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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Building Foundations for Cooperative Learning

George M Jacobs is a teacher at James Cook University Singapore. He is interested in student-centered learning and humane education. George has co-written many publications on these topics, including Cooperative learning and the SDGs, available free online at E-mail:

Xinran He is studying in the Bachelor of Psychological Science, James Cook University, Singapore. She entered the study program in November 2022, and will graduate in August 2024.  Email:



This article is based on the first author’s experience teaching English to a class of international students at a university in Singapore. As the author also shares about cooperative learning, i.e., students learning together, with other teachers, in the article he reflects on this recent teaching experience as to how cooperative learning might be facilitated. This sharing includes encounters with some of the normal obstacles that arise in the use of cooperative learning with any class of students and especially with students who are learning the language of instruction. After providing some background on the class and cooperative learning, the article looks at the impact of context, outside and inside classrooms, on the potential for success of students learning together. Then, the heart of the article explains seven ways in which the author attempted to create a foundation for cooperative learning.



For more than 30 years, I have been a teacher and a teacher of teachers. The students who I have taught were mostly learning English as an additional language, while the teachers I have taught were teachers of all sorts, from English teachers in countries where English is a foreign language to Singapore teachers of police officers and nurses. To the teachers, I have mostly taught how to teach, including theories, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow & Lewis, 1987), that inform student-centered teaching, i.e., students having a major role in shaping their own learning. However, what I have taught the most is a student-centered approach sometimes termed cooperative learning, which to me can also be called collaborative learning (Jacobs, 2015), and involves teacher facilitation of peer interaction as one of the main modes of learning.

While above I talk about what I have taught, I sincerely do see myself as also learning along with student. Recently, at a university in Singapore, I taught a class of 19 students, 17 from China (the country of the second author) and two from Vietnam. These students needed to improve their English to qualify to attend the university’s undergraduate classes. Unofficially, at the beginning of the class, students’ English proficiency ranged from IELTS Band 5 to Band 6. The class ran for 12 weeks, three hours a day of face-to-face learning, in addition to two hours of online learning which was meant to be done outside of class with teacher guidance and assessment.

Of course, I sought to use cooperative learning in this class, something that I’ve done in all my classes since the mid-1980s when I first discovered this approach. With this class, I was not surprised to encounter many of the same impediments to the use of cooperative learning that I have regularly encountered over the years whether teaching students or teachers (although less so with teachers) and which I have regularly been asked about, with varying degrees of skepticism, by other teachers when I have sung the praises of cooperative learning. In short, this article represents an attempt by someone who has co-written or written multiple publications on cooperative learning and done multiple workshops and talks on the topic to explore how he navigated the rocky road to encouraging cooperation among students.


Some background on cooperative learning

Before discussing how to build foundations for cooperative learning, first, what is cooperative learning? A simple definition would be: students working with peers and others to learn and enjoy learning. However, it should be clearly stated that using cooperative learning still leaves a large place in the curriculum for whole-class instruction and for students to work alone. Indeed, these three learning modes fit together well.

The literature on cooperative learning includes many supporting theories, principles, tactics, and at least 100 strategies (also known as techniques) to facilitate collaboration. Three of those principles (Jacobs & Kimura, in 2024; Johnson et al., 2007), are:

  1. Positive interdependence, meaning the feeling among group members (and groups can be as small as two members) that their outcomes are positively correlated or, stated another way, groupmates feel as though they sink or swim together, and believe that what helps one member helps all, while what hinders one member hinders all.
  2. While positive interdependence is about students helping each other, another frequently cited cooperative learning principle, individual accountability, promotes each member doing their fair share to enable the group to achieve its goals.
  3. Essential to the learning of all group members are interactions among the members. The principle of maximum peer interactions emphasizes this. Maximum encompasses maximum quantity of peer interactions, although a time certainly exists for students to work alone, and maximum quality of peer interactions, with students sharing elaborations, e.g., examples and explanations, not just information, e.g., when is the assignment due, with each other (Webb et al., 2019).


