Cooperative learning in higher education: undergraduate student reflections on group examinations for group grades

Cooperative learning in higher education: undergraduate student reflections on group examinations for group grades – a study of the reflections of 140 university seniors who participated in cooperative written examinations for group grades

Bobbette M. Morgan

The purpose of the study is to share the reflections from 140 university seniors who have participated in cooperative written examinations for group grades. Reflections are clustered by themes as identified from the 140 students’ comments using Van Manen’s `hermeneutic phenomonological’ approach which is how the direct statements of individuals to describe a common shared experience add to the affective understanding of the event. The experience is examined and defined through reflections of the participants based on their experiences. Students participated in group examinations for group grades, thus allowing them to experience the full implication of positive interdependence within a cooperative learning setting. Following their first experience of writing a cooperative examination in groups students reflect on their initial cooperative examination experience.

Introduction

Cooperative learning has been studied for over 100 years, but little is known specifically about group examinations and group grades in higher education. This paper presents the perceptions of 140 university seniors regarding group grading practices in their secondary methods course in the School of Education. A clustering of their comments through reflections high-light the experience from the students’ point of view.

One issue in group grading controversy is the fairness of having all members of a group receive the same reward. The perception is that an individual working alone and receiving an individual grade is more fair, but the evidence of research studies does not support this belief (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). Deutsch demonstrated that before a task was performed, subjects generally perceive a competitive reward system as fairest, but that after a task is completed, a cooperative reward system in which all group members receive the same reward, was viewed as fairest (Deutsch, 1979). Hwong, Caswell, Johnson and Johnson (1992) found that college students studying within cooperative learning groups in which all group members received the same grade perceived the grading system to be fairer than did college students working independently. Opponents to the use of group grades stress that grades should only reflect the individual performance of the student receiving the grade (Ledlow, 1994).

The Study

The purpose of the study is to share the reflections from 140 university seniors from secondary methods classes in the School of Education who have participated in cooperative written examinations for group grades. The student reflections have been clustered into themes and later connected with current research on cooperative learning. Within the secondary methods course, one topic studied is assessment of student work which includes group grades in cooperative learning. To achieve practical application of this concept students participate in group examinations for group grades, thus allowing students to experience the full implication of positive interdependence within cooperative learning. Following their first experience of writing a cooperative examination in groups of three and before they received their group grades, students were asked to reflect on their initial cooperative examination experience. Reflections were clustered by themes as identified from the 140 students’ comments. The eight clusters were 1) feelings of support and/or reinforcement; 2) feeling relaxed and/or confident; 3) partners knew the material; 4) deeper understanding of material; 5) not wanting to let their team down; 6) feelings of stress; 7) concern if their partners will prepare as carefully as they had; and 8) expressing opinions about their group.

Review of the Literature

Cooperative learning in college classes has its roots in the theories of social interdependence, cognitive-development, and behavioral learning. Some research provides exceptionally strong evidence that cooperative learning results in greater effort to achieve, more positive interpersonal relationships, and greater psychological health than competitive or individualistic learning efforts (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994).

Social interdependence theory views cooperation as resulting from the positive links of individuals to accomplish a common goal. The Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka proposed in the early 1900’s that although groups are dynamic wholes the interdependence among members is variable. Kurt Lewin (1948) stated that interdependence from common goals provides the essential essence of a group. This interdependence creates groups that are “dynamic wholes.” The power of the group is such that a change in any member or subgroup directly changes any other member or subgroup. Morton Deutsch’s social interdependence theory noted that inter-dependence can be positive (cooperation), negative (competition), or nonexistent (individualistic efforts) (Johnson, et al., 1998).

