Kagan's Articles - FREE Kagan Articles

Research & Rationale

Cooperative Learning is a Brain Turn-On

By Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed

To cite this article: Willis, J. Cooperative Learning is a Brain Turn-On. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter 2009. www.KaganOnline.com

This We Believe Characteristics
  • An inviting, supportive, and safe environment
  • High expectations for all members of the learning community
  • Students engaged in active learning
  • Multiple learning and teaching approaches that respond to their diversity
  • Assessment and evaluation programs that promote quality learning

Editor's Note:
Appreciations to Judy Willis for granting Kagan permission to run this article on Kagan Online Magazine. This and other articles by Judy may be accessed on Judy's Web site: http://www.RADTeach.com

Although I attended school for 21 years before entering the University of California, Santa Barbara, Graduate School of Education, Teacher Education Program (TEP) in 1998, I had never worked in learning groups aside from the occasional science experiment or medical school cadaver dissection. Yet even those experiences were not designed as cooperative group work; they were arranged simply for the purpose of sharing materials. Most of my classes in the TEP program incorporated cooperative learning techniques as an integral part of the instruction. In our classrooms, we never sat in rows, but always at round tables with room for four to six students. Rarely did a day go by when we did not work together on a cooperative project such as a poster and presentation, a short videotape, or a skit performance. I responded to this style of teaching and of learning quite positively, both cognitively and socially. Some of my enthusiasm was probably rooted in my being, as I am a global, interpersonal style learner (Checkley, 1997; Kagan & Kagan, 1998). But I found my classmates, with their varied learning styles, also inclined toward collaboration.

As I experienced the benefits of collaboration, I also discovered that an integral part of the process was the departure by our professors from the traditional roles of imparters and assessors of knowledge. Unlike the teachers I had previously studied under, my education professors assumed roles of information resources in more democratic classrooms. I discovered that relinquishing traditional autocratic control and allowing students to collaborate interactively with classmates to achieve common goals resulted in our becoming more invested and engaged in our learning. When I completed my masters of education degree in cooperative learning and became a middle school teacher, I found that I followed the modeling of my teachers and used cooperative learning in my own classroom. I then called upon my clinical and research training and experience in neurology to investigate the learning research being done through neuroimaging and brain mapping. I found evidence of brain and neurochemical activity that supported the positive results I was having with the cooperative approach to middle school teaching.

Psychosocial Benefits
Consider the increased comfort and enjoyment that students have when pleasurable social interaction is incorporated into their learning experience (Reeve, 1996). This is especially true during adolescence when peer group influence plays such an important developmental role in the psychosocial process of separation from parents along the road to individualization. For example, in early elementary school, students often raise up from their seats when they wave their hands enthusiastically in hopes of being called upon to answer a question. By middle school, some students consider it uncool to volunteer answers or even appear intelligent in class. These same students are more willing to participate and even show enthusiasm about challenging tasks when they are engaged in learning activities with supportive cooperative groups.

Erikson (1968) theorized that the developmental "crises" of adolescence are turning points during periods of increased vulnerability, and these turning points present opportunities for the development of psychosocial strength. He proposed that during these developmental stages the adolescent develops new capacities and psychosocial strengths by working through these developmental crises. Inclusion, a sense of belonging to a group where a student feels valued, builds resiliency. Resilient adolescents have greater success, social competence, empathy, responsiveness, and communication skills. They also demonstrate greater flexibility, self-reflection, and ability to conceptualize abstractly when solving problems.

Successfully planned group work can help to support students during these developmental crisis opportunities by reducing the fear of failure that can cause them to avoid academic challenges. Well-structured cooperative group activities build supportive classroom communities, which, in turn, increase self-esteem and academic performance.

