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Elementary students are some of the most eager, excited students you may ever have! They’re full of ideas, motivation, and creativity. Better yet, they’re at a stage where they’re open to make new friends, tell stories, and share their minds with the world. 

As a teacher, how do you leverage this in your classroom? 

Introducing: cooperative learning strategies! This integrated approach to learning between students and their peers is a fantastic way to leverage their excitement and storytelling to help others in their group to grow while also building a sense of team and community in your classroom. 

What is a Cooperative Learning Strategy?

There are three mainstream instructional  approaches for learning where students interact with other students. According to Johnson et. al (1986), cooperative learning strategies have been proven to be the most effective and beneficial for both students and teachers alike. 

The approach of a cooperative learning strategy involves organizing students into small groups and encouraging them to work together to create a solution to a problem. 

Why are Cooperative Learning Strategies Helpful?

Cooperative learning strategies are helpful at all stages of life, but especially when some of our youngest learners are first starting school. For elementary students, working cooperatively at a young age is beneficial for developing team work, communication, and social competency skills. 

Johnson et. al (1986) also described cooperative learning strategies to have positive effects on student friendships where students who engaged in these activities had more friends and better quality relationships with those friends. Creighton & Szymkowiak (2014) also noted improved social competency in students that engaged in cooperative learning games. These social skills included improved ability to negotiate and a better ability to balance meeting their own needs while maintaining positive relationships with others.

4 Cooperative Learning Strategies to Try

  1. Jigsaw Pieces

In this strategy, each group member is assigned one piece of the activity that they will be working on together. For example, younger students could receive one piece of a puzzle which they have to work on building together. Another approach for older elementary students is providing three lists that relate to each other and asking students to match related items from each list together. This activity improves comprehension, listening and active problem-solving among students. 

  1.  Interviewing Classmates

Interviewing classmates enables students to have guided conversations with their peers, which is great for those students who may be struggling to make friendships. It also encourages active listening and builds social communication skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence. 

This activity works by pairing students together and asking them to interview each other on a given topic. You may choose to have students interview each other on a topic in your lesson plan (ie. What do you know about bodies of water?). Alternatively, you may get them to ask each other about what they did on summer/winter break, as an ice breaker to building friendships in younger classes. 

  1.  The Marshmallow and Spaghetti Tower

This is the classic challenge of providing groups of students with one marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, and one meter of tape. Then, students are asked to build the highest tower possible with the marshmallow at the top. 

Tom Wujec dove deeper into this challenge and noticed a surprising insight – kindergarteners performed significantly better on this challenge than MBA-level students. The reason is that younger students are much more likely to prototype, test, and communicate than adults. Adults have a fixed mindset on “how things are supposed to be done,” so they are less likely to experiment and try to find what is actually working best. 

This is a great challenge to encourage communication skills, practice with experimentation, and see if any natural leaders emerge from the group. 

  1. Circle the Sage

The “Circle the Sage” activity is great for building confidence, presentation skills, and individual accountability in elementary classes. This activity starts out by asking the full classroom if there anyone knows the answer to a question (ie. a difficult homework question or something related to your current lesson). Ideally, 4-5 students can raise their hands and be prepared to answer. These students become the “sages.” Each sage will go to a different corner of the classroom and their fellow classmates will be sorted out to each corner where they stand around a sage who presents the answer to the question. Students can take time to discuss as a smaller group before returning to their seats and discussing learnings with the wider class. 

7 Tips for Integrating Cooperative Learning Strategies

  1. Mix Skill Levels

An important benefit of cooperative learning strategies is that students can engage and learn from each other. To make the most out of this, try creating your groups to reflect a range of reading abilities. Those with higher level reading levels can support those that may have lower levels. The same can be done when considering abilities for listening, problem-solving, and communication skills. 

  1. Keep Group Size Small

To help students work on their active communication skills and quick problem-solving abilities, limit the group size to 3-5 students. Doing so enables students to fall into a team dynamic where ideally one or two students will take natural leads and the others can become managers of a project component. With too many students in a group, some may begin to feel unheard or will not be assigned a significant share of the project activity. Having a significant component to work on increased motivation and a feeling of purpose on the team. 

  1. Practice Short Time Frames

Keeping activity time to 15 minutes or less is helpful when younger students first start working on group projects with their peers. They may run into communication challenges faster or may lose attention on activities quicker at younger ages. As students progress throughout the year and in future classes, you can extend how much time you assign to each cooperative learning strategies. For more complex projects, you can also consider breaking it up into smaller segments so that teams can work together on specific project components each day. This is also helpful for learning how to break down large tasks into smaller, more workable activities. 

  1. Provide Key Questions and Goals

To create alignment between teamwork and individual goals, ensure that teams are each provided with clear, specific questions or goals that they should be answering or achieving throughout the project. For younger classes, you may choose to project one end goal (ie. join the puzzle pieces together to create the dinosaur face). In older elementary classes, you can begin to integrate more stages of project delivery (ie. First determine …. Then, use that information to create ….) You can also provide the end-project questions to older classes so that they know what they are expected to understand by the end of the project (ie. What types of materials did you use during this project? Which materials were the most helpful in creating a stable tower?)

  1. Avoid Interrupting Active Group Work 

The benefit of cooperative learning strategies is that teams can work together to solve their problems. Encouraging students to speak to each other to ideate, negotiate, and make decisions is a crucial component of developing communication skills. Interrupting group conversations too frequently can break group focus or enable teams to become more dependent on teacher/supervisor support. A better approach to interrupting teams to ask about project progress is to have a floater supervisor who can walk around to identify natural leaders, challenges, communication styles, and progress within groups. If a group has a problem or question during the project, encourage them to first attempt problem-solving on their own before coming to the front desk to ask for further support. 

  1. Ensure Individual Accountability

While the students are working as part of the group in cooperative learning activities, they are still very much working as an individual as well. Be mindful of how students are engaging with other students, developing leadership skills, or even passing up on tasks to allow for other students to take control. Ensuring individual accountability means that students will be measured for their individual contributions and communication approach within the group. This is important to ensure that they will have improved skills to take away after the activity.

  1. Practice Group Reflections

Reflecting as a group after the activity will enable students to discuss what worked well, what didn’t work well, and why these issues may have occurred. As a group, you can also discuss what can be done better next time to ensure a better process. 

You can choose to do this either within their existing groups to further the collaborative efforts. Then, you can switch this to be across the full classroom so that students can see how other groups worked together. For younger classes, it may be best to reflect with the full class, while older classes can begin to self-reflect within smaller groups. It is best to do this reflection immediately after the project while it is still fresh in their minds. 


Integrating cooperative learning strategies does not require expensive resources, charismatic leadership, or complex programming (Slavin, 1999). As such, it’s a great approach to begin adding to your everyday learning strategies to help younger students build better quality relationships, develop strong social competency skills, and also establish a better awareness of self. 

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