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A cooperative approach

DU's Center for Teaching and Learning is training faculty to apply cooperative learning principles in the classroom. Photo: Michael Richmond

Some professors are exceptional lecturers, holding sway over a classroom of students with an unerring command of facts, inspiring oratory and a touch of theatrics.

Likewise, some students thrive under the traditional lecture hall format, readily absorbing the information presented and using it to compete with their classmates for the best grade.

It is the most common form of learning on university campuses today. But is it the best?

“Competition is not necessarily the best learning environment,” says chemistry Assoc. Prof. Julanna Gilbert, director of DU’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). “There is more than 30 years of research showing that group learning is more effective.”

Not just any group learning will do, however. The practice of throwing students together in a team with little direction can produce mixed results, Gilbert says. She advocates a more deliberate approach called cooperative learning.

Established in 1999, CTL supports innovative learning initiatives through training, collaborative curriculum design and grants. In March 2004, Gilbert brought in national cooperative learning experts to train DU faculty members in the educational approach. CTL then awarded $2,500 stipends to help faculty design cooperative learning activities.

During the past year, 25 DU professors — armed with the CTL training and grant money — experimented with cooperative learning in their classrooms.

Unlike typical group learning, cooperative learning incorporates principles of positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face interaction and interpersonal skills development to achieve learning that is otherwise delivered in lectures or classroom discussions. Students, Gilbert notes, soon learn that team members sink or swim together; that each member has to be prepared to participate; that each member has important information to contribute and that their learning success — and grade — depends on the group’s success.

Although students and professors alike have approached cooperative learning activities with a fair amount of trepidation, the results, they say, speak for themselves.

Law Prof. David Thomson, who paired his students on an important written assignment in his lawyering process course, saw grades rise an entire point on a six-point scale. He was impressed enough with the results to enlist all eight law professors who teach the process course to try cooperative learning this year.

“The practice of law often is a group activity,” Thomson says. “I’m intrigued enough to continue.”

Bryan Green, a junior in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management (HRTM), says his cooperative-learning experience prepared him for his future vocation. His team conducted site visits, assessed technology and studied hospitality trends to propose new systems for DU’s HRTM building opening this year.

That kind of hands-on learning, with each student sharing his or her opinions and ideas, can’t be taught in a lecture hall, Green says. Cooperative learning, he notes, teaches a teamwork approach to completing projects.

“The relationships that were formed during the class were just as valuable as the material learned,” Green adds.

Other students shared Green’s point of view. CTL surveyed students and found that more than 90 percent agreed that group members were committed to each other’s success, more responsible for learning and supportive of the group’s activities. Nearly 90 percent said their learning was enhanced by the cooperative approach.

Last year’s success led CTL to repeat the program this year. The center trained and funded an additional 20 faculty members to incorporate cooperative learning in their classrooms during the 2005-06 school year.

“You can’t believe the difference in the students,” Gilbert says. “When they have no choice but to engage, they learn better and sustain their learning longer.”

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