Putting structures in place

People are impacted by their environments. Benkler (2011) asserted that while the belief that humans are innately selfish does have some basis in reality, as everyone or almost everyone acts selfishly sometimes, the majority of people are often kind to others and interact with others in mutually beneficial ways. Unfortunately, according to Benkler, much of the way that society is organized promotes selfishness, i.e., rather than promoting a feeling of positive interdependence among people, as cooperative learning seeks to do, various aspects of people’s environments encourage feelings of negative interdependence, i.e., feeling that people’s outcomes are negatively correlated: what helps some hinders others, and what hinders some helps others (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

Examples of these selfishness-inducing structures in people’s enviornments abound, such as ranking students, employees, and organisations, creating incentives and awards that only a few receive, and enforcing punishments for non-compliance with the rules set from above. Norm-referenced assessment, also known as grading on a curve, constitutes a practice that might work against cooperation among students (Johnson & Johnson, 1996), although not necessarily (Jacobs & Greliche, 2017). Indeed, human emotions and actions can be complicated, with many factors at play. For instance, teachers can encourage positive interdependence among students via policies based on positive celebration/reward interdependence. One way to operationalize this would be if a group raises their average score on a quiz, everyone in the group would receive five bonus points. This practice might encourage students to help groupmates learn, although we have certainly witnessed and heard from other teachers about times when students remain reluctant to cooperate despite structures put in place to promote mutual assistance.

Further on the thinking behind whether or not students decide to cooperate with peers is the question of whether helping peers would be an act of kindness or of selfishness in the form of enlightened self-interest (Karpoff, 2021), i.e., acting based on the belief that what benefits others will ultimately benefit the one(s) doing the actions? Thus, perhaps what seems kind could actually be motivated by selfishness. Again, emotions and actions can be complicated. In the end, what may be most important in the cooperative learning context is that students learn together regardless of whatever mixture of motivations leads them to do so.



The remainder of this article describes some of what I did to try to encourage cooperation among my students. For confidentiality purposes, none of the students’ names will be used, and when any examples are given regarding students, facts may be changed. For example, female pronouns may be used with students who identify as male.

Additionally, while I am describing what took place with my students, I am well aware of the power of environments, discussed above, to influence student beliefs and behaviors. Teachers have very little, but not zero, control over what happens in terms of the structures in society and not so much control over the structures in place at their educational institutions. Fortunately, in the case of this class, students’ goal was to pass this course in order to study at undergraduate level. This was criterion-referenced assessment; anyone who earned a passing grade in the class was eligible to move on.


Paths toward encouraging cooperation among students

The main sections of this article describe some of the paths I went down in my attempts to promote peer collaboration among the students in my class. These paths included my own interactions with individual students, using students’ names, diversity, student self-efficacy, working with textbooks, passion for learning, and kindness. These foundation-building paths are displayed in Table 1 and discussed below the table.


Table 1 – Building Foundations for Cooperative Learning

Foundation Builder


Teachers’ interactions with students

Finding the good in all students; highlighting students’ abilities

Using students’ names

Playing a name game to help students learn their classmates’ names; using students’ names when interacting with them and nudging peers to do the same


Encouraging class members to join student clubs in order to talk with and come to know people from other countries

Student self-efficacy

Students have some control over how they study; students are supported so that they are more likely to succeed at tasks

Working with textbooks

Cooperative learning techniques are integrated with textbook tasks to heighten peer interaction during these tasks; flexibility is used in implementing the cooperative learning techniques

Passion for learning

Teachers display enthusiasm about what is being learned and happiness in student efforts to learn


Teachers persevere in promoting kindness and cooperation, not just for these characteristics’ classroom impact, but also for their potential to make the world a better place


George’s interactions with individual students

Seeing Good in Everyone

A frequent difficulty in implementing cooperative learning is that, for many possible reasons, students do not want to work with some or any of their classmates. One way I tried to overcome this was to display positive regard for all the students. Bolitho and Maley (2023, para 1) stated that “the very human relationship between teachers and learners [has an] impact on success or failure in learning.” They went on to suggest that teachers look for at least one characteristic they like in each of their students. This is useful advice, because the attitudes teachers display toward students can affect classmates’ attitudes to individual students as well as to classmates generally. For instance, I noticed myself disliking a particular student (Student A) who ignored my guidance as to what to do in class. I also noticed a popular student speaking negatively about Student A. In response, I told myself to try hard to correct my attitude and encouraged other students to be nice to Student A.

