Cooperative learning

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Cooperative learning is an educational approach that promotes students working in small groups in order to learn collectively. This approach is considered an experiential learning approach. Cooperative learning has been shown to improve students' test scores, improve the achievements of female and African American students, and improve retention rates. This approach is also highly similar to collaborative learning.

Cooperative learning has been shown to increase test performance (Slavin 1991, Yamarik 2007), aid the performance of underrepresented students (Treisman 1985), increase student engagement (Johnson and Johnson, 1989), and increase the retention rate of students (Treisman 1985, Williamson and Rowe 2002).

See Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions.


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In particular, cooperative learning has important implication for increasing diversity in various academic disciplines. Uri Treisman, a professor of calculus at the University of California, Berkley, conducted a study comparing the difference in achievement between Chinese students, a group which typically performed well in his calculus course, and African American students, a group which typically under-performed in his calculus course. After observing the study habits of both groups, Treisman discovered that African American students typically worked alone for assignments where areas Chinese students regularly worked in groups for assignments. African American students placed in study groups exhibited higher performance than those not in study groups. This study suggests a possible reason for low performance and participation rates of particular minority groups: different study habits (i.e., non-cooperative learning) result in lower academic achievement in that subject, making the student feel less capable and less interested in that subject.

Positive effects of cooperative learning techniques have been seen not only among African American students but also among female students. A study (Tlusty, McIntyre, & Eierman, 1993) of chemistry students at the University of Wisconsin found that implementing cooperative learning resulted in higher academic performance for both male and female students. More importantly, however, female students in a group learning environment exhibited a more positive self-perception of ability levels than female students in individualized environments. This effect was only found among female students, suggesting that the effects of cooperative learning may be particularly effective in promoting women's feelings of competence and potential interest in a discipline.

More evidence of the positive impact of cooperative learning can be found here

Elizabeth Jensen and Ann Owen report that women benefit from group work when there are more females in the class (2000, "Why Are Women Such Reluctant Economists? Evidence from Liberal Arts Colleges." American Economic Review, 90(2): 466-470). They conclude:

Teachers who allocate more time to discussion and more time to topics that are traditionally considered to be of interest to women will encourage students of both sexes. Evaluating students in ways other than exams and doing a warm-up activity at the beginning of the semester will also help students of both sexes but may be particularly beneficial for female students. Finally, incorporating more group problem-solving into a class may harm or help students, depending on the gender composition of the class.

Example of Cooperative Learning in Economics

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Steven Yamarik, an associate professor of economics at California State University at Long Beach, implemented cooperative learning exercises in his intermediate macroeconomics course and found that students achieved higher test scores (Yamarik, S. (2007), “Does cooperative learning improve student learning outcomes?” Journal of Economic Education, 38(3), 259–77). Yamarick established groups of three or four students, which he called "base groups." Students remained in the same "base group" for the entire course, working together inside and outside of class. In class, groups typically reviewed the questions in a handout, came to a group consensus concerning answers, and then presented a solution to the class. Yamarik found that students in the collaborative learning environment had higher achievement levels (i.e., higher exam scores) than those in another section using a traditional lecture format. Though this study only looked at overall improvements rather than breaking down the results by race or gender, these findings indicate that cooperative learning is effective in Economics classes and taken with the findings of Treisman (1985) may indicate support for using these methods to increase participation rates of underrepresented minorities in Economics.

Find additional examples and implementation guidance in Making Cooperative Learning Effective for Economics (McGoldrick, Rebelein, Rhoads and Stockly, in Teaching Innovations in Economics: Strategies and Applications for Interactive Instruction, Michael K. Salemi and William B. Walstad (eds.), Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2010, pp. 65-94).

How to Incorporate Cooperative Learning

  • Peer Instruction Peer Instruction has been shown to increase understanding for all students and to decrease the gender gap in Physics.


By incorporating cooperative learning into the economics classroom, student performance and engagement in the classroom can increase significantly. Cooperative learning techniques can be used in both small and large classrooms and have shown to increase the performance of underrepresented students. Increased performance in a discipline increases the student's academic confidence and the likelihood that they will pursue that discipline as a major.

An excellent resource for more information concerning teaching strategies for the economics classroom can be found at Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics, a resource which was founded by KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond), Scott Simkins (North Carolina A&T University), Mark Maier (Glendale Community College), and Cathy Manduca (Carleton College). For more information about cooperative learning in particular, please click here.