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Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms:
Students Who Work Together, Learn Together

Lisa M. Emerson, M.Ed., M.Sc.
May/June 2013

There are several benefits of cooperative learning structures for students with disabilities. Students with disabilities are more engaged in classroom activities where cooperative learning structures are in place compared to more traditional classroom interventions. Specifically, in inclusive classes that use cooperative learning, students articulate their thoughts more freely, receive confirming and constructive feedback, engage in questioning techniques, receive additional practice on skills, and have increased opportunities to respond. Further, when students are thinking aloud while discussing, teachers are better able to assess student and group needs and intervene if needed. That is, by actively monitoring students’ learning, teachers are able to redirect groups toward learning tasks and provide reteaching during mini-conferences as appropriate. When structures are in place for this level of dialogue to occur, it accelerates the comprehension process (Bucalos & Lingo, 2005).

According to Stevens and Slavin (1995), students with disabilities are more likely to be at instructional level and have positive learning outcomes when explanations and models are provided by their peers. These benefits and quality learning are realized only when both the general and special education teachers are committed to the learning structures that benefit all students.

Cooperative learning challenges some people’s beliefs about education. Cooperative classrooms represent a shift from traditional lecture-style classrooms to more brain-friendly environments that benefit all learners (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. From traditional to cooperative learning.

From Traditional to Cooperative Learning
From …


To …

“A good class is a quiet class.”


“Learning involves healthy noise.”

“This is an independent task.”


“ This is collaborative teamwork.”

“Keep your eyes on your paper.”


“Ask your partner for help.”

“Sit quietly.”


“Get up and look at what others did.”

“Talking is cheating.”


“Talking is learning.”

(Adapted from Kagan & Kagan, 2009)

Critical Aspects of Effective Cooperative Learning

The basic considerations for structuring cooperative groups include (a) group size, (b) clear learning goals, (c) direct instruction of group procedures, (d) mixed-ability groupings, and (e) individual and group accountability.

Size: Recommended group size varies from two to four students. The smaller the group, the higher the engagement levels. Groups consisting of three students are often difficult to manage because they leave one student out of the dialogue at any given time.

Clear learning goals and direct instruction of group procedures: Teachers who get the best results from cooperative learning groups directly teach students how to interact prior to the group leading their own learning. The assignment of roles within the groups also focuses the students on the specified learning goals. 

Mixed-ability groupings: Ncube’s (2011) research showed that flexible mixed-ability groups have advantages over homogeneously grouped students because the higher achieving students can mentor the students who are struggling with a particular skill or concept. At the same time, the students who are more competent with a particular skill deepen their own learning by applying higher level thinking skills while assisting others to achieve.

Accountability: Students need individual as well as group goals to promote cooperation. The need to feel “We are in this together!” and the ability to rely on their teammates are essential for student learning. Teachers, and eventually peers, need to provide feedback on progress toward group and individual goals. This gradual release of responsibility leads to more engaged and independent learners.

Cooperative learning within inclusive classrooms requires thoughtful planning and implementation to yield the highest impact for all students (Stevens & Slavin, 1995).

Types of Cooperative Teams

There are four major types of cooperative teams: heterogeneous, random, homogeneous, and student-selected. All four have instructional purposes (see Figure 2). Thus, the type of team used should match the instructional learning goals and needs of the students. Heterogeneous groups are most widely used for cooperative learning because they naturally support peers assisting peers, improve social acceptance of all types of learners, and can assist with classroom management. However, all four can be implemented throughout the school year to support instruction (Kagan & Kagan, 2009).

Figure 2. The advantages of and cautions against different types of cooperative teams.

