Cooperative Learning Strategies

One of the most important elements of teaching is providing students with plenty of opportunities to actively engage in learning with their peers.  This blog post covers my favorite cooperative learning strategies that I have used in my classroom. These activities can be used across all subjects and several grade levels (3-6+).

Bonus: I created handy cheat-sheets you can print out that detail all 5 strategies. Enter your email address into the form at the end of this post, and I will email them to you.

1. Expert Groups (AKA Jigsaw)

How it Works:

  1. Group your students into four equal “Expert Groups” (e.g., Group A, Group B, etc.).  These groups should be strategically organized in heterogeneous groups in regards to student ability.  Each of these groups will cover a unique topic or have a unique task to accomplish.  For example, you could divide a reading selection from a social studies or science textbook into four equal parts.  The students in these groups are responsible for becoming “Experts” in their topic of study. 
  2. You will also need to think about how you will organize the “Numbered Groups” (e.g., Group 1, Group 2… etc.).  Similar to the “Expert Groups,” these groups should also be varied heterogeneously. 
  3. After the “Experts” have gathered to learn their assigned topics in-depth, they can be dispersed into numbered groups containing one “Expert” from each group. During this time, “Experts” will present to the other group members. 

NOTE: The number of “Expert Groups” and “Numbered Groups” is totally flexible depending on the topics you are studying and the number of students in your class.  I have used the strategy successfully with a class of 36 students (4 Expert Groups and 9 Numbered Groups).


Less Overwhelming: The students can focus their learning on one aspect of a topic, which allows for greater understanding of a concept. 

Student Accountability: The students understand that they will be responsible for presenting this information to another group of students. 

Responsive to Student Learning: As you observe these groups in action, you will quickly see who is and is not “getting it.” If you see students struggling to present the information in their “Numbered Groups,” then you can always have the “Expert Groups” reconvene.

2. Four Corners

How it Works:

  1. Choose four aspects of a topic that your class is currently focusing on. For example, you can present a controversial statement or a question related to your topic of study. 
  2. Assign each of the following responses to a corner of your room: “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree”) related to the statement. You can also assign four possible answer choices to a question to each corner. Post these on chart paper in four different areas of your classroom. The opinions/answers can also be shown on the overhead in multiple-choice format, while each corner of the room is labeled as A, B, C, or D. 
  3. Present the topic and the four related aspects to the whole group and give the students some “think time.” 
  4. Students can then choose a corner to discuss the topic. 5. Representatives from each corner can share what their respective groups discussed.


Student Choice: Students LOVE when they are given an opportunity to choose. They feel more empowered and respected and thus take far more ownership over the outcome of the assignment. 

Various Perspectives: The students are exposed to many different viewpoints in their corner, which can lead to a great discussion. 

Easily Prepared: This activity requires very little preparation on the teacher’s part. The teacher simply needs to think of four (+/-) areas that he/she would like the students to discuss and then send them on their way. 

Easy Implementation: This activity can take as little as five minutes and requires no advanced set-up (e.g., chairs set up, group formations, etc.), so teachers can use it instantaneously and then quickly return to the lesson.

3. The Fish Bowl

How it Works:

  1. Divide your class in half. One half will form the center circle, facing inward. The other half of the class will form the outer circle, facing inward as well. 
  2. The students in the inner circle will discuss a predetermined topic. 
  3. The outside circle will be listening to the discussion, making a note of interesting, new, or contradictory information. They are not allowed to say a word at this point. 
  4. The inner and outer circles can then switch positions and repeat the steps above.


Eases Discussion Management: Since only half the class is discussing at a time, it is much easier to manage than a whole-class discussion. 

Promotes Active Listening: Half the students have the explicitly given job of listening to the inner circle. They understand that their turn to talk will come, which is more likely to free their attention from trying to get a turn to share and focus it on attentive listening. 

Great for Debate: I love this arrangement for classroom debates. The physical position of students makes it very clear when it’s time to listen and when it’s time to talk. You can switch through the roles a number of times during debate, and students have more incentive to listen when they are in the outer circle so that they can appropriately counter the points made from the inner circle. 

Peer Evaluation and Modeling: This model presents a valuable opportunity for students to evaluate their peers. Successful student presenters also serve as wonderful models to other students who are not as skilled at class discussions.

4. Circle Chats

How it Works:

  1. Divide your class in half. One half will create an inner circle; the other half will make up the outer circle. 
  2. Students in the outer circle can ask a question of the students in the inner circle. These questions can be self-selected by the students, or you can make your own question(s). 
  3. After a set period of time, the teacher signals, and the inner circle rotates and pairs up with a new student. 
  4. Once the group has completed a full rotation, the inside and outside circle trade positions and repeat the above steps.


Listening and Speaking Practice: This activity allows students to practice active speaking and listening skills. 

Active Engagement: Students are constantly moving and/or switching roles. This variety keeps students engaged and on task. 

Safe/Comfortable: Talking one-on-one with each other is far less intimidating than talking to a small group or to the whole class. This is a great activity to help build confidence in students who are reserved or afraid to speak in front of others (ELLs). 

Ownership: One option for this activity is to have students create their own questions (which they LOVE doing). They really take this task seriously and become entirely invested in the process.

5. Q & A Match-up

How it Works:

  1. Create a set of questions and answers based on the topic your class is studying. Each question will be placed on a separate card, and each answer will be placed on a different card. You can make answer cards one color and all the question cards another color; this makes it easier for students to “match up” during the activity. If you are covering a vast topic (for instance, a chapter in a social studies or science text), you could easily make enough questions and answers cards so each student has a unique card. However, you can also make several copies of just a few questions and answers so that some students have duplicate cards; this works best when your topic is more focused (e.g., a lesson within a chapter). 
  2. Randomly distribute the question and answer cards to your students. Give them a few minutes to read their cards and think about what might be the corresponding answer or question that would match their assigned card. 
  3. Then allow the students to “mingle” as they try to “match up” with their correct question or answer. 
  4. Once students start matching up, I have them stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their corresponding card/partner along the perimeter of the room. Unmatched students are still floating around the center, looking for their counterparts. 
  5. Once all students have been matched up, each student can read his/her question and matching answer to the group. If the group feels that the match is incorrect, then the students can do a little reshuffling to find a better fit.


Versatility: This strategy can be used with almost all content and varying sizes of classrooms. For some lessons, you could make 17 different question cards and 17 matching answer cards so that 34 students have their card. However, if you teach a lesson that perhaps only had 4-5 worthwhile questions, you can make duplicate cards for the students. 

Engagement: Students love mystery and games, and this activity incorporates both elements. 

Discussion Opportunity: When the matched-up students present to the group at the end, it creates a perfect opportunity for discussion. Did the question and answer match? How do you know? Who can elaborate? Why are X and Y a better match? Etc. 

Built-in Review: This strategy is a great way to review for a test or reinforce a lesson that you just taught. 

Longevity: Once you have made a set of these cards, you can use them for years to come, adding and changing certain questions/answers as you see fit.

If you want a printable version of these strategies, complete the form below, and I’ll send it right over to you