Practices for Student Cooperation, Part 5: Problem-Solving Skills

Maggie Bruski

Looking back at the learning experiences in my classroom that were strengthened by student cooperation, they all had one characteristic in common: problem-solving through critical thinking.  Robert Slavin’s article, Making Cooperative Learning Powerful, the fourth strategy he highlights is communication and problem-solving. As my last post featured communication, this post will share ideas about problem-solving. If you go back and read my earlier blog posts (click for part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4), you’ll see that each strategy builds on the previous strategies, and explicitly teaching students communication skills is a prerequisite for successful problem-solving. Thinking about problem-solving skills, my thoughts go straight to critical thinking, how to support critical thinking while maximizing cooperative learning, and how important communication is to those efforts. In addition to communication, the type of task and its structure, problem or project you have students undertake is just as important.

Student cooperation exists on a spectrum as does problem-solving, and the depth of student cooperation varies based on the complexity of the problem. One could almost envision it on a continuum where on one end students work together to solve a single problem or address a selection of text with a protocol, all the way to the other end of the spectrum where students engage in project-based learning as they develop solutions to pressing real-world problems. This doesn’t mean that a single problem won’t lead to deep critical thinking, all these learning opportunities all offer the chance for students to think deeply, but the amount of structure and scaffolding required for students to be successful varies greatly. As teachers consider their students, their learning needs and strengths and their experiences with cooperative learning, they can consider how they might have students learn together. My recommendation is to start small and then work to more open-ended collaboration. Let students have the opportunity to internalize the norms and expectations around cooperative learning, to feel successful both individually and as a group with more discrete, finite tasks. With that said, I turn again to structure.

Worthy tasks require students to be so much more than simply compliant, they need to be actively engaged in deep thinking. The task needs to be structured in a way that all students have the opportunity to figure out how to attack the problem they need to solve. As teachers work their way across the continuum of student cooperation, it is critical to provide the right level of scaffolding to support student learning. One suggestion I have is to once again turn to collaborative learning structures. Collaborative Learning Structures and Techniques has a dozen ideas for how to scaffold student cooperation, as does CPM’s Introduction to Study Teams (which was featured in the second blog post of this series). I recently came across a new structure, A Protocol for Crushing the Critical Thinking Questions, shared by Kevin Gant on the Intrepid Ed Blog, which I think warrants a closer look. It details specific roles for students, synthesis of group responses, and perhaps most importantly,  a worthy question or problem for students to consider:

Protocol Details:

  1. Put students in groups of 4

  2. Groups should provide letters to each person: A, B, C, D

  3. Present students with the question or problem.

  4. Groups discuss their thinking about the answer, with a time constraint (I gave them 2.5 minutes). Person A writes the group’s answer.

  5. Assign Person C to take brief notes on the share-out from each group.

  6. Person B stands up and reads the answer from his/her group. Person C in every other group is writing a synopsis of what person B from each group is saying.

  7. ALL groups report out.

  8. Groups use notes from person C to evaluate: which group had the best answer? Again, groups have limited time for discussion so that conversation is directed and efficient.

  9. A group can choose itself for the best answer, but if they do so, they have to choose a second place, and why they chose that group.

  10. Person D records the group’s decision and reasoning, then stands up and reads the group’s rationale.

  11. You as the facilitator follow up: what were the arguments you liked? Did anyone not get an answer you were looking for?  This is a potential teachable moment. You can reinforce some messages, alert students about misconceptions, or use the students' answers to bootstrap to the next concept you need to address in the course. (Gant, 2016)

This strategy is simple, yet elegant. When teachers provide structure for their students, they control the output - deep thinking. As I reviewed my earlier blogs in preparation to write this latest blog, I was struck by the importance of how cooperative learning is scaffolded for students and how often that scaffold is the structure. For students to become effective problem-solvers structure is key.

How do you structure problem solving for your students?


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

Gant, K. (2016, April 13). A protocol for crushing the critical thinking questions. Retrieved from

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

Srinivas, H. (n.d.). Collaborative learning structures and techniques. Retrieved from