Within cognitive development theory, cooperation must proceed cognitive growth. Cognitive growth springs from the alignment of various perspectives as individuals work to attain common goals. Within Piagetian theory, the cooperation of “individuals on the environment results in healthy socio-cognitive conflict that creates cognitive disequilibrium, which then stimulates perspective taking ability and cognitive development” (Piaget, 1965). Lev Vygotsky believed that the construction of knowledge and the transformation of various points of view into personal thinking resulted from cooperative efforts to learn, understand, and solve problems (Vygotsky, 1978). Both Piaget and Vygotsky saw cooperative learning with more able peers and instructors as resulting in cognitive development and intellectual growth (Johnson, et al, 1998). The assumption of behavioral learning theory is that students will work hard on tasks that provide a reward and that students will fail to work on tasks that provide no reward or punishment. Cooperative learning is one strategy that rewards individuals for participation in the group’s effort.

Since 1960 more than 300 studies have compared the relative efficacy of cooperative, competitive, and individual learning on individual achievement in college and adult settings. Starting in the early 1970’s, K-12 educators became curious as to whether the benefits of cooperative learning so powerfully demonstrated with college students would apply to elementary and secondary school students, and a robust literature developed at that level. In the 1990s, the interest in investigating the use of cooperative learning at the college level has been rekindled (Johnson, et al., 1998).

Some colleges and universities are again valuing the cooperative effort by formally structuring cooperative learning into their programs. One such example, according to Deden, is the Royer Center for Learning and Academic Technologies that serves Pennsylvania State University’s 12-campus Commonwealth College plus four additional undergraduate campuses. For the past two years, the mission has been to lead and support change from heavy reliance on lecture-based instruction to a rich learning environment characterized by active, cooperative learning, supported by technology. These changes are being made in response to the community’s demand for graduates who can work in teams, communicate electronically, solve open-ended problems, and think critically (1998). Johnson, Johnson and Smith add examples to the list of colleges using cooperative learning in exemplary ways: Florida Community College at Jacksonville has implemented cooperative learning on a wide-scale basis and Michigan State is implementing cooperative learning throughout the whole university (1998). As more universities move in this direction the question of group grades may be examined more closely as an aspect of cooperative learning. Nevertheless, even with support for cooperative learning controversy still exists. Kagan (1995) posits that

“every time I see group grades being

used I am appalled. They are, in my

view, never justified. Ever.”

No research studies, however, are cited to support this statement. One of the pitfalls of cooperative learning pointed out by Slavin is “diffusion of responsibility” (1983a). This problem can be eliminated in two ways: 1) make each group member responsible for a unique part of the group’s task or 2) have students be individually responsible for their own learning (1983b).

Methodology

Van Manen’s (1990) `hermeneutic phenomonological’ approach to human science provides the basis for review of student reflections about the lived experience of a cooperative examination for group grades. Van Manen suggests that “when we raise questions, gather data, describe a phenomenon, and construct textual interpretations, we do so as researchers who stand in the world in a pedagogic way. Pedagogy requires a phenomonological sensitivity to lived experience … a hermeneutic ability to make interpretive sense of the phenomena of the lifeworld … [and] … play with language in order to allow the research process of textual reflection to contribute to ones pedagogical thoughtfulness and tact” (1990, pp. 1-2). The specific language of the university students who experienced the cooperative examinations for group grades provides richness and insight which is valuable to gain a true understanding of the shared experience.

Statements from 140 university seniors were sorted into eight clusters. Themes emerged connected to these clusters which is supported by a research base on cooperative learning. These clusters are: 1) support and/or reinforcement from the cooperative group, 2) more relaxed and confident, 3) everyone knew the material and did their part, 4) deeper understanding of information, 5) not let the team down, 6) feelings of stress, 7) concern if their partners will prepare as carefully as they had, and 8) opinions about their group. Responses are reported as a percentage for each cluster.

The sources of evidence used in this study are the reflective statements from the undergraduate students upon the completion of their first cooperative examination for a group grade. The instrumentation used to collect data was an open ended question. After students had worked in their base groups on the exam for an hour and a half, the following question and directions were placed on the board:

1. When you have completed your exam turn in all copies with the one to be graded on top with signatures of all team members. On the top of the paper to be graded write: “Grade this one”.

