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Small Group Instruction in Higher Education: Lessons from the Past, Visions of the Future

Edited by James Cooper, Pamela Robinson, and David Ball
New Forums Press
356 pages
ISBN: 1-58107-067-5
$24.95 (paper)

Reviewed by

Cynthia Desrochers

Director, Center for Excellence
In Learning and Teaching
California State University, Northridge


I can judge how practical a book is for me by counting the page of notes I’ve taken while reading it. This volume, a compilation of 30 of the best articles from the Cooperative Learning and College Teaching newsletter (1990-1998) and 8 new articles written specifically for this book, offers dozens of insights and my pen continually flowed. With a list of contributing authors that reads like a Who’s Who of cooperative learning, this book is an updated historical primer for this pedagogy. The reader can almost feel the paradigm shift that has occurred in higher education from “instructor centered” to “student-learning centered” through the years of the newsletter. A line from a 1994 newsletter article notes, “As you plan your instructional program, it might be helpful to think about the needs you have as a teacher and then design cooperative activities in order to meet them” (p. 216; emphasis added). However, a 1998 article by the same contributing author focuses on the needs of the learner: “ When I look back on my undergraduate education...the emphasis was on the expertise of the faculty instead of where it should have been—on the understanding of the learners” (p. 238).

Part one of this two-part text includes five sections, totaling 30 articles, which are organized according to how college faculty might approach learning about cooperative learning (CL):

  • definitions of CL,
  • research and rationale for using CL,
  • informal CL strategies,
  • formal CL strategies, and
  • implementation advice.

As the editors explain at the beginning of the book, there are differences in authors’ styles of writing; I, too, found that some authors were thorough and provided rich examples, while others did so only to a lesser degree.

I was personally drawn to Alexander Astin’s article, What Matters in College? Implications for Cooperative Learning of a New National Study (pp. 44-62). For a number of years through the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, he directed the study of a national sample of 25,000 students at more than 200 four-year colleges and universities in order to see how student outcomes were affected by college “environments.” The study found that student-to-student interaction is the “single most powerful source of influence on the undergraduate student’s academic and personal development ... the sheer amount of interaction among peers has far reaching effects on nearly all areas of student learning and development” (p. 49). These findings are the ignition switch for implementing informal small-group peer discussion during class time for faculty who feel that they are sacrificing content coverage if they take a lecture break. Moreover, Astin’s study provides validation to faculty who have long recognized that instruction focused only on content coverage benefits learning less than instruction interspersed with substantive group work.

As a director of a university teaching and learning center, I am always looking for workshop opportunities for our faculty. Susan Johnson’s article #27 (pp. 216-220) provides a cooperative course-design strategy that I plan to use. She shares an Activity Planning Chart (p. 220) that shows examples of cooperative activities that correlate with a set of typical “instructional needs/functions”:

  • motivating students,
  • providing concrete input,
  • hecking for understanding,
  • guiding student practice,
  • reviewing material prior to exams,
  • dividing extensive text readings for student mastery, and
  • learning from returned exams.

For example, to motivate students before a lecture on mythology, she suggests that students form groups and share their current heroes. And to provide students the opportunity to practice in class after a lecture on genetics, Johnson suggests that groups of students work with three parent scenarios and chart all of the characteristics possible for their offspring. Filling out this Activity Planning Chart for one’s own course would be an excellent learning activity for faculty interested in implementing informal cooperative learning strategies into their teaching repertoire in a manner that is sound functionally.

Susan Prescott Johnson contributes numerous articles to this volume, and her years of using cooperative learning at CSU Dominguez Hills is a goldmine, excavated for our use in this text. Where many of us might have an image of conversations we hope to have with our students, Johnson shares specific statements that she has used that are worth remembering. For example, in one article with a “Q. and A.” format, the question posed is “What if students complain about someone on their teams?” Johnson answers that she would approach the student privately and say, “I have noticed a disturbing pattern emerging, and I’m concerned that the classroom climate for learning [for which I am ultimately responsible] is being adversely affected, and I need some help in making changes” (p. 214). This message gives the student agency in helping to make the needed changes, thus modeling the type of communication that has a high probability of being responded to appropriately by a student.

Part two of this book is titled “What the Experts Are Thinking” (pp. 247-355). With articles written by the Johnson brothers, Barbara Millis, Spencer Kagan, and others, it updates cooperative learning for the “21st Century College” as advertised. All eight articles in part two will add to our CL knowledge and skill base, but I will select just one for review here, Kagan’s “Cooperative-learning Structures for Brain-compatible Instruction” (pp. 292-310). Recent research on the brain has filled many gaps in our understanding about how humans learn. Kagan’s well-known cooperative learning structures became popular among K-12 teachers beginning in the mid 1980s. They, too, represented something of a paradigm shift from teachers being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” and “structurer” of useful, academically focused student-student interaction. Now in 2005, we know more about the human brain’s need for what Kagan calls “brain-breaks” and Kagan Structures, strategies that may do some or all of the following: increase student energy level, allow time for reflection, provide social stimuli, seek psychological safety, connect with emotions, and offer novelty and feedback. This well-written and engaging article presents brain research that explains how and why many Kagan Structures are successful.

This book’s subtitle is “Lessons from the Past, Visions of the Future.” An important point must be made that what we have done in the past may not work today. A case in point is the suggestion in article #18, Getting Started with Cooperative Learning, where the following advice is given in support of using student team folders to manage record keeping and thus reduce this time-consuming chore for faculty: “Team recorders are responsible for entering all the data for test grades, and bonus points for each practice activity that meets the criteria” (p. 163). The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student educational records. Asking a student to enter the grades of other students is a FERPA violation; thus, the faculty member must privately enter all grades. In addition, articles #17 and #18 explain that some faculty determine groups based on student-completed information cards filled out at the first class session asking for GPA (p. 56); moreover, group leadership roles are then based on the highest GPA (p. 163). While not a direct violation of FERPA, many experts in CL would find a static assignment based upon GPA distasteful and would advise assigning all students as leaders over the course of the term, thereby allowing them to experience and learn leadership.

As I read about so many excellent cooperative learning practices that I wanted to learn more about, I was constantly reminded of what the editors noted at the beginning of the book: “When we began publishing the newsletter we decided not to include reference sections for most articles. Instead we asked readers to contact authors if they wished to obtain that information. By doing so, we were able to get one additional article in each issue” (p. ix). While I fully understand this explanation, I had hoped for more references. Perhaps they will be included in the next edition, as well as a short section for the biographies of this distinguished group of renowned authors and practitioners of cooperative learning.

Posted June 29, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2005 by Cynthia Desrochers.

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