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Learning to learn

One way for a professor to ensure a collective groan from students is to walk into a classroom and announce a group project. Immediate stereotypes of the deadbeat classmates, content to contribute little and expecting to make the grade, are juxtaposed with the overachievers confident that their grade will be dragged down somewhere below their expectations.

These images often times originate from ineffective group learning, devoid of clear objectives and roles. While initially skeptical of cooperative learning, I’ve seen that when this method is utilized correctly, students of all ability levels can benefit.

Cooperative learning’s roots can be traced to the early 1900s, but perhaps the most notable names associated with this learning process are Drs. Roger and David Johnson at the University of Minnesota. They began their training of educators in cooperative learning techniques during the mid-1960s and continue to compile data and evidence suggesting the efficacy of this learning style.

Cooperative learning, briefly, seeks to place students in groups with predetermined roles to work together at a designated task. For example, in the USF Chemistry department, some laboratory sections utilize roles such as recorder, manager, technician and encourager to accomplish experiments collectively.

This type of learning creates a groupthink that encourages a collective, strategic approach to a problem or question and a path to which a solution may lie. Particularly suited to practical scientific inquiry and the corporate sector, this learning style allows for repeated reworking of strategies, which can lead to better reinforcement of theoretical knowledge.

Cooperative learning does not occur, however, without significant challenges. The intangibles of group goals and consensus building must be balanced with the need for individual accountability, most notably indicated by grades. In this regard, cooperative learning must offer an opportunity for individual checks on comprehension through an oral, paper or testing format. In addition, anonymous peer assessments of group members can also be utilized to ascertain a student’s level of preparation and participation to quantify grades.

While much debate revolves around issues such as the imperfect plus-minus grading system or the effects of grade inflation, the core fact remains that learning is not a zero-sum game. By that I mean that one student doesn’t have to fail in order for another to succeed. In my experience, the difference between students is often their drive to succeed, and in that sense students make a decision whether to fail or succeed long before a professor enters the classroom. By creating an environment of cooperative learning, collective consensus building can better ensure success in learning valuable concepts in new and different ways.

Certainly for the aforementioned overachievers on campus concerned that their intellectual pursuits would somehow be stifled by a group approach to learning, cooperative learning research seems to indicate otherwise. We have all heard that teaching a subject makes an individual more knowledgeable, and it is on this premise that cooperative learning is based.

The theory is that brighter students increase their knowledge and understanding by communicating at a peer group level, while those with less understanding grasp concepts and problems better when in this setting.

Previously, I have admittedly been quite skeptical of cooperative learning, but I know it is here to stay. It would seem that opposition to this way of learning is rooted in an education system that has been for so many years centered on an individualistic, competitive approach. While cooperative learning can balance individualistic achievement with its approach to collective consensus building, to be successful professors and students alike must work at it. It would seem that the sooner students accept cooperative situations in the classroom and seek to maximize the opportunities they offer, the sooner true cooperative learning results will be achieved.

Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in chemistry.