Gyula Ficsora, Doreen Odzianab, and Scott G. Smitha

aBiological Sciences, McCracken Hall, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo,

MI 49008.

bScience Teacher, Paw Paw Michigan High School, Paw Paw, Michigan

Corresponding Author:

Gyula Ficsor, Biological Sciences Department, 5040 McCracken Hall, Western

Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008.

Phone: (269) 387-5633



Based on information gathered primarily from the social sciences and mathematics courses, cooperative learning is widely regarded as a means to promote active learning and other positive aspects of classroom interactions (Johnson et al., 1991; Johnson et al., 1994; Nastasi and Clemens, 1991). By 1992 the senior author had been teaching introductory genetics for over 20 years and was increasingly concerned that students had only the teacher to turn to for understanding and mastery of genetic concepts. To change this situation, students in successive years were assigned to cooperative learning groups in order to enhance learning through cooperation. Student satisfaction with cooperative learning has consistently been favorable. However, we wanted to show quantitatively that cooperative learning will result in improved scores on weekly problem solving assignments. For this purpose, a controlled study was performed during the 1997 Winter semester with a follow up study completed during the 1997 Spring term. As a result of these studies, we discovered that cooperative learning works only if structure is strictly enforced and if individuals are familiar with the group’s assignment prior to group interaction. The genetics course on which this report is based, is a one semester lecture course for biomedical sciences, biology, and biology secondary education majors (Ficsor et al, 1997). During the Winter semester the course met for 150 minutes per week, including 20-25 minutes of cooperative learning activities, for 15 weeks. During the Spring term weekly contact time was twice as long for 7.5 weeks. During the Winter semester 82 students (88.2% of 93) and during the Spring term 41 students (100%) participated voluntarily in this research. Half of 82 randomly selected students were required to submit 16 problem solving type reports as individual learners during the semester. The other half of the students were assigned to four member cooperative learning groups, submitting one report to represent the entire group’s work. Group report topics were constructed to help students master genetic concepts and enhance students’ genetic problem solving skills. Examples of report topics include solving Mendelian genetics problems, molecular and quantitative aspects of DNA and chromosome replication, how to engineer a cow which produces vitamin C rich milk or bananas with essential amino acids and proteins.


According to Nastasi and Clemens (1991), groups that are small and heterogenous work best for most students. Therefore, the groups were formed based on a brief survey with the following questions: Most advanced chemistry course taken or taking? Number of credits completed at the end of last term?, What is your GPA? In composing the groups we followed the ideas of Slavin (1991). We attempted to have at least one group member who had completed or was enrolled in organic chemistry. Modern genetics is strongly chemistry based, and we wanted to ensure group know-how in chemistry. We found that it was more informative to find out the number of credit hours completed at the end of the previous semester or term than class standing, such as sophomore, junior etc. We wanted at least one person in the group with experience, as reflected by the most credit hours completed. Finally, we assigned a group member with the highest GPA we could find for each group. In previous semesters we tried to take into account gender when forming groups, but the gender classification interfered with our earlier stated criteria. At least empirically, we did not see much difference among groups with equal number of males and females as opposed to groups with a majority of one gender when it came to putting together a group report.


To assure preparation for group work and efficient group interaction, the responsibility of each group member was stated on the outside of each group’s envelope. Briefly, one group member was designated as Coordinator and was responsible for leading the group discussion. A second group member was designated as Substitute Coordinator who was to act in the Coordinator’s absence. The third group member was designated as the group’s Recorder. The Recorder’s responsibility was to bring a completed report to the group discussion to serve as a draft for the group’s joint report. The fourth group member was the Messenger who picked up or handed back reports. These responsibilities rotated monthly during the Winter semesters or biweekly during the Spring term so everyone performed all the functions of the group. Rotation of functions became necessary during earlier semesters when we observed that in the absence of rotation, group members became dependent on one or two group members to do most of the work defeating the purpose of active learning for all group members.