Neuroimaging—Watching the Social Brain Learn
Neuroimaging and neurochemical investigation provide evidence of the brain's response to stress as well as to pleasure and positive social interaction. Research on the amygdala reveals it to be one location of an affective filter in the brain (Pawlak, Magarinos, Melchor, McEwen, & Strickland, 2003). During periods of high stress or anxiety that some students may experience when asked to do a math problem on the board or make an oral presentation to the class, their emotional state is associated with greatly heightened metabolism (more glucose and oxygen use) flooding this "emotional" portion of the limbic system on Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies.

When students participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive cooperative groups, ... their brain scans show facilitated passage of information from the intake areas into the memory storage regions of the brain.

When the amygdala is in this hyperexcitable, anxiety-provoked state, there is profound reduction in the neural activity indicative of information flow into and out of the amygdala. In the normal, relaxed state, the brain receives information as sensory input (e.g., for hearing or vision) into specific sensory receptive centers. From these areas, neural pathways project this information to the amygdala. In the amygdala emotional meaning may be linked to the information and connections are made with previously stored, related knowledge (Chugani & Phelps, 1991). The new information, now enhanced with emotional or relational data, then travels along specific neuronal circuits to the higher cognitive centers of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, and stored for later retrieval and executive functioning (Kato & McEwen, 2003).

In fMRI scans of adolescents in states of affective, emotional anxiety, when the amygdala is metabolically hyperactive, the pathways that normally conduct information in and out of the amygdala show greatly reduced activity. Thus, new information is blocked from entering the memory banks by this metabolic blockade of the hyperactive amygdala (Toga & Thompson, 2003). When students participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive cooperative groups, their affective filters are not blocking the flow of information. When you plan your group so that each member's strengths have authentic importance to the ultimate success of the group's activity, you have created a situation where individual learning styles, skills, and talents are valued, and students shine in their fortes and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert. They call on each other's guidance to solve pertinent and compelling problems and develop their interpersonal skills by communicating their ideas to partners. The brain scans of subjects learning in this type of supportive and social learning situation show facilitated passage of information from the intake areas into the memory storage regions of the brain. This is consistent with the original cognitive psychology research and theories of Krashen (1982) about the affective filter— that learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer and visa versa.

Reward-Stimulated Cooperative Learning
Studies of brain neurochemistry also support the benefit associating rewarding, positive social experiences with the learning process. This has been called dopamine-based reward-stimulated learning (Waelti, Dickinson, & Schultz, 2001). Information travels along nerve cells' branching and communicating sprouts (axons and dendrites) as electrical impulses. However, where these sprouting arms connect to the next neuron in the circuit, the information has to travel through a gap between the end of one nerve and the beginning of the next one. In these gaps, called synapses, there are no physical structures, unlike the wires that connect appliances to electric outlets, along which the electric impulses can travel. When crossing over synaptic gaps, the information impulse must be temporarily converted from an electric one into a chemical one. Neurotransmitters are brain proteins released by the electrical impulse on one side of the synapse, to then float across the synaptic gap, carrying the information with them to stimulate the next nerve ending in the pathway. Once the neurotransmitter is taken up by the next nerve ending, the electric impulse is reactivated to travel along to the next nerve cell.

Dopamine is the chemical neurotransmitter most closely associated with attention, memory storage, comprehension, and executive function. The theory of reward-stimulated learning and other reinforcement learning theories are based on the assumption that the brain finds some states of stimulation to be more desirable than others. The brain is believed to make associations between specific cues and these desirable states or goals. Dopamine activity can be evaluated through neuroimaging. It has been found that dopamine release is increased in brain centers associated with learning and memory in response to rewards and positive experiences. Research found that the brain released more dopamine into these learning circuits when the individual was playing, laughing, exercising, and receiving acknowledgement (e.g., praise) for achievement (Salamone & Correa, 2002).

These frontal lobe, dopamine sensitive regions are seen on neuroimaging as activated in pleasure and reward, wakefulness, and satiety. It has been shown that drugs of abuse affect nerves along this dopamine pathway. This is a basis for theories that when the brain does not release its own dopamine reward from pleasurable experiences it is vulnerable to the allure of the psychoactive drugs that activate the dopamine pathway (Everitt, Parkinson, Olmstead, Arroyo, Robledo, & Robbins, 1999). Follow up research found that when subjects anticipated pleasurable states, there was increased release of dopamine associated with the expectation of pleasure (Holroyd, Larsen, & Cohen, 2004).