2. Individually respond to the following: You have just completed your first cooperative examination. Please describe how you felt preparing for the examination, and how you feel now that you have completed this examination.

Within the secondary methods class, base groups are established when the professor randomly assigns students to groups of three after a series of activities that provide interaction are completed. This usually occurs the second week of the semester. Groups sit together each week, share discussion of journal articles assigned, share lesson plans first experienced with their partners, i.e., cooperative learning, concept attainment, classification, skill, and thematic. They then share the lessons they designed for their field-based assignments. A high level of trust is developed over the semester by the members within each base group.

Students always have the option of choosing to write an individual exam. The groups of students have the freedom to decide how to divide up the material to be covered on the examination. The process is described in advance to students, and they know that during the exam they may and should discuss all responses. Each student is given an exam, but only one is completed or compiled by the group for grading. The compiled exam must be signed by all members. Students in the group of three each receive the same grade.

Results

Each cluster is summarized by the number of students whose comments fit the cluster and the percentage of the response to the total number of respondents is recorded. The eight clusters are reported from the greatest number of responses to the least. Examples of the students reflective statements are also included. The themes of the clusters emerged from reading the comments three times and creating a list. Coding specific comments was accomplished through another reading. Coded comments were then tallied. If fewer than five responses fell into a theme, it was not reported.

1. Support and/or reinforcement from the cooperative group:

Students had been working cooperatively in assigned base groups from the beginning of the semester; they had worked with their partners for at least eight weeks at the point of this response. One hundred percent of the 140 students described the cooperative examination as less stressful than individual examinations, and they expressed feelings of support by their team members.

* “The cooperative exam was a bonding experience for our team.”

* “I enjoyed the companionship and the reinforcement which came from my other team members.

* “We were able to draw on each other’s strengths and insights to come up with the best possible answers.”

* “We learned how to rely upon one another to achieve a goal.”

2. More relaxed and confident:

Fifty-nine of the 140 students (42%) expressed thoughts about feeling relaxed and confident during and after the examination.

* “I felt much more relaxed than usual during the test.”

* “This lowered our test anxiety and raised our accomplishment.”

* “I actually felt light-hearted and laughed during the mid-term.”

3. All knew the material and did their part:

Students had been prepared for the examination with a general review of the material and an overview about how they might prepare for the exam as a group. They had the choice of each person being an “expert” or all members studying all material. Some formed study groups to meet outside of class to prepare. Fifty-four of the 140 university students (39%) expressed trust in their peers. After eight weeks of working together, they commented that they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They were comfortable and confident that their partners would do what they had agreed to do to prepare for the examination. A few of the student comments in this cluster include:

* “All of the members worked on their own to review the materials and then everyone worked together and contributed to the final analysis and completion of the test.”

* “We all carded our own weight in the test and no one freeloaded”.

* “Each member was evenly responsible for the success of our team.”

4. Deeper understanding of information:

Forty-two of the 140 students (30%) expressed that they reached a higher level of understanding by preparing for and writing the cooperative examination. Many shared that they felt well prepared as they came in to write the cooperative examination, but left knowing more. David Johnson and Roger Johnson say “the one that talks learns.” This is supported by the students comments. Just knowing information is not the same as real understanding. Through discussion with peers the students report that things that were “fuzzy” became clear.

* “This helped me push it into long term memory rather than just memorizing material.”

* “We all felt we knew more about the material after our discussions than we did before taking the test.”

* “This decreases the rote memorization and allows for analytical and logical thinking.”

* “The cooperative exam reinforced the information I knew and helped clarify the information I was unsure of.”

5. Not let the team down:

Twenty-one of the 140 students (15%) expressed the pressure they felt to not let their partners down. One student verbalized to the class, “I really wanted to go out with my friends, but I couldn’t let my team down. If it was for my own grade, I’d have been out for the evening.” Students reflected that in their preparation for the exam they studied harder and were concerned that their partners might view them as not well prepared.

