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pr ac tice

Becoming an Effective Teacher Using

Cooperative Learning:
A Personal Odyssey
Barbara J. Millis, director, Teaching and Learning Center, University of TexasSan Antonio

U nlike the other contributors in this issue, I would like to

take a more reflective approach to what constitutes effec-
tive teaching based on my twenty-seven years in faculty
development and, perhaps more pointedly, based on my
own evolving journey in the classroom. I am encouraged to take this
approach by William Zinssers (2009) recent article about his own
odyssey as a writer. He states, The best teachers of a craft, I saw,
though I am a literature/composition teacher who had been trained
to use peer critiquing methods, because as a student I had only seen
the darker side of group work. As an undergraduate student in
the 1960s at Florida State University, we knew that the only reason
a professor told us to Get into groups and groove was due to his
lack of preparation. We sat in groups with no direction or purpose,
often while the professor wandered out of the room in search of a
are their own best textbook. Students who take their classes really cuppa java, and what occurred can only be described as yadda,
want to know how they do what they dohow they grew into their yadda, yadda, even though that term hadnt been invented yet.
knowledge and learned from wrong turns (62-63). My own experi- What Davidson showed me and others was a different approach
ence and the literature confirm that most good teachers do not leap to group work called cooperative learning (Cooper, Robinson,
like Athena, full-grown from Zeuss head. Learning to teach wisely and Ball 1993; Kagan 1989; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 1991;
and well takes time. Most of us do not offer award-winning presen- Millis 2002; Millis and Cottell 1998; Slavin 1986). In a nutshell,
tations our first day in the classroom. Learning to teach is often a cooperative learning is a highly structured form of group work
slow and painful experience with skills, values, and beliefs (summa- that focuses on the problem-solving that Bain and Zimmerman
rized eloquently by Miller in this issue) developing incrementally, (this issue) suggest can lead studentswhen directed by a good
often unconsciously. That kind of progress is difficult to document teacherto deep learning and genuine paradigm shifts in their
because we are often unaware of our progress which is, like the thinking. Two givens in the cooperative learning literature are
tortoises, slow and steady, but unremarkable. What I prefer to focus positive interdependence and individual accountability. Positive
on instead are aha moments, epiphanies, or breakthroughs. The interdependence means that you give students a vested reason to
name isnt important. The important thing is that they happen, and work together on a task, usually through the nature and structure
that they can and do transform a persons teaching. of a task designed to encourage cooperation to face challenges that
a single student could not meet. Individual accountability means
The First BreakthroughCooperative Learning that students receive the grades they earn. In cooperative learning
For me, my first breakthrough in teaching occurred in the late 1980s classrooms, students can be graded on their own homework sub-
when I attended a three-hour workshop by Neil Davidson at the missions, papers, and exams. Individual accountability is especially
University of Maryland that I had organized because someone told important with group projects to prevent free loading or social
me he was good with groups. I had been teaching for roughly loafing. Usually this requires peer and self-critiquing.
twenty years (hard to confess!) using the only models I knew: Group processing is also essential: both you and the students
lecture and whole-class discussion. I rarely used group work, even pay attention to group dynamics and productivity. Leadership

