The effects of cooperative learning in a physical science course for elementary/middle level preservice teachers

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    The Effects of Cooperative Learning in a Physical Science Course for Elementary/Middle Level Preservice Teachers

    Bruce Burron

    NSF Pre-Service Elementary MathematicslScience Project, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado 80639

    M. Lynn James*

    Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado 80639

    Anthony L. Ambrosio

    Division of Research, Evaluation, and Development, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado 80639


    Although many studies have shown the effectiveness of cooperative learning in a variety of settings in grades K- 12, relatively few have focused on higher education. This study compared two physical science laboratory sections in a course for elementary/middle level preservice teachers. One section was taught in the traditional method, and the other was instructed using the Learning Together technique of cooperative learning. Comparisons between the two laboratory sections assessed any differences in student achieve- ment and collaborative skills. In addition, the cooperative learning group completed a questionnaire that assessed their perception of the effectiveness of cooperative learning compared to more traditional methods of instruction, and their attitudes toward the laboratory section. Although no significant differences were observed in achievement, the cooperative learning group exhibited significant gains in collaborative skills. By the end of the course, cooperative learning students indicated a high comfort level for the laboratory.

    Johnson and Johnson (1984) outline three types of classroom goal structures-individualis- tic, competitive, and cooperative. In an individualistic setting, students typically work alone with limited interaction in achieving individual goals. In a competitively structured classroom, students essentially work against each other (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1991). Tradi- tionally, teachers have, for the most part, structured their classrooms individualistically or competitively. Cooperative learning is a way to structure classroom learning so students work together to achieve common goals while being held individually accountable for the knowl- edge/skills being taught.

    * To whom correspondence should be addressed.

    0 1993 by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. CCC 0022-4308/93/070697-11


    Cooperative learning research has documented many desirable outcomes. Among these are academic achievement, social and affective development, and improved ethnic relations. Slav- ins (1983) review of studies on the effect of cooperative learning on achievement in elementary and secondary school classrooms revealed that 63% showed cooperative learning to be superior, 33% showed no difference, and 4% showed higher achievement for traditional comparison groups. Kagan (1989) reported similar results from a meta-analysis of cooperative learning studies. He summarized results of the meta-analysis this way: Cooperative learning promotes higher achievement than either competitive or individualistic learning structures across all age levels, subject areas, and almost all tasks (Kagan, 1989, p. 24). Kagan also found that lower- achieving and minority students usually benefited most, and that the benefits did not come at the expense of higher-achieving students. Cooperative learning also promotes more social skill development than traditional learning structures (Johnson 8: Johnson, 1983, 1985; Kagan, Zahn, Widaman, Schwarzwald, & Tyrell, 1985; Slavin, 1983). Still another outcome claimed for cooperative learning is improved cross-ethnic relationships (Kagan et al., 1985; Slavin, 1979, 1983). Students in cooperative structures also show positive gains in the areas of self- esteem, greater intrinsic motivation, liking for the subject matter, and the ability to take the role of others (Kagan, 1989). Cooperative learning has been reported to have a strong effect in cultivating favorable student attitudes toward laboratory work, which is crucial at a time when interest in science is declining and the role of technology in society is increasing (Okebukola, 1986).

    Despite the large body of research on cooperative learning, few studies have addressed the impact of this strategy in higher education. This research has focused on academic achievement (Ney, 1989) and information retention (Dansereau, 1983). Research has excluded examination of the effect of cooperative learning on the development of collaborative skills. Furthermore, the significance of individual accountability (when group members individually contribute to the success of the group) and positive interdependence (when group reinforcement is dependent on successful group interaction)-two factors found to be important to achievement in cooperative learning at the K-12 level (Slavin, 1989)-have not been established for collegiate level subjects.

    This studys first goal was to determine any differences between a cooperative learning technique and a traditional learning technique at the college level with regard to student achieve- ment and development of collaborative skills. The second purpose was to examine the effect of cooperative learning on students attitude toward a physical science course. We hypothesized that (a) cooperative learning strategies will increase academic achievement of college students compared with a traditional method of instruction, (b) cooperative learning strategies will improve collaborative skills of college students compared with more traditional methods of instruction, and (c) students in a cooperative learning course will indicate a positive attitude toward the course and a favorable attitude toward the cooperative learning experience.



    Subjects were 43 female and 8 male undergraduate students attending the University of Northern Colorado. Subjects were enrolled in a 16-week course titled Physical Science Con- cepts for Elementary Teachers and participated in the study as a normal part of their course work.



    The physical science course included a lecture and a laboratory component. All subjects participated in the same three weekly lecture sessions, but were divided into two separate weekly laboratory sessions. The course content dealt with physics and chemistry. The physics portion included a study of speed, velocity, and acceleration; frictional, gravitational, electrical, magnetic, and buoyant forces; Newtons laws of motion; work, kinetic energy, potential energy, and power; and the law of conservation of energy. The chemistry portion dealt with the atomic nature of matter, including atoms; atomic and molecular masses; elements, compounds, and mixtures; atomic structure; antimatter; states of matter; and changes in state.

    The Learning Together cooperative learning technique (Johnson & Johnson, 1984) was employed in one laboratory section, and traditional instruction was employed in the other. Subjects preregistered for either section assuming the two options were identical. The laborato- ries differed only in the learning technique employed. The same laboratory instructor was responsible for delivery of course content for both laboratory sections.