Over the semesters we found that groups work only if attendance for group discussion is strictly enforced. There can be no group interaction if group members are frequently absent. We enforced attendance at group functions by stating in the syllabus and verbally: Two of the sixteen report scores will be dropped. Since physical presence is essential for group reports, no excuses will be needed or accepted in case of absence. Neither can reports be submitted early or late. The purpose of dropping two reports was not to increase report score totals, but to take care of unavoidable emergencies and absences without the necessity of dealing with excuses. These are harsh rules, but doing anything less will jeopardize the success of cooperative learning.


The instructions for reports, presented both in writing and in words, were clear. Every group member was required to prepare a report with the expectation of maximum individual effort. As shown in Fig. 1, Panel A, for the first 5 reports, groups produced report scores higher than individual learners. But as the semester proceeded, we noticed that with the exception of the Recorder’s report, reports submitted by the other group members were carelessly prepared compared to reports submitted by individual learners (Ficsor et al., 1997). We decided to take corrective action, not only in future semesters, but during the on-going Winter semester.

For the remainder of the semester the rules were changed. We had the group members put their reports in their respective group envelops as they came to class. When group interactions started, the Messenger of the group took out only the Recorder’s copy. The group worked on this copy while the other group members’ reports remained in the envelops. Any change made on the Recorder’s copy was done with a different color writing device than the original, so we would know what the Recorder’s individual report was worth before it was changed by the group. Then, every group member’s report was graded as submitted and the four group members received a joint score for their group report (Fig. 1, Panel A, Reports 11-16). For grading purposes, an individual’s score was the mean of the submitted individual report score and the report score earned by the group. During the 1997 Spring term only cooperative learning format was followed. In the spring term report assignments and scoring procedures were identical to the rules followed for Reports 11-16 of the 1997 Winter semester (Fig. 1, Panel B).

We expected that the new rules implemented during the last one-third of the Winter semester should increase individual report scores of group members to the score levels of individual learners. This did not happen (Fig. 1, Panel A, Reports 11-16). We felt that many group members fell into the habit of relying on the draft report submitted by the group’s Recorder. There was not enough time remaining in the semester for the students to realize that lax individual effort would hurt both their individual report scores, their meaningful contribution to the group effort, and their group report score.

During the Spring term cooperative group reports were consistently high, ranging between 7.5 to 9.5 on a scale with a maximum of 10. Group report scores were significantly higher than individual report scores (Fig. 1, Panel B). These results are an unequivocal endorsement of the benefits of group interaction.

Below we will compare report scores during the Winter semester to report scores during the Spring term. We realize that this comparison should be taken cautiously since different groups of students are compared. Yet we feel that there are factors that support this comparison. The grades on the five hourly exams were similar. The same teacher taught the class using the same text, and the lecture notes and report questions were identical.

As a result of following clear and appropriate report submission and grading instructions during the Spring term, comparable report scores during the Spring term were similar or consistently higher than scores during the Winter semester Fig. 1, Panel A and B). In particular reports 11-16 (with the exception of report 15 where there were no differences) showed that Spring individual or group report scores were higher than report scores generated by any learning format during the Winter semester (Fig. 1).

From our experience and data, we conclude that when group members were not evaluated on an individual basis for their preparation for group work, they tended to rely on the one group member who prepared the draft report. In contrast, during the Spring term when group members were evaluated both individually and as a group from the beginning of the semester, the advantages of cooperative learning were clear. Those who contemplate using cooperative learning should be cautioned, that improperly implemented cooperative learning can actually contribute to the slacking off of some individuals. If group members do not work as hard as individual learners, the full potential of cooperative learning can not be realized. Worse yet, the well-founded reputation of cooperative learning as a powerful learning tool may be jeopardized. As one student put it, ACooperative learning is a good tool, if everyone comes prepared.@