An example of encouraging friendliness toward that student occurred when we used the cooperative learning technique 7S. The steps in 7S are as follows:

  1. Students Stand
  2. Students Slide their chairs under their table so as to make more room for walking around the classroom
  3. Students Stretch a little
  4. Students Sip a little water, etc.
  5. Students Stir; they individually walk on their own around the classroom
  6. Students Stop walking and form a group of two with a nearby classmate from another group
  7. Students Speak to that classmate.

In Step 6, I noticed that Student A had no partner; so, I asked another student who seemed to be a friendly sort to partner with Student A. That student obliged, and Student A and the other student seemed to have a good conversation.


Highlighting student abilities

A frequently-heard reason students may be reluctant to interact with peers is that they feel that peers lack expertise. According to this view, interaction with teachers is the only useful interaction. I tried at least two tactics for overcoming this view. First, I used logic, stating three points: (a) how could I, only one person, give timely feedback to 19 students; (b) students can learn from giving feedback to peers; (c) feedback can be positive, as well as negative – in this way, less proficient students can give feedback to their more proficient peers.

Second, student concerns about their language proficiency impeded them from seeking advice from peers as well as providing such advice. To ease these concerns, I advertised student expertise by highlighting to the class when one of their peers exhibited even a fairly small degree of knowledge in an area. For instance, when one student exhibited skill at using parallelism in writing, I would direct peers to her when they were having trouble in that area. Sometimes, peer explanations seemed to be more effective than my explanations.

I used other tactics to ease student worries about lack of proficiency in their second language. One, I spoke about my own experience as a second language speaker of Spanish. I told the class that I used to speak Spanish very slowly or even stutter due to concerns about accuracy. Then, I decided to worry less and to speak more fluently and quickly. After all, my reasoning went, I was not trying to fool anyone into thinking I was a native speaker of Spanish. Two, I asked students which of the following two situations they would prefer: (1) someone says to them in perfect English, “I will give you one dollar” or (2) someone says to them in imperfect English, “I is go gives you one million of dollar”? In other words, the content usually is more important than grammar.

In conclusion, teachers’ positive relations with students provides a foundation for more positive relations among students, thereby making students more willing to interact with peers.


Using students’ names

Using people’s names when addressing them is a well-known tactic for effective communication, appearing in Dale Carnegie’s classic book (1936), How to Win Friends and Influence People. However, it should be stated that cultural differences may exist. This class took place in 2023. At that time, education institutions were newly emerged from the exclusive use of virtual learning made necessary in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While cooperative learning certainly can be done in virtual classrooms (Sugino, 2021), and certain online tools can facilitate collaboration (Santosa et al., 2022), a variety of obstacles make peer interaction more difficult in virtual learning modes. Thus, when face-to-face learning resumed, students needed to become reaccustomed to learning together, including to the social skill of using each other’s names when speaking to them.

To facilitate students addressing peers by name, in the first week of the term, the class of 19 played a game of sorts. In this game, each person, beginning with me, said their name (the name they preferred to be called) and stated one thing, e.g., mangoes or mobile phones, or activity, e.g., napping or playing table tennis, that they enjoyed. After the first person introduced themself, subsequent people would first state the names and likes of the previous class members before stating their own.

After the break in the middle of class or the next day, everyone including me took a (non-graded) quiz to test their memory of people’s names and likes. This quiz was repeated near the middle of the term. To reinforce the use of people’s names, I used students’ names when calling on them and referring to them, and when observing student-student interaction, I occasionally nudged students to use groupmates’ name.

In conclusion, student use of each other’s name when speaking to them may be part of a foundation for beneficial peer interactions.



