For the most part, college-level instruction is not now organized around the principles of cooperative learning. Assignments, textbooks, the examination system, and even the physical arrangements of many large classrooms reflect a more individualistic conception of learning. Under these conditions, how are principles of cooperative learning to be introduced without the appearance of inconsistency?
Instructors who initiate team projects often point out that team activities increase learning. They note that teamwork is widespread in industry and other organizations. Justification along these lines, however, may fail to motivate students because they say little about how teams actually achieve the benefits that are claimed on their behalf, and how a team project complements the content and organization of the specific course in which it is being introduced. This section suggests some ways to supplement the conventional justification for them.
The suggestions are arranged under two headings: rationales for the use of teams in a course or discipline and the integration of team exercises with other course content. You will note, however, that these categories may overlap in practice.
The following rationales address team exercises as a form of cooperative learning and are thus potentially applicable to a wide range of activitiesConstructivist rationale.
Linguistic perspective on learning.
Scholars of professional language and rhetoric, such as Charles Bazerman (1998, 1991) and James Boyd White (1995), note that when students encounter a discipline or a professional field, they are being exposed to a specialized language. In learning concepts and terms, they are learning to engage in a particular form of discussion. Their grasp of a topic is usually evaluated on the basis of their ability to understand questions about it and to write cogent answers. Students are much more likely to develop this linguistic proficiency if they have both informal and formal opportunities to speak, rather than being restricted to listening and reading.
Tacit dimension of professional and disciplinary knowledge.
As Donald Schon has pointed out (1998, 1987), there are many forms of learning that cannot be characterized in terms of propositional knowledge, and thus are not reducible to statements in a textbook or lecture. Practical skills, intuitive judgement, and social context cannot generally be taught by exposition. Some sort of collaborative activity is required. Thus, for example, in a team exercise in a marketing course, students would get a chance to act out the role of a marketing specialist and discover some of the practical exigencies and constraints of the practice of marketing. This background understanding of the social context of marketing would provide a framework within which students may subsequently organize more detailed information of pricing strategy, promotional techniques, and problems of distribution.
Habits and attitudes needed for academic achievements.
As Kenneth Bruffee (1999) has pointed out, higher education can be thought of as a form of acculturation. According to this model, becoming successful as a student is a cultural acquisition. Academic competence is not just mastering course content: It also involves the formation of attitudes about schoolwork and the acquisition of habits of regular class attendance, consistent and thorough preparation, and disciplined management of time. Interaction with peers in a classroom can help students learn habits and attitudes needed for academic success more easily. This interaction can be especially helpful for students who come to the United States from other cultures.
Team exercises provide instructors with feedback mechanisms of unparalleled sensitivity. If teams had no other benefits, they would be justifiable solely on the grounds that they provide detailed information about the success of instruction and bring to light areas of misunderstanding. The following strategies are designed both to take advantage of that feedback and to emphasize its importance to students.Anticipatory strategies.
Involvement and attention.
It is essential that the instructor not be aloof from team exercises. Circulating among the groups, listening, asking questions, and evaluating students' understanding both of concepts and tasks will all help to provide a clearer sense of the students' progress and will also steer them back to the task at hand if they should be inclined to stray from it. The instructor's active attention will emphasize to the students the importance of the team exercise and its connection to other parts of the course.
Information gleaned from the teams can be incorporated into formal lessons. At the start of the next lecture, briefly summarize progress observed in teams, correct specific misconceptions, or highlight unresolved questions that have been raised in the teams.
Longer-term follow-up activities.
Subsequent lectures, discussions, and assignments can be designed to build on the team activities. Teams can report their conclusions in general discussion, a question related to the team activities. Teams can report their conclusions in general discussion, a question related to the team activity could be included on the exam, readings related to questions raised by the teams could be assigned.
Downloaded from Tomorrow's Professor Listserv, October 31, 2000 and lightly edited for this paper format. Taken from Using Student Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide by Ruth Federman Stein and Sandra Hurd, Syracuse University. Copyright © 2000, by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission.