Cooperative Learning’s Role in Rigor

By Scott Sterling

Not surprisingly, when the 21st century college and career readiness standards were unveiled, they all called for increased rigor in the classroom. One of the ways they suggested to accomplish that goal, as well as to prepare students for the stresses of the 21st century economy, was through cooperative learning.

This may seem confusing to some teachers. After all, if students are working together, aren’t they doing less work than if they were working independently?

Of course, rigor doesn’t mean adding on more work. It means performing tasks that are more cognitively complex, with a layer of autonomy that generates higher-order thinking skills and executive function.

Here are some things to keep in mind to make sure the cooperative tasks you are assigning are rigorous enough for your students.

There is no rule that the entire lesson needs to be conducted cooperatively

Just because a task is started in a cooperative way doesn’t mean it has to end like that. For example, perhaps your students are working on a research project. As groups, they can gather the requisite data. Cognitive complexity and executive function are involved because they will have to figure out the best ways to gather sources and organize their facts.

Then, they set off on their own to produce some sort of work product (a paper, presentation, etc.) That produces the autonomy. This project has become much richer just by breaking it into two halves.

Make sure there is structure

We’ve all participated in groups where the majority of the work is completed by only one or two members, with the others only nominally contributing. That is not rigorous for either party.

Instead, it is the teachers job when facilitating cooperative learning to lend some structure to the activity. Give everyone a job (facilitator, recorder, questioner, summarizer, etc.) and a schedule to follow. Make sure to rotate the roles. This challenges students who have a natural predilection toward one activity or another.

Model proper behavior

Students do not come into class with the skills necessary to work together. These skills have to be taught, just like anything else in your curriculum. If cooperative learning is going to play a big role in your practices, it’s worth the time to have lessons specifically designed around how to learn cooperatively.

Topics you will want to cover include active listening, conflict resolution, summarizing and paraphrasing, time management, and impulse control (especially important with younger students, but surprisingly necessary at all grade levels). Also, just like any other new skill, make sure you’re monitoring their progress and redirect students who are not performing up to expectations.


Just as you should vary the approaches you use in your classroom when it comes to individual instruction, whole group, small group, and the like, you should also vary how groups are formed so students are exposed to working with everyone in the class.

This is reflective of the outside world, where workers may have a semi-permanent team responsible for a certain work product, but may also have to cross-collaborate with members of other teams for the betterment of the whole. In certain situations, students can expect to work with a long-term group of peers. In others, they should know that groups will be picked at random.

The goal is communication

Never forget that the overarching goal of cooperative learning is for students to work on their communication skills. With the right tasks, it’s possible to challenge every student in individual learning. You group students together to offer them an opportunity to explore not only socialization, but a more varied and rigorous experience. After all, students working together means that you can use more challenging tasks. The thinking load will be shared by multiple minds.