* “I was more concerned about learning the material because I didn’t want to let any team members down.”

* “I did not want someone to fail because of my slacking.”

* “This forced me to study. I didn’t want to be a weak link.”

6. Feelings of stress:

Eighteen of the 140 student responses (13%) in this cluster describe the cooperative examination as producing a level of stress.

* “I felt stressed at being responsible not only for my own knowledge, but the others.”

* “The idea that my partners were depending on me made me very anxious.

* “I was a little nervous at first and put more stress on myself to study.”

7. Concern regarding level of team members preparation:

Eighteen of the 140 students (13%) express concerns about the fears they had about trusting their partners to prepare for the exam. Even though students indicated a high level of trust of their partners to prepare, they themselves did not trust their peers to be as well prepared as they were. These individuals studied everything in great detail and often expressed surprise at how well their partners performed.

* “We could have made our life simpler by trusting each other.”

* “My peers knew more than I had given them credit for studying.”

* “My only concerns were that one or more would not study, but that did not turn out to be the case.”

8. Opinions about their group:

Nine of the 140 students (6%) include comments that specifically describe the group they worked in as compatible. A sample of actual comments include:

* “The group I was in worked very well together.”

* “Excellent members in my group!”

* “I was part of a good team.”

Conclusions

Group examinations and group grades have been controversial within cooperative learning circles. A review of the literature identified very little about group grades in higher education. This study brings forth the perceptions of 140 university seniors who have experienced taking group exams for group grades in a cooperative learning environment.

Eight thematic clusters were formed based on the comments that students made regarding their first experience with writing a cooperative exam. The eight clusters were 1) feelings of support and/or reinforcement; 2) feeling relaxed and/or confident; 3) partners knew the material; 4) deeper understanding of material; 5) not wanting to let their team down; 6) feelings of stress; 7) concern if his/her partners would prepare as carefully as they have; and 8) expressing that they were in a good group.

Support and/or reinforcement was mentioned by every student. Learning situations can be very lonely experiences. Cooperative learning, used as a strategy not only for the acquisition of knowledge but also in testing, creates the “sink or swim” feelings associated with positive interdependence. Students feel a responsibility to perform well not only for themselves, but also for their peers. The summary statements of the students are consistent with research findings. A meta-analysis of the research on the quality of relationships in cooperative learning settings using students 18 years and older was conducted by researchers found that cooperative effort promotes greater liking among students than does competing with others or working on one’s own; this finding holds even among students from different ethnic, cultural, language, social class, ability, and gender groups (Johnson, Johnson, Maruyama, Nelson, & Skon, 1981).

At the higher education level, many professors note that they are preparing their students to work in an environment where they will be expected to work on a team and will be rewarded as a team (Ledlow, 1994). However, group grades within cooperative learning environments are not practiced by many. A study with college students (Hwong, et al., 1992) showed that they came to view group effected grades as “more fair” than individual grades in less than half of a semester. This study lends support to those findings.

Fifty-four of the 140 students expressed that their partners knew the material and did their part. It should be noted that two students of the 140 (1%) commented that they did not feel that their partners knew the material. One indicated that she felt she was doing all the work and the other pointed out that he did not trust his partners. The professor monitored all groups carefully. Prior to the feedback at the end of the examination the professor did not observe dysfunction within any of the groups.

Forty-two of the students expressed a deeper understanding of the information. Between 1924 and 1997 over 168 studies compared the relative efficacy of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning on the achievement of individuals 18 years and older. These studies indicate that cooperative learning promotes higher individual achievement than do competitive approaches or individualistic ones (Johnson, et al. 1998). Academic success is, above all, the college’s aim and the student’s aim. It also has numerous effects on college attrition: the higher the achievement of students, the more committed they tend to be to completing college. Academic success is also tied to eligibility for financial aid. For these and many other reasons, it is important to turn to instructional methods that maximize student achievement (Johnson, et al, 1998).