    Twenty-four subjects in the cooperative learning laboratory were divided into six groups consisting of four members. To ensure heterogeneous groups, membership in each group was based on pretest results on the National Assessment of Education Progress-Science Test (NAEP-Science) (Educational Testing Service, 1986), year in school, ethnicity, and gender. For example, a typical group would include a student who scored high on the NAEP-Science, one who scored low, and two who had average scores. In addition, attempts were made to include at least one member of an ethnic minority and one male as part of the four-member group. Because the majority of students were Anglo female, it was not possible to include a minority or male in each group.

    Rewards in the form of class recognition were given each week for individual and group performance of collaborative skills. In addition, group members received weekly written feed- back from the researcher reflecting a summary of the students previous weeks assessment of their use of collaborative skills. This feedback was coupled with the researchers observations and his comments relating to the use of these skills.

    The cooperative learning laboratory began with direct instruction and reinforcement of cooperative skills through discussion and modeling. Specific skills included (a) use of names when addressing group members, (b) contribution of ideas and suggestions, (c) encouragement of contributions of others verbally and nonverbally, (d) checking understanding of others, (e) keeping the group on task, ( f ) active listening skills, (8) summarizing, (h) paraphrasing, (i) group decision making, (j) acknowledging contributions verbally and nonverbally, and (k) use of group roles. A collaborative skill would be identified by the researcher. Selection of collab- orative skills was deliberately sequenced from simple, such as addressing each other by name, to complex, such as summarizing material. In this way, students met with successful implemen- tation of collaborative skills from the first laboratory session and understood the strategies necessary in order to master increasingly difficult skills for subsequent laboratory sessions. Then a discussion would ensue regarding what behaviors were associated with the skill. Next, the researcher would model the skill. Finally, the students would work on the skill that day and in subsequent laboratory periods. Students in the cooperative laboratory group were also peri- odically asked to identify a specific skill upon which they needed to improve. They were then given an opportunity to practice this skill during the session. TQ structure individual accountabil- ity, each member of the group was assigned a specific role to perform. The roles were modeled by the researcher and role cards with directions were given to each student. Roles were rotated on a biweekly basis to ensure that each member was able to practice each role and all group


    members participated equally. The group roles were (a) reader -reads instructions for perform- ing the activity to the group; (b) checker-makes certain all group members understand roles, instructions, and work; (c) questioner-asks the instructor questions that are posed by the group; (d) gatekeeper-makes sure that everyone participates in the activity; (e) good listener (group role)-gives verbal and nonverbal acknowledgment of contributions of others; (f) name reminder-helps members to remember to address each other by name; (8) summarizer- periodically summarizes the material so that group members can check it; and (h) prober- prevents members from superficially answering problems posed by the lab.

    By contrast, the 27 subjects in the traditional laboratory were allowed to develop their own method of operation, including any assignments of roles and responsibilities within the group.

    Laboratory observations were conducted by two researchers. One 7-min and one 4-min observation was made of each laboratory group weekly. Researchers used a checklist procedure to classify observed behaviors according to the aforementioned categories.


    The Johnson and Johnson (1984) Learning Together technique was used for the cooperative learning treatment. Using this technique, students work in small groups to complete assign- ments. There is no competition between groups. This method relies on teacher praise and student interest in cooperation, rather than on awarding points or grades based on group performance. The technique was chosen for several reasons. First, lecture sections were shared by both laboratory groups and thus rewards for cooperative behaviors could not be given in the form of grades or points. This eliminated the use of other cooperative learning techniques that require use of such reinforcement. Second, the Learning Together technique easily fit into the design of the course. That is, the laboratory setting automatically grouped students into appro- priately sized groups, and members were seated around a table for each activity. Third, the cooperative learning materials and procedures were piloted and revised during the previous two semesters.


    Subjects academic achievement was measured using selected items from the 12th-grade NAEP-Science test and a content-based final laboratory examination designed by the instructor. Selected items from the NAEP-Science test measure general knowledge about physics and chemistry. Twenty-eight items were selected based on their relevance to concepts presented in class. The NAEP-Science test was given as a pre- and posttest. The laboratory final consisted of 13 essay items based on principal concepts addressed during lab activities.

    Subjects collaborative skills were assessed by observation. Both laboratory sections were observed for individual contributions of ideas and suggestions, encouragement of participation, checking for understanding of others, on-task behavior, active listening, summarizing mate- rialdideas, paraphrasing, group decision making, acknowledgment of others contributions, and use of group roles. Examples of an individuals collaborative behavior to reflect the degree of participation by each group member are as follows.

    1 .


    Statement related to completing the task-First we need to weigh each of the objects. Exchange of information-The force acting upon the object was . . .




    5 . 6. 7 . 8.


    Exchange of ideas-What if we determined the volume of the sphere before we immersed it in the ice water? Paraphrasing a concept-When the air moves faster over the top of the wing it reduces the pressure, resulting in a greater pressure and lift from below. Summarizing a concept-The faster the flow, the lower the pressure. Responding to ideas-Thats interesting or Thanks for the suggestion. Seeking information to clarify meaning-How does this relate to centripedal force? Seeking opinions related to completion of the task-Do you think dropping the object is what is meant here? Explaining the task, procedure, or concept-We also need to use three wires to complete the circuit.

    Examples of an individuals collaborative behavior to reflect group members checking each others understanding of concepts and procedures are as follows.

    1. 2.



    5 .

    6. 7 .

    Asking if someone/everyone understands-What does acceleration mean? Asking if someone/everyone understands the concept/procedure-Mike, what do we do first? Asking if someone/everyone needs assistance-May I help you determine the mass? Asking if it is all rig...


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