In addition to the three cooperative learning principles mentioned above – positive interdependence, individual accountability, and maximum peer interactions – another cooperative learning principle highlighted by some practitioners is heterogeneous grouping, i.e., groups of students should reflect the diversity that exists in the class overall. For example, if half the class’ students are from Country A and the other half from Country B, each group of four might contain two members from each of the two countries. Other factors to consider in forming heterogeneous groups include gender, language proficiency, first language, IT skill, religion, social class, and time spent in the country/institution where students are studying.

In the case of my class of two students from Vietnam and 17 from China, heterogeneous groups based on first language was difficult to achieve. Instead, I focused on diversity by encouraging students to interact outside of class with fellow students from other countries. I had noticed a lack of cross-national interaction among the university’s students, including ones who shared a common language but were from different countries. There were exceptions, e.g., one of my students had Japanese friends and a Japanese roommate, and was learning Japanese.

Returning to what was discussed earlier in this article about structures that impede cooperation, certainly national boundaries, national pride, etc., although not without merit, can discourage interaction between students from different countries. Certainly, in 2023, news of cooperation and friendship between countries was often drowned out by news of confrontations between nations. When I asked the second author, a student already taking university level courses, about why she did not interact more with students from other countries, her defence for interacting whenever possible only with students from her own country included: (1) not knowing other cultures, including religions, and, thus, possibly causing offense; (2) lack of proficiency in a common language; and (3) the possibility of rejection, stated via a colorful phrase – “my warm face against their cold backside,” i.e., even though I am friendly to them, they may be unfriendly to me.

Ways I used to overcome my students’ reticence to interact with people from other countries included encouraging student to join student clubs at the university, such as the Volunteer Club, and to use the peer mentoring services and other services that the university provides. Additionally, I encouraged the student who was interacting with Japanese people to share her experiences. I also talked about my beneficial and enjoyable experiences interacting with colleagues, friends, and family from different countries. Last but not least, I highlighted Singapore’s efforts at building harmony among people despite their differences. For instance, every year, as part of its National Day (9 August) celebrations, Singapore has a National Day Parade song with accompanying video. The songs and the videos carry the message of harmonious interaction among people from different backgrounds.

In conclusion, a welcoming attitude toward diversity on students’ part may make them more willing to interact with peers whoever those peers might be.


Student self-efficacy

Self-efficacy (Bandura, 1994) can be defined as people’s confidence in their ability to formulate their own goals and to bring to bear the resources needed to achieve those goals. Cooperative learning may provide students with opportunities to develop and implement self-efficacy (In’am & Sustrino, 2021). For instance, in groups, students can take on many of the roles that teachers normally play in a teacher-fronted mode. These roles include encouraging others to participate, checking that others understand, planning how to do tasks, asking questions, providing feedback, and disagreeing politely. Playing such roles may expand the range of language functions students use and increase their feeling of ownership and self-efficacy (Franklin & Harrington, 2019).

I attempted to heighten students’ self-efficacy by giving them choices, such as what tasks they did and when they did them. For example, each student did a presentation of a favorite song. They explained the song’s lyrics in English and then played a video of the song. Choice was also given to students by allowing them to vote on various matters, such as the temperature of the classroom. Sometimes, the vote was a secret ballot, achieved by people raising their hands with their eyes closed. I did not vote.

Vygotsky’s (1980) Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) – the concept that what students study should be bit challenging but nonetheless doable with help from peers, materials, and teachers - often comes to mind when I encourage students to see themselves and peers as capable of helping themselves and each other learn, with teachers acting as guides on the side. Indeed, another idea from Vygotsky – that the support (the jargon for this support is “scaffolding”) students receive from teachers, materials, and peers should be gradually removed until students can do tasks individually (on their own) fits well with cooperative learning. A common misconception about cooperative learning is that it focuses on what groups can do. However, the real goal of cooperative learning and the true measure of success of cooperative learning groups is how they empower each and every group member.

I sought to implement the ZPD concept in at least three ways. First, the textbook we used, produced outside of Singapore, did a good job of preteaching vocabulary and concepts, and I supplemented this when I felt it was useful with examples from Singapore, the students’ home countries, and the world news. The hope here was to show students that they could do without much help from me; all I did was to provide background.

