think it is within their capacity and if they see meaning or relevance in the task. If we are trying to motivate students to master a skill, we need also to make sure they see the skill mastery as empowering them to obtain their own goals. Too often we try to teach a skill before sharing the relevance of the skill.

Motivation is enhanced also by use of the structures. The structures are engaging and carefully designed to create equal participation and individual accountability in the context of mutual support. There is a world to be said about motivation theory. See Chapter 16: Motivation Without Rewards & Competition.