Academic journal article Family Relations

Cooperative Learning in the College Classroom

Academic journal article Family Relations

Cooperative Learning in the College Classroom

Article excerpt


Alexis J. Walker**

The pedagogical strategy of cooperative learning is an effective way to achieve the goals of feminist teaching. The cooperativelearning approach, including its advantages and risks, is illustrated through an upper-division undergraduate course on gender and family relationships in which student learning teams engaged in a research project. The approach is shown to enhance student understanding and to improve the quality of the classroom experience for both students and the instructor in a way consistent with feminist goals.

During 18 years of teaching about gender and family relationships, the assignments I have used have varied considerably. When I was a new and inexperienced instructor, I required students to write term papers on topics they chose. Rarely were these insightful or even interesting, nor did they seem to demonstrate understanding. Subsequently, I required students to analyze the gendered behavior evident in a television show about families of their own choosing. These assignments were more successful. A number of students evidenced insight and many expressed surprise at the degree to which they had been unaware of the pervasiveness of gender. A significant proportion of students, however, submitted papers of marginal quality in which they were unable to demonstrate a knowledge of the content covered in the course to the degree I would have liked; nor did students build their arguments from the literature in a manner that would have been most helpful to them. Using the cooperative-learning approach, I could have made these assignments a more positive and enriching experience for students and simultaneously reflected feminist pedagogical principles.

Feminists long have called for a change in pedagogy, in part because feminism proposes fundamental institutional change (MacDermid, Jurich, Myers-Walls, & Pelo, 1992) and recognizes teaching as a political activity (Allen & Baber, 1992; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986). Scholars in ethnic studies also have called for pedagogical change (Butler, 1991). Both feminist and multicultural educators strive to be student centered (Butler & Schmitz, 1992) and to make education relevant to students' lives (Allen & Baber, 1992; Belenky et al., 1986). Feminist scholars have called for a pedagogy that minimizes the power instructors have over students, creates an atmosphere of support, and helps students to claim an education by involving them as active partners in the teaching process (Allen, 1988; Allen & Crosbie-Burnett, 1992; Belenky et al., 1986; Rich, 1979; Sollie & Kaetz, 1992). The way to achieve the goals of feminist pedagogy is to create a classroom that is interactive (Allen & Baber, 1992; Walker, Martin, & Thompson, 1988). Interactive approaches empower students in a way that lectures do not (Belenky et al., 1986; Maher, 1985), encouraging them to take responsibility for their education (Lewis, 1995). Such approaches help students to make connections with each other and also have the potential to lead to students' discovery of knowledge that is directly applicable to their lives (Allen & Crosbie-Burnett, 1992; Belenky et al., 1986; MacDermid et al., 1992).

Feminist and multicultural calls for reform have occurred simultaneously with a move in education away from whole-class learning and toward cooperative learning. Although some feminists have written that groups are one way of helping students to be interactive in the classroom and of giving them more of a role in their education (MacDermid et al., 1992; Marks, 1995; Thompson, 1995), feminist advocates of pedagogical change in family studies have not employed cooperative learning systematically as a way to maximize the classroom experience for students. Research on cooperative learning has demonstrated that there are many ways to make classroom assignments more valuable. …

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