Second, when teaching in whole class mode, I highlighted student abilities by calling less proficient students when tasks seemed relatively easy and more proficient students when tasks seemed more difficult. For instance, after one of the first students had presented a song to the class, I took a risk by calling on one of the least proficient students to ask a question. She asked, “Why did you choose this song?” (This was a question I had modelled with previous students’ song presentations.) I continued calling on this same student to ask questions after presentations, thereby showing the class that even one of their less proficient classmates could contribute to discussions.  Even better, as the term went on, she introduced some variety into her questions. I wanted to boost less proficient students’ self-image and their image in the eyes of peers. Third, when students who were called on struggled to answer, I encouraged groupmates to help, thereby demonstrating the viability of peer assistance.

In conclusion, students believing that they and peers are capable of learning and exercising some control over their learning provides important groundwork for cooperation.


Working with textbooks

Textbooks and other materials, whether or not they explicitly include cooperative learning activities, make facilitating cooperative learning easier for students and teachers, and are often an important part of the support students receive to raise their ZPDs. Almost any textbook activity can easily become a cooperative learning activity with the simple addition of a cooperative learning technique. Here is an example.

One of the 100 and more cooperative learning techniques – and each technique has multiple possible variations – is Everyone Can Explain. The steps in this technique can go like this:

  1. All groups work on the same task, exercise, or question, which can come from the textbook. At first, each group member works alone (this promotes individual accountability).
  2. Group members compare responses and try to arrive at a shared response, including an explanation of that response (please recall that the technique is called Everyone Can Explain).
  3. The group checks that all members are able to give and explain their agreed response.
  4. One member per group is chosen at random to give and explain their group’s response (this promotes positive interdependence because the group sinks or swims based on the quality of their randomly-chosen representative’s response.

Note: The key to a cooperative learning technique lies in the quality of the student-student interactions in which students engage. Therefore, it matters not at all whether the class faithfully follow the prescribed steps in a technique or whether the technique’s name is used.

Creating quality language education materials, especially a well-organized textbook full of such materials, is a difficult and time-consuming task. Thus, a useful textbook or other collection of materials, such as e-learning materials, can save a great deal of thought and time, even though materials from international publishers will necessarily have problems of context. This flaw can be overcome to some extent by student- and teacher-created or adapted materials.

In conclusion, access to learning materials pegged closely to students’ needs provides useful resources with which cooperative learning activities can be built.


Passion for learning

The cooperative learning principle of positive interdependence seeks to motivate students to learn together, as the principle of individual accountability encourages everyone to do their fair share to make that learning happen, and the principle of maximum peer interactions nudges students to share ideas with others to help everyone reach common goals. Passion for learning can inspire cooperation. When I teach, I attempt to manifest this passion. Of course, I have my off days, but when I am on, displaying passion makes being in class more fun for me, and I hope it stimulates students to cooperate.

I shared this passion for learning in at least three ways. First, the cooperative learning literature describes how to build the feeling of positive interdependence via a common identity among group or class members. This is similar to what sports teams do with team names, mascots, colors, mottos, etc. Toward this end, I found an online image based on the letter of the section of our class, and I would sometimes show the image and lead students in shouting our class letter. Second, when we did whole-class writing with me acting as scribe, I would choose a topic which highlighted our university’s strengths, even claiming that ours was the world’s best university, although I am fairly certain students did not believe I was 100% sincere. Third, I showed passion for learning by being very enthusiastic about what we were studying and celebrating students’ efforts at learning it. Fortunately, this involved no acting skill, as (to what I am sure would be the great surprise of my younger self) I truly am passionate about the writing process and other aspects of language learning, even though my writing and overall language ability still has significant room for improvement.

In conclusion, when students and teachers feel passion for learning, a necessary cornerstone has been laid for successful peer interactions.



