AWE Literature Overview

Cooperative Learning -- Abstract

Cooperative learning has received considerable attention as a strategy for students who are a minority in an educational setting. Always a component of an engineer’s education, cooperative work has gained popularity as an alternative to the lecture-based classroom. Results have been positive for both genders in terms of achievement, retention, and attitudes toward learning. Consider the following:

  • Studies on students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses show that various forms of small-group learning are effective in promoting academic achievement, favorable attitudes toward learning, and increased persistence in STEM courses and programs, as well as preparing undergraduate students for the collaborative nature of scientific work. (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1997)

  • Even among those who are attracted to engineering’s competitive and sometimes solitary style, female students have a greater preference for group learning than their male peers. (Felder, Felder, Mauney, Hamrin, & Dietz, 1995)

  • When students adhere to traditional gender roles within groups, group work may perpetuate inequity in a way that causes women to question their sense of competency and belonging in engineering. Instead of transforming the learning environment, collaborative work can reinforce existing patterns. (Mayberry, 1998); (Tonso, 1996a)

Significant caveats are in order. An examination of women’s experiences in cooperative learning reveals the complex connections among learning styles, self-perceptions, hands-on experience with laboratory equipment and materials, relationships with peers, and pedagogical approaches in the classroom. Within these interactions exists ample opportunity for either reinforcement or transformation of the status quo. Neither is guaranteed by the simple assignment of “group work.” Rather, the instructor is called upon to demonstrate a complex set of sophisticated skills with sensitivity to individual students, group dynamics, and the requirements of the material content of the coursework. When the practitioner attends carefully to these elements of the cooperative learning environment and follows guidelines that ensure cooperation in group work, students learn course material better and they also can come to an understanding that they do belong in the engineering classroom.

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