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skills help students learn how to lead an red folders; the next fifty-two students, blue students request peer coaching and actively
effective meeting, drawing contributions folders; and the next fifty-two students, try understand problems. With luck of the
from all group members, making certain yellow folders. The team folders, labeled draw, the selection is impersonal and the
that everyones ideas are heard and treated Aces through Kings, contain four matching studentsoften ones who never volun-
respectfully, and drawing out reluctant cards with the different suitshearts, dia- teerusually feel comfortable responding
contributors. monds, clubs, and spades. Thus, any student because they are giving a group response,
Although it is not a given in the can be called on to give a team report by the not their personal answer.
cooperative learning literature, I am pas- luck of the draw. The teacher announces I had anecdotal evidence that a dynamic
sionately committed to heterogeneous the color of the folder and draws a card such classroom community focused on
teams that take into account factors such as the three of hearts. The person whose student learning resulted from the group
as majors, grade point averages, gender, card is drawn summarizes the work done interactions. Before discovering cooperative
ethnicity, and age. Thus, instructors need to by team three in the yellow folder cohort. learning, I had typically lectured on young
select the groups. Four people can remain I typically assign four rotating team roles: adult novels in my Childrens Literature
together for a semester in large classes or be discussion leader, reporter, recorder, and classes. The first time I monitored students
regrouped at the midterm point in smaller the folder monitor, who picks up the team in small groups discussing I Am the Cheese,
classes. Instructor-selected, diverse groups folder, distributes any worksheets and a complex novel by Robert Cormier, I real-
increase the likelihood that students will the homework (folded over and stapled ized for the first time that students didnt
face challenges to their assumptions and for FERPA compliance) and collects new even understand the possible plot lines. I
the diverse approaches to problem-solving homework and any activity sheets com- was hearing them exclaim, Wow! Is that
needed for critical thinking. Students also pleted during class. For easy grading, the really what happened? How do you know?
learn to work with people unlike them- grade rosters are organized in team order, Show me! With a sinking heart I suddenly
selves, an important workplace skill. aces through kings, allowing the work to be realized that my brilliant lectures on sym-
bolism, point of view and character nuances
had been over the heads of students who
couldnt navigate the basic plot pathways.
I had anecdotal evidence that a dynamic classroom Affectively, I knew the class was having a
positive impact on students when I read
community focused on student learning resulted from the comment a young Vietnamese day care
the group interactions worker wrote on her final student evalua-
tion. Ahn had struggled in my junior-level
English class, but her teammates had been
caring and supportive, and best of allhad
As I took workshops from Spencer quickly marked, recorded, and returned to tutored her. She wrote: In this class I have
Kagan and David and Roger Johnson and the team folder with no need for alphabet- found true friends.
read prodigiously, I introduced classroom izing and then distributing.
management tools into my classroom, such The playing cards also allow me to use A Second BreakthroughDeep
as a raised hand to bring the class back to a highly effective cooperative learning Learning as sequence
attention (the quiet signal) and sponge approach often called Numbered Heads Just when I complacently thought my
or extension activities for fast-working Together (renamed by Millis and Cottell, teaching could never be better, another
groups. Probably my most radical change 1998, Structured Problem Solving) aha moment occurred as a result of
was using group folders and playing cards. where students complete a course-related reading in the National Teaching and
This approach can transform large classes task, such as responding to case study Learning Forum a four-page summary of
with hundreds of students by making every questions, without having a preidentified the research on deep learning. This brief
team accountable for completing in-class spokesperson. When everyone knows in but profound article taught me two key
assignments and by making any individual advance who the group spokesperson/ things: (1) it gave me a reason why coop-
accountable for the group report. In a class reporter will be, no one but that unlucky erative learning approaches could lead to
of approximately 150, for example, the first individual needs to learn the material. But, deep learning, and (2) it encouraged me
fifty-two students, in teams of four, receive when anyone could be the spokesperson, to think of cooperative learning as part of