Many of the motivating factors that have been found to release this dopamine are intrinsic to successful cooperative group work such as social collaboration, motivation, and expectation of success, or authentic praise from peers. Because dopamine is also the neurotransmitter associated with attention, memory, learning, and executive function, it follows that when the brain releases dopamine during or in expectation of a pleasurable experience or reward, this dopamine will be available to increase the processing of new information. That is what occurs when students enjoy a positive cooperative learning experience, and even when they anticipate participation in that type of activity.

Cooperative Groups Generate More Participation and Stimulate Multiple Brain Regions
Cooperative group activities, unlike whole class discussions or independent work, provide the most opportunities for students to express their ideas, questions, conclusions, and associations verbally. Gibbs (1995), in her book Tribes reported that in traditionally structured classes each student has about five to ten minutes of individual time to engage in classroom academic discourse. In group work, that amount of time increases dramatically. She found that students experienced a greater level of understanding of concepts and ideas when they talked, explained, and argued about them with their group, instead of just passively listening to a lecture or reading a text.

In addition, metabolic brain activity accelerates during active constructive thinking, such as planning, gathering data, analyzing, inferring, and strategizing versus passive information acquisition. When the verbal center becomes engaged while information or a task is being learned, more neural activity travels between the left and right brain. (Chugani & Phelps, 1991). Thus, when students describe their thinking verbally to the group or work on a group chart, diagram, or project, the new information becomes embedded in multiple brain sites, such as the auditory and visual memory storage areas. Now, with neuroimaging, we know that this multicentered brain communication circuitry enhances comprehension, making new material be more accessible for future use, because it is stored in redundant brain areas (Giedd, et al., 1999).

In mathematical collaboration students learn to test one another's conjectures and identify valid or invalid solutions. Group members are all engaged as they discover techniques to test one member's strategy. If it does not work on repeated tries, they invalidate that strategy and try another. Students who just "don't get it" via a teacher's didactic lecture benefit from the different perspectives of classmates with similar knowledge banks on the subject. In literature and social studies students have a small, safer place to try out ideas they might not express to the entire class. They learn that there is validity to personal interpretation, and they can experiment with critical thinking in a structured small-group setting, with scaffolding provided as needed via teacher prompts about what to discuss and how to run the discussion. This process empowers students to become more active not only in whole-class discussions but in their homework and in speaking their opinion outside of the classroom. This is especially critical during adolescence when "fitting in" is such a strong need that individuality can become stifled (Jernigan & Tallal, 1990).

As neuroimaging evidence has shown, the more a student is engaged in a learning activity, especially one with multiple sensory modalities, the more parts of the brain are actively stimulated (Jagust & Budinger, 1993). When this occurs in a positive emotional setting, without stress and anxiety, the result is greater long-term, relational, and retrievable learning.

Students experienced a greater level of understanding of concepts and ideas when they talked, explained, and argued about them with their group, instead of just passively listening to a lecture or reading a text.

What Constitutes Cooperative Work?
To qualify as cooperative work, rather than individuals working in parallel in a group, students must need each other to complete the task. Students are expected to participate in tasks that are clearly constructed and necessary for the group's success. The teacher remains active as a circulating resource and, when necessary, an arbitrator, but students should be capable of carrying out their tasks without constant, direct intrusion by the teacher. Students, not the teacher, are responsible for accomplishing their tasks in the way they think best, with accountability to each other and to the teacher's standards. Ideally, there is a clear rubric for individual and group assessment, and the students and the teacher take part in the assessment process (Antil, Jenkins, & Watkins, 1998). When setting up lessons for successful collaboration in cooperative groups, consider the following guidelines that will then be expanded upon with examples of specific cooperative group activities that emphasize each of the five characteristics.
All members have opportunities and capabilities, frontloaded if necessary, such that different students can make their own special contributions. This may require planning ways for students with different learning or intelligence styles to make special contributions to the group task (Webb, Nemer, & Chizhik, 1998).

