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Teaching Cooperative Skills

Just as a teacher needs to teach academic skills, social skills also need to be directly addressed. Students who work in teams need "(a) an opportunity to work together cooperatively (where teamwork skills need to be manifested), (b) a motivation to engage in the teamwork skills (a reason to believe that such actions will be beneficial to them) , and (c) some proficiency in using teamwork skills" (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998). 

Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec (1998) describe four steps used to teach students cooperative skills:

Step 1. Make sure students understand the need for the teamwork skill.  To accomplish this, the teacher can do the following:

  • Ask students to develop a list of social skills needed to improve group work. From the skills they list, emphasize one or two. 
  • Present a case to students so they can see it is better to know the skill than not to know it. Compliment the students who use the skills in the classroom.
  • Illustrate the need for the skill through a role play that provides a counter-example in which the skill is obviously missing in a group.

Step 2. Make sure the students understand what the cooperative learning skill is, how, and when to use the skill. To accomplish this, the teacher can do the following:

  • Define the skill in terms of verbal and nonverbal behaviors and explain thoroughly what students have to do. This can be done with a T-Chart. After the skill is listed (e.g., give directions to the group’s work), then ask the class: “What would this skill look like?” (nonverbal behaviors) and "What does this skill sound like?" verbal behaviors). 
  • Demonstrate and model the skill in front of the students and explain it step by step so students have a concrete idea of what the skill entails in terms of verbal and nonverbal behavior.
  • Have the students practice the skill twice in their groups before the lesson starts.

Teacher modeling of expected social skills allows the students to see the shape and form of these skills. Showing students within your classroom what these skills look like clarifies exactly what you expect to see from them and what they can expect to see within their groups. Modeling need not to be staged or contrived, though the use of role-playing can allow demonstration of the specific skills needed. Integrating collaborative and cooperative behaviors into daily instruction immerses students in these skills before they are asked to use them independently (Snodgrass & Bevevino, 2000).

Step 3. Set up practice situations and encourage skill mastery. The teacher guides practice as students master the skill through repetition.

  • Assign a social skill either as a specific role for certain students or as a general responsibility for all members of the group. Skills are introduced gradually, for instance, one new skill every week and at the same time previously introduced skills are repeated until mastery occurs.
  • Observe each group and record who uses the skill, how frequently, and how effectively. You can begin with a very simple observation form that measures only two or three skills. Student observers should be used as soon as possible. 
  • Cue the use of skills periodically during a lesson by having a student demonstrate the skill in front of the others. 
  • Intervene in the cooperative groups to explain the skills and show how to use them. 
  • Coach students on how to improve the use of the skill.

Step 4. Give students feedback on their use of the skill. Help them reflect on how to engage in the skill more effectively in the future. Effective communication has to occur in the learning process. In cooperative learning, the observer reports to the group on the information gathered, and group members in turn report their impressions about their behavior. The observer provides positive feedback to all group members about their efforts to learn and help others learn. Whole-class processing follows small-group processing. The teacher provides feedback to the class as a whole.

Step 5. Make sure students practice the cooperative learning skill until it becomes automatic. There are four stages of skill development.

  • Awkward (the beginning stage, when there is awkwardness in engaging in the skill)
  • Phony (when students use the skill but feel inauthentic)
  • Mechanical
  • Integrated (when the skill occurs naturally)

The following are sample T-charts that can be used to teach social skills in the cooperative classroom. 

Checking for understanding

Looks Like

Sounds Like

Eye contact

Learning forward 

Interested expression 

Open gestures and postures

Explain that to me please

Can you show me?

Tell us how to do it  

How did you get  to that conclusion?

Give us some examples please.

Contributing ideas

Looks Like

Sounds Like

Leaning forward 

Open gestures and postures

Taking Turns

In my opinion...

I have a suggestion...

We could...

What if we...


           Johnson, D., Johnson, R.& Holubec, E. (1998).Cooperation in the classroom. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.