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a sequenced series of activities that built an artificial assignment so a bored expert knowledge base by outlining, but the per-
on out-of-class assignments by processing can spend hours grading it and returning sonal responses to the authors key points
them in class. Here, in another nutshell, is it days later when it no longer interests me. motivated students. I encouraged them to
the research on deep learning as summa- Now, I assign homework on a pass/fail make their comments academic by relating
rized by Rhem (1995): basis and rapidly mark it, assigning this new material to other course material
Motivational context. We learn best pass/fail points only after I have used the or other readings, but I also allowed the
what we feel a need to know. Intrinsic homework directly in class. I now process responses to be personal and anecdotal.
motivation remains inextricably bound all homework in class to build on what The abbreviated example in figure 1 sug-
to some level of choice and control. students learned at home. Returning to gests the format, giving some points from
Courses that remove these take away the the deep learning model, my goal is to the Rhem (1995) article.
sense of ownership and kill one of the assign motivating homework that gets
strongest elements in lasting learning. students into the knowledge base. Then, in A Miniature Breakthrough
Learner activity. Deep learning and class I use cooperative learning approaches Strengthening Synapses
doing travel together. Doing in itself to process that homework through active As I was thinking through my use of DEJs,
isnt enough. Faculty must connect learning and interactive methods. I had another small breakthrough, one
activity to the abstract conceptions that For example, I became very inten- that reinforced for me the need for careful
make sense of it, but passive mental tional (a word AAC&U frequently sequencing that allows for repetition
postures lead to superficial learning. applies toward learners and institutions, without rote. Covering material does
Interaction with others. The teacher but teachers must also be intentional) in not mean saying something once in class.
is not the only source of instruction or my use of double-entry journals (DEJs). If we want students to actually learn mate-
inspiration. Peers working as groups A DEJ (see figure 1) requires students to rial, then we need to heed this succinct
enjoin dimensions of learning that lec- read an article or book chapter or listen to sentence from Robert Leamnsons (2000)
tures and readings by themselves cannot a guest lecturer and then using a T-type book: Learning is defined as stabilizing,
touch. table to outline the material in the left- through repeated use, certain appropriate
A well-structured knowledge base: hand column. In the right-hand column and desirable synapses in the brain (5).
This doesnt just mean presenting new they respond to each point the author has When we lecture, our synapses are
material in an organized way. It also made. This approach fit the deep learning firing away. There is, however, something
means engaging and reshaping the model because it got students into the wrong with this picture: if we truly want
concepts students bring with them
when they register. Deep approaches Figure 1. A format that facilitates student response to authors key points.
and learning for understanding are
Authors Critical Points Your Response
integrative processes. The more fully
new concepts can be connected with Learning Styles have been overemphasized I would agree! I have never been comfortable with
in the research literature. so many different typologies. I have taken courses
students prior experience and existing in the Myers-Briggs instrument, 4-MAT, etc., and I
knowledge, the more it is they will be have never understood the distinctions and values.
Other than the truism that we should vary our
impatient with inert facts and eager to teaching methods, the learning styles information
achieve their own synthesis (4). has been of little practical value for me as a faculty
I realized then that cooperative learning developer and as a teacher.

was an effective tool, not a be-all and end- Researchers examined a key question, A good question!
all stand-alone pedagogy. When I looked What does it take to be good at learning?
at the deep learning model, I realized that Metacognitionthinking about ones think- No comment . . . Im eager to read further.
how I sequenced assignments and activities ingappears to lie at the heart of learning,
and a predisposition toward it appears to be
was of crucial importance. Although I tried related to the learning environment rather
to connect homework with what went on than to learning styles.
in class, the students only saw me collect
There are four general social orientations: Wow! As the author says, faculty resist such vocab-
it at the beginning of class and stuff it into academic, vocational, personal, and social. ulary. I resist more lists! How can social be part
my briefcase for later grading. I could now of the definition and part of the stem?
imagine their responses: I just completed

