A. Landa

University of the Basque Country (SPAIN)
There is ample evidence that when students work in cooperative groups rather than individually, they work harder, help less able students in their teams and learn more (Slavin 1983, West 2004). Cooperative work is also key in achieving significant learning, especially as regards the application of skills and the management of projects as well as the human dimension of learning about oneself and others (Fink 2003). As has been shown elsewhere (Author 2010), monitoring student teamwork activities can be arduous and time-consuming for the instructor, but it is also a great source of information for identifying weaker points in both the student skill acquisition level and teacher effectiveness.

The learning experience reported on in this research was initially designed to enhance student involvement in class activities in an English grammar university module (Author 2008, 2010). A quantitative analysis of data gathered over a period of four years showed that students seem to perform better when teamwork is part of the class’s approach to learning/teaching and that the percentage of students sitting the exam gradually increases as this type of activity is introduced as part of the course training tasks.

In the present paper, these results are first confirmed by the analysis of data from a fifth year of application of the methodology. The quantitative outcomes are then compared with data obtained from both open- and closed-ended activity assessment tasks throughout the whole five-year period with the purpose of gauging the success of the learning experience. A qualitative analysis of both types of data flags up several indications that the cooperative tasks carried out in this English grammar module are conducive to a successful type of learning that can be attested beyond exam results. These indications include –but are not limited to— the following:

(i) teacher-monitored teamwork aimed at finding a collective solution to a problem is an excellent way to involve a large number of students in classroom and external activities at the same time;

(ii) students are presented with the opportunity to learn in a different way; this new approach is conducive to effective learning in several senses;

(iii) less able students learn from more competent ones; by helping their teammates high individual performers overcome several challenges including questioning their own ideas, explaining things in a way that can be understood by differently-skilled students, and working with others when they prefer to work individually (these challenges are rewarded by instant and lasting recognition from their peers);

(iv) most students develop a sense of responsibility for the end result expected and for the members of the same team;

(v) cooperative activities geared towards finding a solution or following through a project to the final stage, create an atmosphere of achievement;

(vi) as more students sit the exam than was previously the case, it is plausible to believe that the use of teamwork activities in specific classes may have an impact on overall student retention;

(vii) this type of methodology presents teachers with a challenging opportunity for reflection, self-criticism and continuous improvement.

This paper discusses these and other indications of the effectiveness of this type of methodology, as well as presenting the biggest challenges in the cooperative learning process, such as preventing, or at least minimizing shirking in teamwork.