The Impact of Cooperative Learning on English as a Foreign Language Tertiary Learners' Social Skills

Article excerpt

The aim in tertiary education is to develop students' knowledge and skills not only in the academic but also in the social domain so that they can meet the requirements of society and make a useful contribution to their professions in the future. Working conditions in professions now involve a more intensive division of labor and exchange of information than was once the case. This increasingly demands cooperation and communication skills, the lack of which has become a common stressor among tertiary students (Kocak, 2008; Li, Lin, Bray, & Kehle, 2005) and is considered to be the most frequent reason for a person to be fired from his or her first job (Kagan & Kagan, 2009). It has been indicated in recent studies that good interpersonal skills and a sense of community and involvement developed at college greatly benefit students' successful transition into the workplace (Nauert, 2011). In view of this, it is important that tertiary students improve their social skills at college and understand the true value of cooperation and teamwork. However, fostering these social skills is rarely emphasized in formal tertiary curricula. Cooperative learning (CL) may provide a solution.

CL is defined as "the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning" (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1998, p. 5), and has positive interdependence as its fundamental principle (Hornby, 2009; Kagan & Kagan, 2009; Slavin, 1995). Positive interdependence is linked to cooperation and promotive interaction, whereby group members encourage and facilitate each other's effort for positive learning outcomes, so that no one can succeed unless all group members succeed. This principle can be structured by maintaining mutual goals, team rewards, divisible learning resources, and individual accountability in CL groups.

I found in an extensive literature review that CL not only serves as an effective instructional technique for increasing students' academic achievement, but also brings about a wide array of positive social outcomes related to interpersonal relations, teamwork skills, affective and psychological health, self-confidence, problem solving, empathy, equality, and a caring and supportive learning environment (Johnson et al., 1998; Kagan & Kagan, 2009; Kocak, 2008). CL is also considered (see Dornyei, 2001; Jacobs & Goh, 2007) an effective approach to teaching English as a foreign language (EFL). However, in a database search I found only four studies--none of which was in China--in which the effectiveness of the CL approach was compared with that of traditional whole-class instruction in developing EFL learners' social skills.

Gomleksiz (2007) carried out a 4-week study with 66 EFL learners in a Turkish university and found that, in comparison with traditional instruction, CL had a positive effect on students' attitudes toward learning English and on promoting peer interaction. In Thailand, Waugh, Bowering, and Chayarathee (2005) compared the impact of CL versus traditional teaching on 96 Grade 6 Thai students, with an intervention of 16 hours' duration. Results provided evidence to support the use of CL for the improvement of students' attitudes and behavior towards learning English. Findings of a 1-year comparative study conducted with 30 secondary school EFL learners in Hong Kong showed that students in CL groups used English more often to assist them in the accomplishment of tasks and to provide interpersonal support than did students in traditional classrooms (Sachs, Candlin, & Rose, 2003). In contrast, results of a 10-week comparative study conducted by Ghaith (2003), with 56 Lebanese high school EFL learners, revealed no differences between the two methods in their effect on students' academic self-esteem and feelings of school alienation.

Aim in Current Study

Previous research has been focused on adapting the CL approach to English teaching at the tertiary level in China (see Ning, 2011), and examining its impact on learners' English language proficiency (see Ning & Hornby, 2010), learning motivation, and social skills (see Ning, 2010), in comparison with traditional teacher-centered whole-class instruction. …