Grouping for excellence
Students who prefer to learn alone squirreled into the garrets of grungy apartments south of campus won't like NDSU as much this year. We're starting to squirrel-proof the classrooms.

In fact, the hot new way to encourage to you to get more out of class is called cooperative learning. Instead of working on your own in competition with others, you're encouraged to work in groups, cooperating to master the material.

Working together in groups? Cooperation? What happened to the ferociously nasty paper chase legendary inside America's ivy-worn walls, those severe profs who lectured dryly daily, dusted off two big exams a semester, and encouraged no one to talk to anyone, ever?
They're still around--every myth has its element of the truth. But more likely, you'll encounter a professor who is trying to use class techniques gathered under the umbrella of cooperation.

The problem with traditional teaching is that while it enforces individual achievement, it discourages cooperative success. Traditional tests and grading systems seem to demand that it's not enough for you to succeed: someone else must fail. Competition is the school standard, and by the time you reach university, it's tougher than ever before.

Unfortunately, competition is not the best way to learn, nor is it the usual way people get things done in real life. Corporate America more and more makes progress through teamwork. Applying for a job in industry? Chances are you'll see among the required qualifications "ability to work with others," "collegiality," "ability to work with a team."

What's that got to do with 25 students sitting in rows of uncomfortable aluminum desk-lets, gazing at hands across an overhead?

We can do better. That's Roger Johnson's message, the education professor from the University of Minnesota who led a cooperative learning workshop here in August. "If you want more people to learn more, you don't keep them separate, apart and quiet. When people have to turn thoughts into words, achievement goes up."

So some professors, such as me, are trying to squeeze more group work out of a 50-minute lecture session. Not only does this give you the opportunity to compare course notes with others, it helps you make the class meaningful by threading relationships with others learning the same story. Especially important for lonely freshmen--if you don't think anybody in class cares about you, you have no reason not to skip. And when you skip, you flunk, sometimes. "Eighty percent of life is showing up," said Woody Allen. Teachers find it hard to flunk the ones who always come to class, and groups resent the member who's not pulling the fair share. With cooperative learning, we hope more college squirrels will climb down from their trees to gather more nuts.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>