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Cooperative Learning Techniques for Active Student Engagement

How can cooperative learning help your students? Cooperative learning is a successful teaching strategy whereby small teams of students with differing abilities engage in a variety of learning activities to improve their subject-matter understanding and skills. Each team member is responsible for learning what is taught as well as for helping teammates learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement (Balkcom, 1992). When structures are in place for this level of dialogue to occur, the comprehension process is accelerated (Bucalos & Ling, 2005). Positive effects of cooperative learning have been reported in all subject areas, grades, and types of schools and with students from different ethnic backgrounds and achievement levels (Slavin, 1994). Hattie (2012) described cooperative learning as “a powerful intervention” (p. 78).

This article highlights engaging cooperative learning strategies included in the Techniques for Active Learning (Ito, 2000) T/TAC W&M Considerations Packet to encourage students to be actively involved in the learning process. The packet describes instructional techniques designed to increase student engagement before, during, and after lessons. Below are steps for several cooperative learning strategies that improve student engagement during instruction.

Paired Reading (Harmin, 1994)

  1. Introduce the vocabulary and key ideas for the reading selection (fiction or nonfiction).
  2. Provide directions for what to do upon completion of the reading. Directions may include:
    • Talk over the reading and see what you think about it.
    • Answer comprehension questions on the reading.
    • Write some outcome sentences in your journal based on the reading.
    • Talk about some things you liked or found interesting.
    • Begin the next reading or shift to some of your individual work when finished.
  3. Pair students (mixed-ability) and seat them side-by-side. Minimal directions are given to allow for maximum self-direction. The pairs are encouraged to assist each other when unknown words arise and to read for the length of time that is comfortable for each, not necessarily the same amount.

Think, Pair, Share and Variations (originally described in Lyman, 1981)

Ask students to think about and share answers to teacher-posed questions.

  1. Students reflect individually on the material presented to this point in the lesson. Sometimes an additional direction to write a response is given.
  2. Students pair up with a partner seated nearby or designated by the teacher. Pairs share and compare their answers.
  3. The step of “Square” may be added to allow two sets of pairs (or four students) to share answers. This is advisable when there is more than one correct response or way to arrive at an answer.
  4. If students are already in cooperative groups of four, the teacher stipulates the pairing partners. For instance, the directions might be, “What are the three most important items the early settlers needed? Pair up 1 with 4, 2 with 3 for sharing.”

Jigsaw or Task Group, Share Group (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994)

  1. Divide the class into three groups and provide one of three different reading selections (e.g., three chapter sections or three different sources on the same topic) to each group. Pair students to read the assigned material, poor readers strategically placed with able readers. Allow a specific length of time for this reading to take place (about 2-4 minutes).
  2. After the allotted time, ask all students who read the same section to come together to discuss the information. Within a specified amount of time (about 5- 7 minutes), they summarize what they read, clarify words and concepts they did not understand, and ask questions of each other about the content. The students need to know this information so well that they can teach it to others, because that is the next step. Before dismissing these groups, have all three groups count off: 1– 2–3. Regroup the class into 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s.
  3. Ensure that each group contains students who have read the first, second, and third parts of the material. The students who read the first section share information they learned with the rest of the group. All the 1’s should have a chance to give input. Students may ask questions to clarify the information presented. Then, the 2’s explain the second part, and the 3’s share the third. Subdividing the group works well at this step. Groups of six – two 1’s, two 2’s, and two 3’s – are ideal. Allow about 7- 10 minutes for the students to teach each other the information.
  4. Note. In order to help struggling readers be more successful in cooperative reading groups, consider providing the reading selections prior to the cooperative activities to allow students to preview the materials.

The Techniques for Active Learning Considerations Packet presents additional active learning techniques in the following categories:

  • Motivation and Focus Activities
  • Techniques Used During Instruction
  • Cooperative Group Work
  • Evaluation

Additional Resources

The College of William and Mary (W&M) Training and Technical Assistance Center (T/TAC) newsletter article Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms (Sulzberger, 2013) provides additional methods to enhance active learning for all students.

The following resources, which include more strategies for active learning, are available for loan through the T/TAC W&M library.

  • A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, R. J. Marzano, J. S. Norford, D. E. Paynter, D. J. Pickering, & B. B. Gaddy (Call Number TT192)
  • From Seatwork to Feetwork: Engaging Students in Their Own Learning, R. Nash (Call Number IS13)
  • Reaching the Hard to Teach (book and video), J. W. Wood (Call Number TT10)
  • Strategies and Tactics for Effective Instruction, B. Algozzine, J. Ysseldyke, & J. Elliott (Call Number TT41)
  • Strategies to Inspire Active Learning: Complete Handbook, M. Harmin (Call Number TT73)
  • Teaching to Learning Styles: Leader’s Guide, ASCD (Call Number TT74)
  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners, C. A. Tomlinson (Call Number TT71)
  • Visible Learning for Teachers: maximizing impact on learning, J. Hattie (Call Number (IS15)


Balkcom, S. (1992). Cooperative learning (ED/OERI Issue Number1). Retrieved from

Bucalos, A. L., & Lingo, A.S. (2005). Filling the potholes in the road to inclusion: Successful research-based strategies for intermediate and middle school students with mild disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 1(Iss 4).

Harmin, M. (1994). Inspiring active learning: A handbook for teachers. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ito, C. (2000). Teaching techniques for active learning. Retrieved from

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Holubec, E. (1994). Cooperative learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Lyman, F. T. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. In A. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming digest (pp. 109-113). College Park, MD: University of Maryland Press.

Slavin, R. E. (1991, February). Synthesis of research on cooperative learning. Educational Leadership, 48, 71-82.

Sulzberger, L. (2013). Cooperative learning in inclusive classrooms. Retrieved from

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