Practices for Student Cooperation, Part 1: Interdependent Teams

Maggie Bruski

About a year ago I wrote a blog post highlighting strategies that support students when they work in cooperative groups. As I re-read my musings about how students interact with each other in this setting, I thought it might be beneficial to go into more detail about how successful student cooperation takes place. In my original post, I featured an article from Robert Slavin, Making Cooperative Learning Powerful, in which he shares “five key practices” that are critical for successful student cooperation:

  1. Form interdependent teams.

  2. Set group goals.

  3. Ensure individual accountability.

  4. Teach communication and problem-solving skills.

  5. Integrate cooperative learning with other structures. (2014)

Although this article offers great strategies for teachers as they begin to weave cooperative learning into their instructional repertoire, I’d like to unpack what each actually means for a teacher’s practice in more detail. With this hope in hand, let’s find out more about practice 1: forming interdependent teams.

To kick off my research, I turned to the book Productive Group Work, by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Sandi Everlove, narrowing in on Chapter 2. Using Positive Interdependence. To read the whole chapter and earn recertification contact hours, click on the above link to view the reading in the SEED PAK’s PD Market. First and foremost students need to feel emotionally safe, know where they fit in, both as an individual and as a member of a group, to understand the purpose of the work that they are asked to do, and with that, to understand the steps they need to take to fulfill that purpose. All of which is not a short order, but if you are able to get your students to feel like they can contribute and will be successful with the proposed work, this will lead to an “improved flow of academic information and a heightened state of learning” (Frey, Fisher, & Everlove, 2009).  Sounds good to me!

Going back to my days as a high school math teacher, I once again turn to a familiar resource, College Prep Math’s (CPM) Study Team Strategies to provide us with some examples of how a teacher might create a classroom climate ready for cooperative learning. Page nine of the very useful Introduction to Study Teams document shares eight different types of positive interdependence, along with an example of what each might look like:

  1. Goal Interdependence - setting a team goal so members are responsible for each other's learning and success as well as their own.

  2. Outside Enemy Interdependence - placing teams in competition with each other so team members feel interdependent in their efforts to beat the other teams.

  3. Reward and Recognition Interdependence - giving rewards and recognition equally to all team members for completing a task successfully shows them that their efforts are appreciated.

  4. Resource Interdependence - providing each member with a part of the information, resources, or materials needed for a task so members' resources must be combined for the team to achieve its goal.

  5. Task Interdependence - creating a division of labor so that a member's part must be completed before the next member can complete his/her responsibilities.

  6. Role Interdependence - assigning complementary and interconnected roles to different team members that specify the responsibilities that the team needs in order to complete its task.

  7. Identity Interdependence - asking teams to choose a name, make a flag, choose a motto or song.

  8. Environmental Interdependence - binding team members together by their physical environment, for example, assigning a table or putting chairs or desks together. (p. 9)

Although this document is targeted at math teachers, the information is invaluable for any teacher whose students work collaboratively, in particular, those just starting out with cooperative learning. If your students are struggling to work as a team, perhaps review the above list and focus on a specific type of interdependence, then try the suggestion (or come up with your own) to address the holdup.

Turning back to chapter 2 of Productive Group Work, the authors relay how critical it is for teachers to take the time to model expectations and bring into their practice instructional routines that support positive interdependence. Teachers cannot expect that students will work together productively without structure. The type of work that leads to success requires that each group member’s personal skills are needed, promoting the idea that the group is stronger than the individual. Providing strategies in terms of how students engage in an activity as a group can be the make or break point of a cooperative learning opportunity. To support students, it is suggested that teachers use a wide variety of “instructional routines” that “encourage rather than inhibit learning” (Frey, Fisher, & Everlove, 2009). Going back to my classroom experience, I had access to and implemented dozens of strategies to ensure students were successful as they worked collaboratively. I’m going to highlight CPM’s study team strategies once again. Over 30 different structures for student cooperation are detailed, all designed to engage students equitably in the learning.

One of my favorite study team strategies is Give One to Get One, a routine I still use today when working with adult learners. The desired outcome of this strategy is to have students share ideas, perhaps about a new topic, a reading, or as a review. Students write down three ideas (plus or minus a few as desired) on a note card along with their name. Everyone would get up and mingle, stopping to share their ideas in turn with a classmate, asking each other questions because when they part they will exchange cards and will then have to explain the ideas of their classmate’s card to a new partner. This continues for two to three rounds, with students exchanging cards and ideas.  

It might seem like the stars need to perfectly align in order for successful cooperative learning to happen, but we as teachers have the power to align those stars. It is the steps we take that will allow students to feel a sense of belonging, that they can contribute to the collective, that their learning has meaning. This, coupled with providing structure to cooperative learning, is how deep thinking for all students can take place.  



CPM Educational Program. (n.d.). Introduction to study team strategies. Retrieved from

CPM Educational Program. (2014). Study team strategies. Retrieved from

N. Frey, D. Fisher, & S. Everlove (2009). Chapter 2. Using Positive Interdependence. In Productive group work: How to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding. Retrieved from

Slavin, R. E. (2014). Making Cooperative Learning Powerful. Educational Leadership,72(2), 22-26. Retrieved from