The Advantages of and Cautions Against
Different Types of Cooperative Teams
Team Type


Mixed-ability, sex, race teams

  • Balanced

  • Maximizes tutoring

  • Easier management

  • Requires more teacher preparation time

  • Ranks students

  • Limited leadership opportunities

Random Teams

Randomly formed teams

  • Fairness

  • Novelty, variety, fun

  • Quick and easy

  • Diversity not ensured

  • Potential for off-task behaviors

  • All-"low" or all-"high" teams may develop

Student-Selected Teams

Students select own teams

  • Novelty, variety, and fun

  • Familiarity

  • Easy decision making

  • Not balanced

  • Potential for off-task behavior high

Homogeneous Teams

Teams with a shared trait
(ability, interest, language)

  • Leadership opportunities

  • High esteem for top groups

  • Differentiated instruction

  • Lack of equity

  • Poor esteem for low groups

  • Negative stereotypes

(Adapted from Kagan & Kagan, 2009)

Another powerful argument for using cooperative learning groups is the potential for significant social skill development. Social isolation has been found to be just as devastating a health risk factor as smoking or high blood pressure (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). Cooperative learning provides students with structures to interact appropriately with their peers and opportunities to practice social skills. Social skills naturally occurring in cooperative groups include asking for help, taking turns, and disagreeing politely. When blended into academic practices, social skill instruction and practice take less time to implement. Finally, integrating social skills also assists with classroom management because there are fewer disruptions and improved positive impressions of school and learning (Jensen, 2005).

Cooperative Structures and Supports

The cooperative learning structures listed below are samples of evidence-based interventions that have demonstrated positive influences on learning for all students across content areas and grade levels.

  • Clock Partners (Garmston & Wellman, 2002)
    Clock Partners is a cooperative learning grouping method for assigning partners to work together. Teachers distribute the “My Clock Partners” graphic and instruct the students to circulate around the room and ask classmates to sign up for a time on the clock. When the clock graphic is completed, the students have 12 different partners – one for each hour on the clock. When the teacher wants to add some novelty to partner work, he or she calls out, “Find your 3:00 appointment,” and the students navigate the classroom until they find their assigned partner. This structure saves instructional time and provides for structured movement within the classroom.
  • Cooperative Learning Roles (Tate, 2003)
    Cooperative learning roles are designed to increase engagement and equalize participation for everybody within cooperative learning teams. Examples of roles include reporter, recorder, timekeeper, leader, and encourager. Each team member executes a specific role to make efficient use of the team’s time together. Each role is directly taught to students, and appropriate tasks and sentence stems are modeled to assist with social skill development. Sentence stems are phrases that students learn to aid with clear communication. Examples include “What did you mean by ____?,” “That makes me think of ____?,” or “So far, we have accomplished ____.” Roles are rotated to encourage leadership and teamwork skills.
  • Numbered Heads Together (Kagan & Kagan, 2009)
    Numbered Heads Together maximizes team cooperation and peer tutoring. Teams of four number off, one through four. Each teammate has an assigned number. The teacher poses a higher order thinking question to the class. The teams stand up and work together to answer the question and ensure that all members can adequately explain the team’s answer. Once the team is confident that all members can explain their thinking, the team sits down. When all the teams are seated, the teacher randomly calls out a number, and the student assigned to that number explains his or her team’s answer. Students can respond using response cards, individual chalkboards, or orally. Numbered Heads Together increases individual and team accountability along with teamwork.
  • RallyCoach (Kagan & Kagan, 2009)
    RallyCoach is a coaching structure for groups of two students and is used for reinforcing skills and providing additional practice with feedback. Pairs of students are given one set of problems and one pencil. Partner One solves the problem while Partner Two watches, listens, checks, coaches, and praises. Then the two switch roles, and Partner One becomes the coach while Partner Two solves the problem. Partners repeat this process until the assignment is complete. This structure gives the teacher an opportunity to observe partners and assist partnerships as needed. RallyCoach pairs are most effective when pairs are academically similar. For example, high achievers are paired with medium achievers and medium achievers are paired with low achievers for a particular assignment. This arrangement within the pairs eliminates one partner from dominating opportunities to coach and the other partner becoming a passive learner.
  • Talking Chips (Kagan & Kagan, 2009)
    Talking Chips ensures that all student voices are heard during cooperative learning discussions. Teams of four are given a discussion topic and several minutes of individual think time. Each teammate receives two talking chips to use during the discussion time. When students participate in the group discussion, they place a talking chip in the center of the table. Once all students have used both of their talking chips, one student summarizes the conversation. The team divides up the talking chips in the center of the table and continues the conversation using the chips until time is called. The use of talking chips encourages all students to communicate their ideas and be active and attentive listeners.
  • Reciprocal Teaching (Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007)
    Reciprocal teaching is a cooperative learning strategy that uses assigned roles to assist with comprehension of text. The reading materials used must be at the instructional level of all students within the group. It is also essential that the roles are adequately explained and modeled for the students. The teaching roles include predictor, clarifier, summarizer, and questioner. The teacher assigns each group an instructional-level passage to read. The students read the first section. Then, the summarizer retells the section in his or her own words, the questioner formulates questions for the group, the clarifier addresses any confusions over comprehension of the text, and the predictor makes predictions about the next selection. Roles are rotated so that each student gets an opportunity to practice each role.  The teacher can strategically assign the reader role, so that readers will have an instructionally appropriate section to read.  For example, a reader who struggles may read a section of familiar text, consisting of several high-frequency words or a smaller segment of text. The other option is to have students read silently and then discuss the section. Reciprocal teaching promotes independent application of comprehension within a cooperative framework. 