Attitude surveys were performed for five offerings of the Genetics course since Fall 1996 (Table 1) including the 1997 Winter semester and 1997 Spring term on which we report here in more detail. A scale of 1, strongly disagree, to 5, strongly agree with, statements were used. To establish a base-line attitude value, we asked students if they thought that contact with others in one’s field is a valuable experience in college (Questions 3&4, Table 1). There was strong endorsement of this sentiment with mean responses ranging from 3.52 to 4.67. Question 5 inquired if cooperative learning in the genetics course was helpful for meeting other students professionally. This sentiment was strongly endorsed with responses ranging between 3.81 to 4.5. In question 8 we asked if cooperative learning helped to make learning more enjoyable. The responses ranged from 3.42 to 4.11, a modest agreement. As one further general point, in question 7 we asked students if cooperative learning in genetics helped their communication skills. The answers ranged from 3.00 to 3.60. We regard the students’ luke-warm agreement as an expression of their sincerity in the completion of this survey. It makes sense that discussion of genetic problem solving issues is hardly an opportunity for increasing communication skills. A critical question about traditional lecture formats and cooperative learning formats was asked in Question 2. The answers ranged between 1.87-2.71. To appreciate the responses to this question, it is important to note that this question was worded to favor a lectures only format over lecture and cooperative learning used in the course. Thus, the small numbers indicate that students disagree that an all lecture format would have been superior over the lecture/cooperative learning format actually used.

The remaining questions were specific to this genetics course, but could equally apply to other science courses. In Question 6 we inquired if cooperative learning helped students to keep up with the material. Reflecting a strong agreement, responses ranged from 3.71 to 4.39. It would be difficult to find disagreement among teachers that keeping up with the material is highly desirable. In Question 1 we asked if students thought that cooperative learning helped their learning of genetics. The responses ranged from 3.29 to 4.22, a modest to strong endorsement. Through the responses to Question 9, with means ranging from 3.34 to 4.18, students recommended that cooperative learning be used to teach genetics in the future. In question 10 we asked if cooperative learning increased attendance. Responses ranged from 3.65 to 4.48 representing a strong agreement that cooperative learning enhances attendance. In addition, attendance on report days was in excess of 97%. According to Tinto (1993), attendance and retention are correlated.


Based on the instructor’s impressions, cooperative learning is a positive experience. Students are engaged in conversations whenever they get a chance as opposed to the icy silence of a lectures only classroom. They ask more questions during the lecture part of the course and often say to the instructor, AI’ll talk it over with my group.@ As one student put it AI loved my group and had more fun in class because the friends I made.@ Others commented: ASitting in a classroom listening to a professor can get >boring’. Minds may start to wonder. Cooperative learning helps to prevent this.@ AI like the format of grading both the individual and group reports@. It appears that to both students and teacher, cooperative learning is an effective means of learning genetics.


Ficsor, G., S. G. Smith, D. E. Findley and D. Odziana. 1997. Cooperative learning in a large-enrollment science lecture course. Proceedings of the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives, October 16-18, 1997, Fredericton, NB, Canada, p. 51- 52.

Hogg, R.V., Ledolter, J. 1992. Applied Statistics for Engineers and Physical Scientist. New York. Macmillan Publishing Company.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., Holubec, E.J. 1994. Cooperative Learning in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum


Johnson, D. W.,Johnson, R. T., Smith, K. 1991. Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.

Nastasi, B. K., Clemens, D. H. 1991. Research on cooperative learning: Implications for practice. School Psychology Review, 20:110-131.

Slavin, R.E. 1991. Student Team Learning: A Practical Guide to Cooperative Learning, 3rd ed.,. Alexandria, VA: National Education Association.

Tinto, V. 1993. Leaving College: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition.

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,


We are grateful to the genetics students who have cheerfully accepted random assignment to learning formats not necessarily their choice and Heather Bailey, Kevin Block, Daryl E. Findley, Destiny Foeller, Jennifer Fuentes, Rocelious Goodson, Ronnell Johnson, Michael Jozwiak, Caroline Militzer, Robert Presley, and Jessica Talbot, who as teaching assistants, number crunchers, or readers of the manuscript have contributed to this report. We express our gratitude to Prof. Mary Ann Bowman of the Faculty Development Office of Western Michigan University for her unbounded enthusiasm and skill supporting this project both professionally and financially.

Fig. 1. Panel A. 1997 Winter semester mean report scores of cooperative learners (#), individual learners (!), and of group learners before group interaction (>). Panel B. 1997 Spring term mean report scores of group learners (#) and of group learners before group interaction (>). For both panels, ~ significantly different from alternative learning mode. Statistics were by Paired Sample t-test (Hogg and Ledolter, 1992).