Cooperative Learning: A Powerful Way to Add SEL to the Classroom 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Help students work together to solve problems, make decisions, and meet goals.

Group work can feel like students splitting up work and completing the task in parallel. We all know there is so much opportunity for rich interactions in group work and a chance for students to learn to work well with others and collaborate. The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders found 10 key social emotional learning teaching strategies. One of those, Cooperative Learning, helps elevate typical group work and develop social emotional skills. 

"Cooperative Learning refers to a specific instructional task in which teachers have students work together toward a collective goal. Teachers ask students to do more than group work; students are actively working with their peers around content in a meaningful way."

To transform group work into cooperative learning, you must have 5 elements in place:

  1. Positive Interdependence
  2. Individual Accountability
  3. Face to Face Promotive Interaction
  4. Interpersonal and Social Skills
  5. Group Processing

Now, those terms don't mean much to me, and you are probably thinking, huh? Let's dive in and break it down into everyday terms and examples.

Cooperative Learning Strategies

Group Sink or Swim 

This is positive interdependence. When the group has a goal, their efforts will cause them to succeed or fail together. Each person's efforts benefit themselves AND everyone else in the group.


  • Give different parts to each student. Each group member possesses other knowledge, skills, or experience, so the group needs to engage to complete the work together.
  • Give students different roles in the group. 
  • Tasks that require turn-taking back and forth to complete or understand.
  • Student-led instruction. Students learn information and then have to teach their part to the other members of the group.
  • Increase task difficulty so no one can complete the task on their own.
  • Build a plan B for students needing help to meet their group responsibilities. Can the group help them without taking on their work?

Check out this quick video from Edutopia on assigning cooperative learning roles for groups.


Individual accountability is about responsibility. While students must work together as a group, they must also be accountable for their contributions to the group's success.


  • Use team and self-evaluations.
  • Checks for understanding for everyone throughout the task or project.
  • Check-ins as the project or activity progresses to see how each member performs.
  • Individual and group scores/grades.
  • Individual presentations or other demonstrations of learning in addition to a group product.


Face-to-face promotive interaction is about real teamwork. Individuals encourage and support each other's efforts to meet the group's goal.


  • Groups create group norms to support positive interaction.
  • Students explain how to solve a problem to group members.
  • One group member discusses a concept with others.
  • A group member teaches classmates about a topic.
  • Students help each other connect present and past learning.
  • Students question the conclusions or ideas of other group members.
  • Students provide constructive feedback to their group members.

Some group work may be done individually, but group members provide feedback, challenge each other's conclusions, and teach and encourage one another. 

Social Skills

Applying interpersonal and social skills is self-explanatory. Students help, support, encourage, and praise each other's learning efforts. 


  • Pre-teach social skills necessary to work together, such as decision-making, conflict resolution, and effective communication.
  • Continue to teach these skills throughout the year, and group projects will improve.
  • Add an SEL learning objective to your lesson plan to think through how you will integrate this into instruction.


Group processing is a group discussion about how things are going. Group members should feel comfortable sharing concerns and applauding others in the group. They should discuss how they are progressing towards their goal and what is and isn't working well with the group. 


  • Give time to reflect after a project, as a group, and privately. This should include reflection about the project and the group.
  • Group members set goals to improve their group participation and work.
  • Celebrate the accomplishments of the group and individuals.

Reflection Questions

The strategies above will help you create authentic cooperative learning out of group work, but it is essential to reflect and write down a plan you can tweak throughout the year as your class develops.

Ask yourself the following questions from the SEL Coaching Toolkit:

  • How do you use cooperative learning in your classroom? 
  • Is there a particular model or approach that you use?
  • Which elements do you use (group sink or swim, personal responsibility, team encouragement, social skills, group processing)?
  • How do you encourage students to collaborate, particularly when they struggle with classroom content?
  • How do you ensure students have the appropriate social and emotional skills (e.g., communication, self-regulation) to accomplish group tasks?
  • How do you help students provide and receive feedback from their peers?

Check out this Social and Emotional Learning Coaching Toolkit from the American Institutes for Research for more details about teaching practices that support Social Emotional Learning.

How will you make cooperative learning more effective in your classroom? Comment below!

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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