Of the one hundred and forty students twenty-one made specific comments about not wanting to let their team down. Trust tends to be developed and maintained in cooperative situations and it tends to be absent and destroyed in competitive and individualistic situations (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Based on the level of motivation to achieve and the level of success just experienced, one will build expectations as to how successful one will be in the future. For most individuals, cooperative experiences will promote higher expectations for future success than will competitive or individualistic experiences.

Only eighteen of the one hundred and forty students expressed feelings of stress associated with the group exam. Cooperators control their anxiety better than do individuals working competitively or individualistically. High levels of anxiety are debilitating. Cooperation tends to produce lower levels of anxiety than does competition, and even the presence of collaborators can reduce a person’s anxiety and the emotional impact of failure. The social support inherent in cooperative situations and the increases of self-efficacy and hope provided by working jointly with collaborators both lowers anxiety levels and increases coping skills necessary to manage anxiety constructively (Johnson & Johnson, 1989).

Eighteen of the one hundred forty students also expressed concern about the level of preparation of their partners. Cooperative learning uses student learning groups to foster students’ interpersonal skills and to promote students active involvement in their own learning. An essential element for the success of using learning groups is a student’s contribution to group work. A student’s assessment of another student’s performance is commonly used as a measure of the student’s contribution (Persons, 1998).

Nine of the one hundred and forty students made specific comments about their group. The team members talking to each other and working together toward a common goal builds the positive feelings about the group. Given that group membership in and of itself is not sufficient to produce higher achievement than individualistic efforts, it may be hypothesized that discussing the material being studied may be the critical variable affecting achievement (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Research provides exceptionally strong evidence that [the effectiveness of] cooperation results in greater effort to achieve, more positive interpersonal relationships, and greater psychological health than competitive or individualistic learning efforts (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994, p. 107).

Supporters of cooperative grades, David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, at the University of Minnesota, include in their initial cooperative learning training (Brown Book) a section entitled “Myth: A Single Group Grade Shared by Group Members Is Not Fair.” Their support includes proposing ideas of how to infuse group grades into classrooms at all levels.

Van Manen’s (1990) `hermeneutic phenomonological’ approach to human science is especially relevant to reviewing the students comments. Van Manen states we should “play with language in order to allow the research process of textual reflection to contribute to ones pedagogical thoughtfulness and tact” (1990). The specific language of the university students who experienced the cooperative examinations for group grades provides richness and insight which is valuable to gain a true understanding of the shared experience. Their comments clearly reflect the true meaning of positive interdependence, “we sink or swim together”, which can only be experienced within a trusting relationship developed over time, even in only half of a semester.

The implications for structuring student to student interaction within the university classroom are clear. The increased depth of understanding, the feelings of support, respect for other’s contributions, and the clarification of information produces more students with a greater awareness of the material and more developed social skills to be contributing members of teams.

It is recommended that group exams for group grades from a base of cooperative learning strategies implemented in higher education classrooms be further researched. If this study were replicated with graduate students would similar results be obtained? Would group exams for group grades be as well received in higher education settings if cooperative learning strategies were not the basis of the instruction? The results of this study will add to the limited body of knowledge about group examinations for group grades in cooperative learning at the higher education level.

Glossary of Operational Definitions

Definitions are provided to clarify terms frequently used within this paper.

base groups: Clusters of three university students are assigned by the professor at the beginning of the semester who work together through a variety of assigned tasks including test-taking.

group examinations: These are examinations given at mid-term and end of semester in which the base group members work together to complete the examinations.

group grade: The grade or score earned by the base group on the group examination is the group grade. The same grade is posted for each member of their base group.

`hermeneutic phenomonological’ approach: The direct statements of individuals to describe a common shared experience add to the affective understanding of the event. The experience is examined and defined through reflections of the participants based on their experiences.

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BOBBETTE M. MORGAN, ED. D.

Associate Professor of Education

The University of Texas at Brownsville

COPYRIGHT 2003 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group