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The Best Cooperative Learning Involves Release of Responsibility

Posted by Judy Higgins on Oct 17, 2021

Student group completing experimentWhat is cooperative learning? Cooperative learning is an instructional model designed to improve student learning outcomes by promoting teamwork. Do you allow students to work together on small group learning projects? If so, you're already modeling cooperative learning strategies in your classroom. When our students work together on interactive classroom activities, they strengthen communication, social, and critical thinking skills. When collaborating in small groups of two to four peers, students have the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning. Collaborative learning strategies require teachers to give up some responsibility for classroom instruction to their students, letting them take the lead.

Why should you implement cooperative learning groups in your own classroom? There is so much research that shows that learning outcomes and engagement levels rise dramatically when students work together. These students are building stronger connections between the new material and the knowledge they bring to the class, and cooperative learning activities give students a chance to learn from others' experiences, work with diverse peer groups, and strengthen 21st-century career skills – including small group communication.


To successfully implement cooperative learning in your own classroom and release responsibility to your students, consider using checkpoints – short pauses that help keep students on the right track. Checkpoints give the teacher the opportunity to ensure students understand the concepts they need to learn before moving on to the next step in the activity. Whether you are using KnowAtom's next generation science standards (NGSS)-designed curriculum or not, the principles of checkpoints remain the same and can be used to improve outcomes from cooperative learning groups in any context.


Using checkpoints to improve cooperative learning outcomes

What is a checkpoint? Checkpoints are a formative assessment tool that teachers can use to measure and improve students' understanding during cooperative learning activities. For example, within KnowAtom's inquiry-based curriculum, when students plan their experiments or engineer prototypes, I use checkpoints to make them stop and identify where they are going next. The checkpoints help them remember to think ahead: What's the next step in my plan? What do I think will happen next?

What is a checkpoint? definition graphicWhen you are implementing cooperative learning strategies in your classroom, checkpoints play a very important role in releasing responsibility to students and keeping them on track while they are working together. One of the really wonderful things about teaching science is the students' excitement when planning hands-on classroom activities like experiments and engineering prototypes. When they are working in small groups, my students are more engaged in the subject matter and together, they are accomplishing high-level critical thinking about the new concepts they are learning.

As a teacher leading cooperative learning groups, you really want to use that energy to your advantage, gathering and channeling the students' excitement. Checkpoints give you a great way to set expectations for team assignments, provide immediate feedback as students begin to plan for the cooperative learning activity, and clarify student expectations at set points throughout the class.

Are we all on the same page here? One of the benefits of cooperative learning is the opportunity teachers have to step back, observe, and support the student groups who need it most. Checkpoints also help ensure that students connect each part of their plan before moving on to the next step. While students have ownership and responsibility for their own discovery process as one of the main benefits of cooperative learning, checkpoints allow teachers to manage the appropriate level of rigor throughout the lesson.

Checkpoints and KnowAtom’s hands-on curriculum

The experiment checkpoints table example below shows how checkpoints can be implemented within a hands-on science experiment. As a new teacher using cooperative learning in my class for the first time, one challenge I had was figuring out how long each step in the process should take. I really had no idea, and it was hard to lesson plan not knowing whether step one would take ten minutes or two days. KnowAtom helps make this easier by providing a timeframe for each major step in the experiment.

Teacher lesson plan to implement checkpoints in an experiment

The timeline highlights recommended check-in techniques and when to use them to improve outcomes. It's really important to remember that when you're using this process for the first time, you and your students are learning together in real-time. It will take a few tries to perfect the process, and your student groups may take longer to achieve their goals during the first few times. As students begin to get used to the formative assessments (the checkpoints) and understand how your feedback is helping keep them on the right track, it will get easier and quicker to implement.

As a teacher, you often find a group where there's one person who seems to be doing all the work. Implementing checkpoints throughout my cooperative learning activities gives me the opportunity to check in with each group and make sure that all team members are able to explain their reasoning. That really helps students be accountable to each other and not rush through things. When students are eager to raise their hand and say, "We're ready to be check-in," my response at the beginning is always, "Is everybody ready?" If every single team member is not ready, it's your responsibility to work as a group to make sure everybody's ready to be check-in. The pause point helps foster that collaboration because the students have to talk to each other and ensure that everyone is on the same page.

They learn to ask each other those important questions because they know that I can ask anybody in the group whatever questions I think are important. For example, when I review their scientific diagram at a checkpoint, I am reinforcing the learning expectations. Is the diagram properly labeled? Are you connecting back to all the materials? Is the investigation set up properly? Checkpoints help make sure that we all understand each other. What are the key data points that you're going to be looking for as you carry out your investigation? What is your hypothesis? How are you going to construct your conclusion? What a great career skill for students to learn – identify the expectations upfront and check-in throughout the project to ensure you're on the right track.

Student lab notebook

In KnowAtom's teacher's manual, those checkpoints are built right into the cooperative learning activity lab at key points. This is the reminder for the teacher to think, "Oh, that's right. I have to stop at checkpoint one." It also allows that differentiation opportunity for students who are moving faster to raise their hands and check-in, giving them the confidence to move forward at their own pace. For teams moving slower, that's fine too – there is no pressure to hurry when the rest of the class is no longer waiting on them.

We can also use these tools to support virtual learning, sending notes back and forth and putting the checkpoints right onto the instructional learning frames. For example, "You've completed the first part of your plan. Please share it with me for feedback before you move on." This was so exciting to me because it was one of my major concerns when I had to start teaching virtually. How will I check-in and make sure that we're keeping the same level of quality? I'm not in the classroom walking around checking in with you, but we can still do that virtually.


Releasing responsibility for student learning

One of the conversations that we have a lot with students beginning cooperative learning is, how do I do this? At the start, the teacher may need to actively facilitate the first two or three labs to model expectations for each step of the process. You are more in control of the situation early on. But by units three or four, students should be in collaboration mode, taking the lead on all steps in the science and engineering process.

Student lab assignment

This is when you let the checkpoints be your guide. I really struggled with releasing responsibility as a science teacher because I was nervous about, "Are they still going to get the big idea of what they should be learning from this?" Once I realized that I could trust the checkpoints, I learned that not only was I not going to lose control, I actually gained more control. I knew what my students were doing. I knew what each team was doing every step of the way.

I would also learn how teams worked together, helping me change groups around to improve productivity. Some teams needed more support for a longer time, and that's fine. That's differentiation, but they should still be continually progressing towards independence. When I finally held my breath and gave up control, trusting my students, it was amazing what happened in my classroom. It was amazing how much I saw the students own their process and how much I saw them really understand the process because they had created it.

They're working with their teams. They're being responsible to their teams. And again, this took some time. It was messy at first, and that's okay. We were all learning together. I can help them correct anything that they need to correct without giving away all their power. The procedure and the final results are still theirs.

Who is a scientist? classroom poster

Topics: science and engineering practices, Next Generation Science Standards, higher order thinking, STEAM, interactive science, Professional Development, STEAM Curriculum, Next Generation Science, NGSS-Designed Curriculum

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