Toolkit Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning – highly structured student group work in digital settings


Active learning in student groups may increase student learning, well-being, and retention (Loh & Ang, 2020; Møgelvang & Nylehn, 2022). However, despite many good reasons to implement student groups, ensuring both good student group work processes and outcomes is not always easy. To increase student group work success, cooperative learning (CL) proposes that group members should be both positively interdependent and individually accountable (Millis & Cottell, 1998). When students are positively interdependent, they need to cooperate to complete the task and have both a mutual gain and a shared goal. That students are individually accountable means that each student is accountable to prevent social loafing, also known as free-riding behavior. To achieve these goals, both student groups and group tasks need to be highly structured by the teacher, making CL a conscious and systematic approach to student group work. This approach will not only increase the probability that all students will experience successful group work experiences and outcomes, but it will also provide teachers with tools to evaluate and adjust the CL strategies used.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many students reported lack of student belonging and motivation and experienced increasingly learning difficulties and loneliness (Børve et al., 2021). To mitigate these challenges, higher education was encouraged to implement student groups and meeting places. As a response to this call and an interest in trying out CL as a teaching and learning strategy, we implemented a range of digital CL elements in a large undergraduate biology course (Møgelvang et al., 2023).


The implementation of CL elements in a digital setting had numerous objectives. First, we wished to examine if the CL elements selected were suited for undergraduate biology students. Second, we were interested in finding out if these CL elements would work in a digital setting. Third, we aimed to increase the students’ belonging, confidence and acquisition of generic skills such as cooperation, academic writing, and problem-solving while reducing loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Teaching resources
Numerical competency
Web-based platform


We implemented CL elements in a large undergraduate biology course in Norway with approximately 85 students. We set our project in a digital setting, i.e., in Zoom and Zoom breakout rooms, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring semester 2021. However, based on our experience we believe that many other courses in higher education, both within and outside STEM fields and both belonging to digital and traditional settings, may benefit from CL teaching and learning strategies.


When implementing CL elements one can choose among many options (Millis & Cottell, 1998). In our project, we included cooperation as a learning objective in the course description. Then, we formed 20 long-term heterogeneous “home groups” of four students based on gender, age, and study program. We also asked the groups to draw up group contracts and implemented “jigsaw” as the key CL structure throughout the project (Box 1). In jigsaw structures each group member takes responsibility for learning a specific part of a complex whole and teaching it to the rest of the group. This way the group, by working together, put all the pieces of the jigsaw together (Millis & Cottell, 1998). In our experience these elements worked well among undergraduate biology students. In a digital setting where the threshold to initiate dialog seems higher than in a physical setting, we noticed that the implementation of long-term groups was particularly important. Belonging to a fixed group seemingly increased a feeling of personal safety and the students eventually engaged in many group discussions.

This figure shows the steps of the implementation of the jigsaw in cooperative learning

Box 1. Implemented jigsaw structure

Other considerations

The implementation of CL elements is dependent on teacher competence and willingness, at least to a certain extent. Teachers need to learn what CL entails and how to facilitate CL and spend time on structuring and preparing the CL groups and lessons. As with all new things, this takes time to learn, but practice makes perfect 🙂 . Further, the time spent on preparations is saved during class and many of the teaching and learning resources may be reused. Although our project was limited to digital CL in a large biology course in Norway, our experiences may be relevant to higher education institutions planning digital courses in general.

Additional resources

Resources for teachers who are interested in learning more about CL may be found in:

Davidson, N. (2021), Pioneering perspectives in cooperative learning. Theory, research, and classroom practice for diverse approaches to CL. Routledge.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T. & Smith, K. A. (1991). Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Minnesota: Interaction Book Company

Millis, B. J. (2010). Cooperative Learning in Higher Education. Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC

Millis, B. J., & Cottell, P. G. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty. American Council on Education/Oryx.


Børve, K., Straume, K., Smith, R., Surén, P., Samdal, O., & Hågensen, E. (2021). Tiltak for oppfølging av studenter ved fagskoler, høyskoler og universiteter under koronoapandemien

Loh, R. C.-Y., & Ang, C.-S. (2020). Unravelling Cooperative Learning in Higher Education. Research in Social Sciences and Technology, 5(2), 22-39.

Millis, B. J., & Cottell, P. G. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty. American Council on Education/Oryx.

Møgelvang, A., & Nyléhn, J. (2022). Co-operative Learning in Undergraduate Mathematics and Science Education: A Scoping Review. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education.

Møgelvang, A., Vandvik, V., Ellingsen, S., Strømme, C. B., & Cotner, S. (2023). Cooperative learning goes online: teaching and learning intervention in a digital environment impacts psychosocial outcomes in biology students. International Journal of Educational Research, 117, 102114.


  • Anja Møgelvang