Practices for Student Cooperation, Part 3: Individual Accountability

Maggie Bruski

Student cooperation comes in all shapes and sizes and is a widely used and powerful instructional practice, but many students loathe group work. Why? One common sentiment is that one or two of the students will end up doing all the work while others are hitchhikers who are just along for the ride. The goal of these blog posts about student cooperation is to provide support to teachers so that their students are engaged and making meaning of content as they learn with the support of their peers. Individual accountability is tightly tied to the same strategies used to develop group goals (blog post #2 in this series) and positive interdependence (blog post #1 in this series), which is no surprise. As Robert Slavin mentioned in the article that initiated this series of blog posts, individual accountability is often lost somewhere along the way, and with it, the potential of cooperative learning (Slavin, 2014). The following deep thought from Slavin prompts teachers to think about the purpose and goal of cooperative learning.


It is about students learning together and knowing that they are letting the team down when they don’t put their full focus and effort on the task at hand. In the book, Productive Group Work, we read that “each individual must be responsible for his or her contribution to the joint task: Did I do what I was supposed to do, as well as I was supposed to do it and when I was supposed to do it” (Frey, Fisher, & Everlove, 2009, p.51). This goes back to having clear roles for each student and a well-developed and understood set of norms for collaboration. Students who know their purpose, know what’s expected of them, and are offered a motivating and engaging task are far less likely to gripe about cooperative learning. The authors of Productive Group Work share the following guidelines that can lead to accountability in group work, in particular, if you are hoping to engage students in more long-term, intensive projects:  

  1. Create cooperative learning opportunities that are focused on overarching big ideas and require a higher depth of knowledge. The thinking behind this guideline is that these tasks are less likely to turn into “an assembly-line production” (p.52).

  2. Start small. Provide students the opportunity to be successful as a group in a smaller scale task or project before moving into extended, more detailed work.

  3. Determine a clear timeline for the group and individual aspects of the assigned work, that includes both big picture and smaller, more detailed steps. At each phase, plan to review each group’s work and provide actionable feedback to both the group and individual.

  4. Put self-evaluation into play in terms of individual and group effort. Allow this evaluation to be shared among group members and encourage respectful honesty. Take these evaluations into consideration as you assess your students’ final products, perhaps considering assigning two grades for the results, one for the individual and one for the group (p.52-53).   


As seen in the above quote, the purpose of student cooperation is not to have students tackling work that can be completed by one individual, yet is assigned to multiple students. Another expert on student cooperation, Dr. Spencer Kagan, shares that in order for students to be held accountable for their own learning, that “an individual, public performance is required” (Kagan, 2011). For teachers who might be putting cooperative learning in the instructional rotation on a more frequent basis, with smaller more discrete tasks, Kagan shares some useful instructional routines on page three of his article, The “P” and “I” of PIES: Powerful Principles for Success. Let’s take a closer look at one of these routines, Numbered Heads Together:

Step 1. Students number off in teams.

Step 2. Teacher asks a question and provides think time.

Step 3. Students individually write answers.

Step 4. Students stand and show each other their answers and improve their own answers based on information from teammates. When finished they sit down.

Step 5. Teacher calls a number.

Step 6. Students with that number respond.

Step 7. Correct responses are applauded.

Note: A simultaneous response from all those with the number called (e.g. All #4s go to the board to show your proof) creates more individual accountability than does just calling on one student (p. 3).

With Numbered Heads Together students know that their personal understandings are critical to the success of the team and they are able to dialogue with each other as they grapple with new concepts. The idea of a public performance is presented to the students in a way that is unthreatening because they have opportunities to process their learning in a supported environment.

As teachers put into practice strategies that ensure individual accountability the stress many students feel about group work is alleviated. When students know that they are not required to be the sole learner among their peers and they value the individual thinking of all their teammates, the power of cooperative learning is realized. And with that power comes an opportunity for deep learning for all students.


N. Frey, D. Fisher, & S. Everlove (2009). Chapter 3. Ensuring individual and group accountability. In Productive group work: How to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding. Retrieved from

Kagan, S. (2011). The "P" and "I" of pIES: Powerful principles for success. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Retrieved from,1

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