In summary, cooperative learning structures that are embedded into classroom procedures enhance active learning for students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers. Such structures are especially helpful for students who require additional practice as well as confirming and corrective feedback throughout the school day. Cooperative learning structures continue to support inclusive practices and complement academic and social skill development. Students who work together, learn together to improve academic achievement and social acceptance of all!

Resources: Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms  

  • For more information about active engagement and flexible student groups, order the following T/TAC W&M Considerations Packets by visiting:
    • Differentiating for Success in Inclusive Classrooms
    • Techniques for Active Learning
  • Read:  “Assessment, Flexible Grouping, and Research-Based Instructional strategies: Powerful Tools for Co-Taught Classes” in the February/March issue of Link Lines to meet the various learning needs of students in inclusive classes using differentiation. 
  •  For additional resources on cooperative learning, visit
  • Check out the following cooperative learning activities and lesson plans at the T/TAC Library:
    • Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning: Call number CL14
    • Kagan, L., Kagan, M., & Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning: Structures of Teambuilding: Call number CL10
    • Stone, J. Cooperative Learning: Reading Activities. Call number CL16.b
    • Stone, J. Cooperative Learning: Writing Activities. Call number CL16.c

Bucalos, A. L., & Lingo, A. S. (2005). Filling the potholes in the road to inclusion: Successful research-based strategies for intermediate and middle school students with mild disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 1(4).

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for  Supervision and Curriculum Development.      

Gajria, M., Jitendra, A. K., Sood, S., & Sacks, G. (2007). Improving comprehension of expository text in students with LD: A research synthesis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(3), 210-225.

Garmston, R., & Wellman, B. (2002). The adaptive school: Developing and facilitating  collaborative groups (4th ed.). El Dorado Hills, CA: Four Hats Seminar.

House, J., Landis, K., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241, 540-545.

Kagan, S., & Kagan, M. (2009). Kagan cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan  Publishing.

Ncube, S. (2011). Peer-collaboration: An effective teaching strategy for inclusive classrooms.  The Journal of International Association of Special Education,12(1), 79-81.

Stevens, R. J., & Slavin, R. E. (1995). Effects of a cooperative learning approach in reading and writing on academically handicapped and nonhandicapped students. Elementary School Journal, 95(3), 241-262.

Tate, M. L. (2003). Worksheets don’t grow dendrites: 20 Instructional strategies that enagage  the brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.