  • Students learn to respect each other as group members. Often this requires teacher demonstration with role-playing.
  • The group negotiates roles with guidance from the teacher. Designated roles can vary from group to group.
  • There should be more than one answer or more than one way to solve the problem or create the project.
  • The activity should be intrinsically interesting, challenging, and rewarding.
  • All members have opportunities to make valued contributions to the group product.

Sample Brain-Friendly Cooperative Projects
Cooperative group activities I have used in my middle school classes have had different emphases and goals, but each also conforms to these basic five characteristics of successful group work. Examples of activities that feature each of the aforementioned successful cooperative group guidelines follow.

As neuroimaging evidence has shown, the more a student is engaged in a learning activity with multiple sensory modalities, the more parts of the brain are actively stimulated.

Dinosaur Extinction—Science and Math (extinction theory and scientific notation):
In this activity students are each given an area of expertise that other group members do not have so they are valued for this information. This is a type of frontloading. This increases each student's connection to the group socially and academically, thereby lowering their affective filters. Because there are elements of choice and real-world application, the information students process is patterned with relational memories in the hippocampus and prefrontal lobes for successful storage as long-term memory.

In the dinosaur project, the final process of making informed individual decisions about which extinction theory the student chooses to support brings in frontal lobe executive functions. The group project also incorporates and values multiple skills and talents. This results in more opportunity for students to connect and succeed through their individual learning styles and to engage more of their brains with multisensory stimulation.

Through a strategy called tea party, card party, or jigsaw, students are first put in groups where all five members of the group read articles and text about one of the dinosaur extinction theories, which include:

  • Creataceous-Tertiary Asteroid Theory (about 65 million years ago) This theory also previews the next topic we will study in geography, continental drift, and the splitting of the supercontinent Pangaea.
  • K-T Extinction (about 65 million years ago) K is for Kreide, meaning chalk in German, which describes the chalky sediment layer from that time; T is for Tertiary, the next geologic period, when all land animals over about 55 pounds went extinct.
  • The Alvarez Asteroid Impact Theory: An asteroid four to nine miles in diameter hit Earth about 65 million years ago, penetrated the Earth's crust, scattered dust and debris into the atmosphere, and caused huge fires, tsunamis, severe storms with high winds and highly acidic rain, seismic activity, and perhaps even volcanic activity.
  • Greenhouse Effect: Large amounts of methane, changing the Earth's atmosphere, caused a greenhouse effect. The methane source is theorized to have come from deep-sea algae deposits and/or from by-products of plant-eating dinosaurs' digestion.
  • Over-foraging: The herbivorous dinosaurs' over-foraging and the carnivorous dinosaurs' over-culling of the herbivorous dinosaurs could have triggered mass starvation.

After the first groups—which have become expert in one of the five theories of extinction—have read about, discussed, and answered questions I provided, and each group member has completed notes that I reviewed with answers to the questions, the groups are shuffled to form new groups. Each of these secondary groups is the true cooperative group, and each group member is now an expert on one extinction theory.

Group Project:

  1. Each group member explains his or her extinction theory while others take notes.
  2. After open-ended, student-inspired discussions, each member selects the theory he or she feels best explains dinosaur extinction.
  3. Through vote or consensus (a process they have practiced) the group selects the theory they will use for their project.
  4. Groups can demonstrate their theory through a skit, report, PowerPoint presentation, overhead projector charts, a video production, models, or several of these options.
  5. Each group must include mathematics using scientific notation with exponents for the very large numbers involved in dinosaur research, such as 50 million is 5.0 x 10 to the 7th power.
  6. Groups present their findings to the class and complete self- and group analysis reports on rubrics provided.
  7. Individual and group grades are based on teacher observations, final products and cooperative behavior.