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Kagan Cooperative Learning Creates Explosive Results in High School Chemistry

Janina A. Mele

To cite this article: Mele, A., J. Kagan Cooperative Learning Creates Explosive Results in High School Chemistry. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 2001. www.KaganOnline.com

Ten years ago, as a part of my school district's staff development program, I was selected to become an on site trainer. One focal point of instruction was Cooperative Learning. After spending a week in California training with Dr. Spencer Kagan, I must admit I was excited about what I learned, eager to try these new methodologies in my class, but very skeptical that they would actually work with high school Chemistry students.

The next month was spent preparing. I soon realized that twenty-five years of successful teaching had honed an educational philosophy that was about to be challenged. Was I ready? My first challenge was creating my class teams. Not knowing most of the students on my class roster I came up with two questions to include on their registration cards: What was your last year's science grade? Name two people in this class that are your friends. Using this information as well as the team forming concepts, I arranged my classes into groups. Expecting this to be a short-term random selection until I got to know my students better, I found that the mixtures were working quite well, so I kept them together for the duration of the first marking period.

We began our adventure together, stepping into a new world of learning. I quickly noticed my student enthusiastic response to this "different" experience. We used several structures as the mainstays of instruction: Think-Pair-Share, (later revised to Timed-Pair-Share), Numbered Heads Together, RoundRobin, RoundTable, RallyRobin, RallyTable, Pairs-Compare, and Pairs Check. Much to my surprise, my students were really working as a team, staying on task, developing good relationships, but most of all showing excitment about Chemistry. This was a first for me!! I will never forget the first Pairs-Check they worked on, a drill sheet on chemical formula writing. As I walked around the lab offering help, I stepped back a moment and just looked at my students. All 24 of them were actively engaged in chemistry! I was overwhelmed with excitement.

I've always complained that my students, although good rote learners, were not terribly good thinkers. These structures made me aware that my own questioning skills needed improvement. The nature of chemistry requires a good deal of direct instruction, but every 10 to 15 minutes I inserted a structure, which required my students to think and recall. These activities lasted 5 to 10 minutes. We also spent longer periods of time working mastery structure like Pairs Check and RallyTable. A new routine was soon established and we developed a good pattern and flow of information and dialogue. I also found my questioning skills as well as my students thinking skills improving. This was leading to a relaxed and fun learning environment.

The marking period ended and I announced I would be changing groups next week. Much to my amazement, my classes were distraught. "We work so well together. Why?" was their retort. I explained my rationale and on Monday we regrouped. Teambuilding and classbuilding activities cemented the new teams in a very short time. I delighted in the new connections that were being made. Not only did the students seem to genuinely like each other, they displayed a sense of acceptance. I noticed that the students worked well in a variety of roles with no one dominating the field. The ones who were normally quiet and shy about class response were beginning to show signs of comfort and better self-esteem. I always prided myself on having a good relationship with my students, but I found myself on a different level of involvement. We had a much more relaxed class. I got to know my students on a more personal level and visa versa. My role of teacher kept evolving and my class was definitely becoming more student centered. So this was what Cooperative Learning was all about!

The bar that runs horizontally across represents a 75% average. the double bar graph for each marking period represents two separate classes of chemistry. The first bar of each pair is the 1st period class. The second bar of each pair is the 3rd period class.

The second marking came to an end and as I recorded my students' grades, I was struck with a revelation. I seemed to marking down "A" too many times. I began to study these grades and discovered in one class a total of 17 A's out of 21 students, a class average of 90 %. My other class had an average approaching 83 %. This was unheard of. I had never seen results like this before. Curiosity got the better of me, so I called up the grades from the previous year on the computer and stared in amazement. This year, my students were actually doing much better scholastically. I analyzed the grades from the previous year only to discover a class average that consistently hovered at 75 %. This year, with one exception, my classes were averaging well above 80%. To me this was a significant improvement. These grades, for both years were based on comprehensive assessments, which included: homework, quizzes, lab reports, unit tests, and research papers. Although the basis for assessment was virtually the same, the method of instruction was different. This led me to one conclusion: Cooperative Learning really worked!

The next two marking periods were sustained in much the same way with continued scholastic success. As the days dwindles to the last few, a young man who was a classified student, stopped by my desk to thank me. " I want to say, taking this class scared me in the beginning but everything we did in here was so much fun and I really learned a lot. I couldn't have done it without you." In reality, it wasn't me, it was the setting. As a structured and motivated young man, his A might have been a B in a traditional class but these structures allowed him to grow personally and educationally. As we talked, I discovered a real incongruence. A large component of Chemistry is based upon mathematical concepts. When I mentioned how pleased I was with his mathematical insights, he responded " I wish my Math teacher thought that way, I'm getting a D in that class."
So what happened in Chemistry that didn't happen in Math?

About the Author

Janina A. Mele has been teaching for the past 30 years. She currently teaches graduate courses in cooperative learning in New Jersey.

Submitted by: Janina A. Mele
Retired Chemistry Teacher
Indian Hills HS
Oakland, New Jersey