When I encourage teachers to use cooperative learning, and they take a leap of faith and try ideas from the cooperative learning literature, it is not unusual for these teachers to report difficulties and, worse, tell me that because of these difficulties, they have stopped using cooperative learning. As I have faced similar difficulties using cooperative learning with my own students, I sympathize with them, but I tell them and I tell myself to keep calm and carry on using cooperative learning. (Inspired by Benkler’s book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, cited above, in which the penguins are the heroes of cooperation and kindness, I recently bought a pair of socks populated with many images of penguins and the slogan, “Keep Calm, and Waddle On.”)

While waddling, I sometimes remind myself of a workshop I attended more than 35 years ago. The workshop leader, whose name I have sadly forgotten, had been advocating for student-student interaction in heterogenous groups when a questioner in the audience politely noted a study which she had read which reported that high-achieving students learned more in homogenous, not heterogeneous, groups. The workshop leader’s reply went something like this, “That study’s result may be valid, but what type of world do you hope to live in: one in which those who have the most or know the most – in the case of the study you just cited, the high achieving students - keep what they have and know to themselves or a world in which people show kindness to each other and share to promote the greater good?”

In conclusion, I hope, perhaps naively, that students will enjoy being kind to each other and that learning in an environment where kindness predominates encourages students to cooperate with peers in class and with peers and others outside of class.



Encouraging students or any humans, regardless of age or education level, to cooperate is no easy undertaking. The authors are no exception to our species’ tendency to have occasional bouts of selfishness and reluctance to cooperate. However, these deficiencies in our species need not deter teachers from encouraging collaboration among students. This article has provided background on cooperative learning, described a class the first author taught, discussed the effects of society on students’ willingness to cooperate with peers, and gone into some detail on seven ways the first author attempted to create a climate for cooperation among the class, as were shown in Table 1. Certainly, many other teachers use some or all of these ways of building a foundation for cooperation.

While this article has mentioned how what happens in society impacts what happens in classrooms, the impact can also flow in the other direction: attitudes and behaviors that students acquire in classrooms may continue as students interact with the world beyond the classroom. In this manner, more cooperative classrooms may contribution in whatever small ways to a more cooperative world. Therefore, teachers’ endeavors to encourage peer learning may not only increase students’ academic achievement and enjoyment of school, these efforts may also make life slightly more pleasant for all those with whom we share the planet.



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Benkler, Y. (2011). The penguin and the leviathan: How cooperation triumphs over self-interest. Currency.

Bolitho, R., & Maley, A. (2023). Connecting what we do as teachers with what we believe and who we are. Humanising Language Teaching, 25(5).

Carnegie, D. (1936. How to win friends and influence people. Simon & Schuster.

Franklin, H., & Harrington, I. (2019). A review into effective classroom management and strategies for student engagement: Teacher and student roles in today’s classrooms. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 7(12), 1-12. 10.11114/jets.v7i12.4491

In'am, A., & Sutrisno, E. S. (2021). Strengthening students' self-efficacy and motivation in learning mathematics through the cooperative learning model. International Journal of Instruction14(1), 395-410.

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Jacobs, G. M., & Greliche, N. (2017). Convincing students that their groupmates’ success can increase, not diminish, their own success. Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 12, 145-157.

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Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social independence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365–379.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Holubec, E. J. (2007). Nuts and bolts of cooperative learning. Interaction Book Company.

Karpoff, J. M. (2021). On a stakeholder model of corporate governance. Financial Management50(2), 321-343.

Maslow, A., & Lewis, K. J. (1987). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Salenger Incorporated14(17), 987-990. (Original work published 1943)

Santosa, M. H., Ivone, F. M., Jacobs, G. M., & Flores, J. C. (2022). Student-to-student cooperation in virtual learning without breakout rooms. Beyond Words, 10(1).

Sugino, C. (2021). Student perceptions of a synchronous online cooperative learning course in a Japanese women’s university during the COVID-19 pandemic. Education Sciences11(5), 231-250.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes (Edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman). Harvard University Press.

Webb, N. M., Franke, M. L., Ing, M., Turrou, A. C., Johnson, N. C., & Zimmerman, J. (2019). Teacher practices that promote productive dialogue and learning in mathematics classrooms. International Journal of Educational Research97, 176-186.


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