Group & Cooperative Learning; Students as Classroom Leaders

The tradition of cooperative learning in higher education can be traced back thousands of years ago, when the Talmud recommended using “learning partners” to understand the legal codes and when Socrates engaged students in the “art of discourse” (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998). Today’s cooperative learning involves students working in groups to accomplish shared learning goals (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). It is seen as an active learning strategy situated in a collaborative environment where students “discuss, debate, build, and present their understanding and hear the perspectives of their peers” (Tien, Roth & Kampmeier, 2002, p. 608). 

More specifically, it uses small groups so that students can “maximize their own and each other’s learning” (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991, p. 5). However, cooperative learning is not about simply putting students together in groups, but about incorporating five essential elements into the group learning process: clear positive interdependence, members promoting learning and success face to face, individual accountability for work and contribution, use of interpersonal skills, and group processing (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991).

 Student-led learning stands out in cooperative learning approaches as students collaborate on problems not under the instruction or facilitation of teachers, but that of peers. Implementation in university classrooms has been seen for over 40 years—such as in physiology (Clement, 1971), psychology (Castell & Bridges, 2007), accounting (Adler, Whiting & Wynn-Williams, 2004) and law classes (Greig, 2000). In the last decade, this approach gained new momentum as innovative variations emerge, including Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) (Gosser et al, 2001) and near-peer instruction, most extensively researched in the teaching of chemistry (Tien, Roth & Kampmeier, 2002), among other undergraduate sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology courses (Seymour, 2002). Besides student-led learning strategies, a variety of techniques can be used to promote the five cooperative learning elements, such as jigsaw, debate, and discussion.

Early implementation of cooperative learning encountered resistance from both teachers and students, as it contrasts sharply with traditionally passive learning experiences; its efficacy was also doubted under the “pooling-of-ignorance” assumption that student as instructors with less knowledge would result in lower achievement (De Volder, De Grave & Gijselaers, 1985). Nonetheless, the student-centered, cooperative approach has been validated in over 40 years’ research as valuable for students’ academic performance, relationship with peers and faculty, and attitude toward the college experience (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998).

Placing students as leaders of the classroom can encourage greater participation and more responses (Collier, 1980), making the classroom a “dynamic and exciting learning environment” (Greig, 2000, p. 82). This is because students feel more relaxed to discuss, raise questions, and put forth opposing ideas or challenging statements. They are more willing to admit their confusions or need for more help to peers compared to professors (Beach, 1974).

Not only does student-led discussion facilitate “sharing, clarifying, and distributing knowledge among peers” (Rivard & Straw, 2000, p. 585), it also enables course materials to be translated into the words that are more familiar to the fellow students, generating examples more relevant to their lives (Collier, 1980). Similarly, in near-peer instruction, the peer leader as a near equal can be closer to students’ abilities to comprehend and solve problems (Tien, Roth & Kampmeier, 2002), allowing them to interact in more natural and relevant ways.

It is through open and candid discussions that conceptual understanding takes root, and cooperative, student-led discussions can address both cognitive and non-cognitive education goals (De Volder, De Grave & Gijselaers, 1985). Better performance is a result of the “positive interdependence” (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991, p. 28), as students work through problems in a collaborative setting; the peer leaders, in particular, are prompted to explain their understanding to a classmate (Tien, Roth & Kampmeier, 2002)—a process of elaboration and reiteration to reinforce comprehension and thinking.

While many cognitive benefits can be generated by traditional discussion, especially in non-STEM courses—such as case studies in accounting and business—student-led discussions have proven to be more effective than teacher-led ones at fostering generic interpersonal and critical-thinking skills that are transferrable across academic disciplines and in the workplace (Adler, Whiting & Wynn-Williams, 2004). Besides attaining a higher level of reasoning (Hogan, Nastasi, & Pressley, 2000), creative problem solving, and communication skills (Greig, 2000), students gain a sense of autonomy and more confidence in a teamwork environment, starting to appreciate different learning styles (Gafney & Varma-Nelson, 2007). Ultimately, this translates into better student achievement, attitudes, and persistence, in addition to improved higher-order thinking and problem solving ability (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999). Cooperative learning also results in more positive relationships among students (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991).

It is worth noting, however, that students from certain cultures or disciplines might find themselves reliant on passive learning and not accustomed or trained to take initiative in a student-centered setting. Some students find group discussions a “superficial learning process” and “prefer assessment-oriented learning” (Kommalage & Imbulgoda, 2010, p. 68). It is thus important to revise assessments so that expressing ideas is encouraged and evaluated instead of the accurate memorization of knowledge.


Written by Danxi Shen, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education




Adler, R. W., Whiting, R. H., & Wynn-Williams, K. (2004). Student-led and teacher-led case presentations: empirical evidence about learning styles in an accounting course. Accounting Education, 13(2), 213-229.

Beach, L.R. (1974). Self-directed student groups and college learning. Higher Education, 3, 187-199.

Casteel, M. A., & Bridges, K. R. (2007). Goodbye lecture: A student-led seminar approach for teaching upper division courses. Teaching of Psychology, 34(2), 107-110.

Clement, D.E. (1971) Learning and retention in student-led discussion groups, Journal of Social Psychology, 84, 279-286.

Collier, K. G. (1980). Peer-group learning in higher education: the development of higher order skills. Studies in Higher Education, 5(1), 55-62.

De Volder, M. L., De Grave, W. S., & Gijselaers, W. (1985). Peer teaching: Academic achievement of teacher-led versus student-led discussion groups. Higher Education, 14(6), 643-650.

Gafney, Leo & Varma-Nelson, Pratibha. (2007). Evaluating Peer-Led Team Learning: A Study of Long-Term Effects on Former Workshop Peer Leaders. Journal of Chemical Education, 84 (3), 535.

Greig, A. (2000). Student-Led Classes and Group Work: A Methodology for Developing Generic Skills. Legal Educ. Rev., 11, 81.

Gosser, D. K., Cracolice, M. S., Kampmeier, J. A., Roth, V., Strozak, V. S., & Varma-Nelson, P. (2001). Peer-Led Team Learning: A Guidebook.

Hogan, K., Nastasi, B. K., & Pressley, M. (1999). Discourse patterns and collaborative scientific reasoning in peer and teacher-guided discussions. Cognition and instruction, 17(4), 379-432.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998). Cooperative learning returns to college what evidence is there that it works?. Change: the magazine of higher learning, 30(4), 26-35.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Making cooperative learning work. Theory into practice, 38(2), 67-73.

Kommalage, M., & Imbulgoda, N. (2010). Introduction of student-led physiology tutorial classes to a traditional curriculum. Advances in physiology education, 34(2), 65-69.

Rivard, L. P., & Straw, S. B. (2000). The effect of talk and writing on learning science: An exploratory study. Science Education, 84(5), 566-593.

Seymour, E. (2002). Tracking the processes of change in US undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Science Education, 86(1), 79-105.

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 69(1), 21-51.

Tien, L. T., Roth, V., & Kampmeier, J. A. (2002). Implementation of a peer‐led team learning instructional approach in an undergraduate organic chemistry course. Journal of research in science teaching, 39(7), 606-632.


Further Resources:

  • Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., and Smith, K. (1998). Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.
  • Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of student centered learning, 2(1), 9-34.
  • Roth, V., Marcus, G., & Goldstein, E. (2001). Peer-led team learning: A handbook for team leaders. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.