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to promote learning, then our students material gives students their fifth exposure: for example. CATs can also help students
synapses need to be the ones firing. I dont need to lecture on these key course understand their own thinking and self-
So, I completely rethought how I would concepts. assess their learning progress through self-
sequence my use of DEJs. I now use them assessment of ways of learning, productive
for key articles focused on content that stu- Another BreakthroughHow study-time logs, and course-related self-
dents must master to effectively apply the People Learn confidence surveys, etc.
course material and to gain the requisite Unexpectedly, another major breakthrough
knowledge to succeed in future courses or occurred when I discovered Bransford, A Final (For Now!)
in the profession, concepts that Wiggins Brown, and Cockings (2000) How People Breakthrough
and McTighe (1998) refer to as enduring Learn. Their research-based book is A final breakthrough occurred when I was
understanding. focused on three key learning principles: participating in a workshop given by Tony
With Leamnsons (2000) words in Prior knowledge. Students construct Aretz and Steve Jones (2002) at the U.S.
mind, I set up a sequence, following the new knowledge based on what they Air Force Academy (USAFA). They read
deep learning model, that allows students already know (or dont know) us a story that made no sense until they
to approach key material five different times Deep foundational knowledge. showed us a picture used with the story in
in five different contexts: (1) they read the Students need a deep knowledge base an experiment by Bransford and Johnson
article; (2) they return to the article to com- and conceptual frameworks (1973). Their study had some subjects
plete the DEJ (I typically limit either the Metacognition. Students must identify respond to the story without seeing the
number of pages or the number of critical learning goals and monitor their prog- picture that explained it; others saw the
points); and (3) in-class paired students ress toward them picture before experiencing the ambiguous
read and discuss each others DEJs, the I immediately saw a key connection story.
active learning and student interaction part between Bransford, Brown, and Cockings Those who did not see the picture
recalled fewer than four of the ideas in the
story. The recall of ideas skyrocketed when
If students had read a work of literature (or tackled subjects saw the preview materials (the

densely packed scientific or historical writing) without picture). They recalled eight of the four-
teen ideas in the passage. However, those
any previewing, you would lecture with little impact who were offered the preview material (the
because the students simply could did not remember picture) after experiencing the ambiguous
story, also recalled fewer than four of
the ambiguous material the ideasthey took away as much (or as
little) as if you had never showed the pic-
ture at all. In other words, if students had
of the deep learning model. Unprepared work and the research on deep learning: read a work of literature (or tackled densely
students work on their DEJs in the back of they both focus on deep foundational packed scientific or historical writing)
the room, receiving no credit for them. I knowledge based on concepts, not without any previewing, you would lecture
encourage students to consult the original disconnected factoids. I also saw the with little impact because the students
article as they have authentic conversations; relevance of Angelo and Crosss (1993) simply could did not remember the
(4) I mark the DEJs and even though the Classroom Assessment Techniques because ambiguous material.
grades are pass/fail, all-or-nothing points, many so-called CATs focus on students My aha moment was profound: I had
my quick comments satisfy students need prior knowledgebackground knowl- just told cadets in my sophomore-level
for feedback. More importantly, they cause edge probes, focused listing, directed literature-composition course to begin
them to review their DEJsif only mas- paraphrasing, application cards, and reading Antigone. However, I had given
ochistically to see what I have saidfor the misconception grids, to name a few. CATs them no pictureno background on
fourth repetition. (5) Ostensibly to coach can also help both teachers and students Oedipus Rex, no discussion of the role of
students on how to write better DEJs in the determine if students are truly learning the the Greek chorus, no diagrams of Greek
future, I project a composite DEJ or use the content: concept maps, analytic memos, stages or pictures of amphitheaters, no
best student example. This final look at the pro and con grids, and memory matrixes, suggestions to look for money and vision

