ERIC Identifier: ED264162
Publication Date: 1985-09-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Boulder CO.

Cooperative Learning in Social Studies Education: What Does the Research Say? ERIC Digest No. 20.

Cooperative learning refers to students working together to achieve a common goal. In addition to the usual learning goals, it includes the goal of establishing a collaborative/helping relationship among participants (McCulloch 1985).

This Digest describes research findings, mainly in elementary social studies classrooms, on the effects of cooperative learning on multicultural awareness and cross-ethnic friendships, interpersonal relationships, and prosocial behavior. The Digest then provides information on classroom approaches to cooperative learning.


Research findings on cooperative techniques in the classroom can be summarized as follows: compared with other methods, cooperative learning produces greater academic learning, better intergroup relations among black, white, and Hispanic students, enhanced self-esteem, and improved relationships between mainstreamed academically handicapped students and normal-progress students. Studies indicate that cooperative learning develops general mutual concern and interpersonal trust among students and increases students' propensity for prosocial behavior (Slavin 1983; Sharan 1980). In a meta-analysis of the esearch literature, Johnson and others (1981) reviewed 122 studies on cooperative learning. Their analysis supports the overwhelming superiority of cooperation for promoting student achievement and productivity. Although this conclusion has not gone unchallenged (Slavin 1983; Sharan 1980), the overall weight of the evidence supports these relationships.


Slavin and Madden (1979), in a secondary analysis of data collected in a national sample of high schools by the Educational Testing Service, found that teacher workshops, multiethnic texts, minority history, heterogeneous groups, and classroom discussions of race relations had very limited effects on students' social attitudes and behavior. On the other hand, the assignment of students of different races to work with each other and the participation of students in multiracial sports teams had strong, consistent, postive effects on race relations.

A Johnson and Johnson study (1981), using 51 fourth-graders divided into cooperative and individualistic groups, showed significantly greater cross-ethnic interaction in the cooperative learning group during both instructional and free time. Attitude scores also supported the finding that cooperative learning experiences benefit intergroup relations. Studies designed to increase the acceptance of mainstreamed academically handicapped students demonstrate a similar facilitative effect on student acceptance.


Mutual concern among students is measured in many of the cooperative learning studies by obtaining from students ratings of peers and perceptions of being liked by peers. The findings, regardless of the model of cooperative learning used, have been highly positive with regard to the promotion of interpersonal liking, attraction, trust, and sense of being accepted by teachers and peers.

For example, Cooper and others (1980) found that students who were initially prejudiced against one another evidenced greater interpersonal attraction in an experimental cooperative setting than did students in competitive and individualistic settings.


Johnson and others (1976) found that pupils in cooperative small-group learning settings respond more prosocially on altruistic versus individualistic choice tasks than do pupils in individual learning situations. In another study, based on the social studies curriculum, it was found that students who had studied cooperatively made more cooperative and helpful decisions in a subsequent simulation game than did students who had studied competitively (Ryan and Wheeler 1977). In this study, fifth- and sixth-grade students played the simulation "Seal Hunt," a component of MAN: A COURSE OF STUDY. The cooperative subjects manifested significantly more cooperative behavior, such as instituting and implementing group strategies and rendering assistance to one another.


Robert E. Slavin (1983), a major proponent of cooperative learning, advocates the practice of cooperative learning in order to redress the inconsistency between the obvious importance of cooperation to adult success and the schools' competitive and individualistic academic system. Three of the more widely used approaches to cooperative learning are described below.

1. Student Teams-Achievement Divisions (STAD) is a method in which students with widely varying academic abilities are assigned to four- or five-member teams. The study of new material in a group is not finished until all members of the group are sure they understand the material. Scoring is done by teams, and the teams with the highest scores are recognized in a weekly class newsletter.

2. Slavin has modified the Jigsaw method of Aronson (1978) into Jigsaw II. Students in six-member groups each read a common narrative, then each is given a topic on which to become an expert. Students from different groups meet with other experts to study their assigned topic, then return to their own groups to share what they have learned. Students take individual quizzes, which are formed into team scores. The highest scoring teams and individuals are recognized in a class newsletter.

3. In addition to the competitive/cooperative structure described above, there has also been extensive research on the Group Investigation Model, which attempts to eliminate competition entirely. This model involves cooperative group inquiry emphasizing data-gathering by pupils, interpretation of information through group discussion, and synthesis of individual contributions into a group project. The parallels between the Group Investigation Model and the inquiry approach to social studies education are striking.


Cooperative learning appears to be a promising method by which social studies teachers can simultaneously achieve both academic and socio-moral objectives. To date, the research has not examined whether the results achieved persist over time. Also, there has been little research conducted with high school subjects. Nevertheless, the findings are sufficiently promising to warrant future serious consideration by social studies teachers and researchers.


Dronson, Elliot. THE JIGSAW CLASSROOM. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1978.

Cooper, L., D. W. Johnson, R. Johnson, and F. Wilderson. "The Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Experiences on Interpersonal Attraction Among Heterogeneous Peers." JOURNAL OF SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY 111 (1980): 243-252.

Johnson, David., and Roger T. Johnson, "Effects of Cooperative and Individualistic Learning Experience on Interethnic Interaction." JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY 73 (1981): 444-449.

Johnson, D. W., G. Mariyama, R. Johnson, D. Nelson, and L. Skon. "The Effects of Cooperative, Competitive and Individualistic Goal Structures on Achievement: A Meta-Analysis." PSYCHOLOGICAL BULLETIN 89 (1981): 47-62.

Johnson, D., R. Johnson, J. Johnson, and D. Anderson. "Effects of Cooperative Versus Individualized Instruction on Student Prosocial Behavior, Attitudes Toward Learning and Achievement." JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY 68 (1976): 446-452.

McCulloch, John. "Lickona's Curriculum for Cooperation." ETHICS IN EDUCATION 4 (May 1985): 12-15.

Ryan, F., and R. Wheeler. "The Effects of Cooperative and Competitive Background Experience of Students on the Play of a Simulation Game." JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 70 (1977): 295-299.

Sharan, Shlomo. "Cooperative Learning in Small Groups: Recent Methods and Effects on Achievement, Attitudes, and Ethnic Relations." REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 50 (1980): 241-271.

Slavin, Robert E. COOPERATIVE LEARNING. New York: Longman, 1983.

Slavin, Robert E., and Nancy A. Madden. "School Practices That Improve Race Relations." AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH JOURNAL 16 (1979): 160-180.

This Digest is based on James S. Leming's "Research on Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction: Interventions and Outcomes on the Socio-Moral Domain." In REVIEW OF RESEARCH IN SOCIAL STUDIES EDUCATION 1976-1983 NCSS Bulletin No. 75. Edited by William B. Stanley. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies and Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium and the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.

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