20 AAC&U | Peer Review | SPRING 2009

imagery, no challenge to determine Creons to build for deeper learning even if they flourish. They help caring teachers grow
attitude toward women, and no study are unfamiliar with the specific research and develop; they play instrumental roles
questions or introductory minilecture. literature. They plan carefully to design in helping institutions commit to student
After seeing this research in the USAFA structured assignments. Students under- learning, and because effective teachers
workshop, I rushed out and immediately e- stand what is expected of them. And, often help produce better educated students,
mailed my class: Do NOT read Antigone. because they are motivated by an inspired, ultimately, they serve the needs of a demo-
I will be previewing it at our next class inspiring teacher, they strive to meet or cratic society.
meeting. I have, ever since, stopped what- exceed those expectations.
ever work of literature we are discussing to They are often motivated by a caring References
preview the upcoming work. teacher. Teaching is a science more than Association of American Colleges and Universities.
2000. Greater expectations: The commitment to
an art. A few natural teachers seem to quality as a nation goes to college. Washington,
Conclusion develop expertise effortlessly. Most of us DC: Association of American Colleges and
Zinssers (2009) summary of what consti- labor in the teaching vineyards because Angelo, T. A., and K. P. Cross. 1993. Classroom assess-
tutes a good writer focuses, like my sum- ment techniques: A handbook for college teachers.
2nd ed.. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
mary of what constitutes a good teacher, Aretz, A., and S. Jones. 2000. How students learn.
on intangibles. He muses, Among other Workshop, United States Air Force Academy.
changes, I had become more interested in Bransford, J. D., and M. K. Johnson. 1973. Consider-
ations of some problems of comprehension. In
the intangiblesbeyond craftthat pro- Visual information processing, ed. W. G. Chase,
duce the best writing: matters of character, 383438. Orlando: Academic Press.
Bransford, J. D., A. L. Brown, and R. R. Cocking, eds.
intention, values, confidence, and enjoy- 2000. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience,
ment (67). All those qualities also apply and school. Washington, DC: National Academies
to good teachers. Cooper, J. L., P. Robinson, and D. Ball, eds. 2003.
Generalizing from my own experi- Small group instruction in higher education: Lessons
from the past, visions of the future, 6374. Stillwa-
enceand years (since 1982) in faculty ter, OK: New Forums Press.
developmentI discovered many Johnson, D. W., R. T. Johnson, and K. A. Smith. 1991.
intangible but important conclusions. Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty
instructional productivity, ACSE-ERIC Higher
Effective teachers are able to integrate Education Report No. 4. Washington, DC: The
George Washington University.
and synthesize. They have internalized all
Kagan, S. 1989. Cooperative learning resources for teach-
they have learned about pedagogy from ers. San Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers,
readings, from experience, and from men-
Leamnson, R. 2000. Thinking about teaching and
tors and role models. Their teaching is learning: Developing habits of learning with first
rarely based on only one narrow approach. year college and university students. Sterling, VA:
Stylus Press.
Further, they have intentionally wedded Millis, B. J. 2002. Enhancing learningand more!
their own discipline-based content with through cooperative learning. IDEA Center.
(Accessed March 16, 2009) www.theideacenter.
their pedagogical approaches. They are org/sites/default/files/IDEA_Paper_38.pdf.
comfortable with their teaching, and their Millis, B. J., and P. G. Cottell. 1998. Cooperative learn-
ing for higher education faculty. Phoenix: Oryx
teaching tools are integrated but eclectic Press.
enough to give students alternative teaching we care about our teaching, about our Rhem, J. 1995. Deep/surface approaches to learning:
approaches. They use examples, metaphors, students, and about our students learning An introduction. The National Teaching and
Learning Forum 5(1): 14. (Accessed March 18,
visual aids, stories, and so forth as teaching and professional growth. Sometimes 2009)
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Slavin, R. E. 1986. Using student team learning: The
by strengthening synapses through various Learning to teach effectively is typically Johns Hopkins team learning project. Baltimore:
neural pathways: hearing, reading, writing, an evolving process. Caring teachers The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. 1998. Understanding by
and discussing in pairs or groups. grow over time, aided by self-reflection, design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervi-
Effective teachers also teach inten- reading, workshops, peer mentors, and sion and Curriculum Development.
tionally, reflecting on their teaching and faculty developers. Even in these tough Zinsser, W. 2009. Visions and revisions: Writing On
Writing Well and keeping it up-to-date for 35
making changes. Many of them deliber- economic times, teaching centers, with years. The American Scholar 78(2): 5868.
ately sequence assignments and activities some lamentable exceptions, continue to

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