An experiment with cooperative learning in two Business English classrooms – the students’ perspective

Eszter Sandor
Budapest Business School, Hungary
sandor.eszter@uni-bge.hu

Abstract

This paper presents the results of a small-scale pilot study of 33 students who participated in an experiment with cooperative learning in a Hungarian business school. The participants filled in a questionnaire and were interviewed about their cooperative classroom learning experience. The paper focuses on the students’ perspective about the advantages and disadvantages of cooperative learning in higher education. Although students generally have a positive opinion about this form of learning, they sometimes experienced stress and difficulties in accommodating to each other’s pace and style of learning. The results also show that maintaining a good relationship with their peers was of utmost importance for the students even at the expense of poorer group results.

Introduction

As a teacher of Business English (BE) in one of the leading Business Schools in Hungary, I have increasingly been bothered by our students’ non-participation in classroom activities. With a few exceptions, they seemed to lack the motivation to learn English, while, in personal conversations they revealed just the opposite: they watch series, chat, and play computer games in English. All in all, they are extremely motivated to learn the language as long as it is not related to formal education. However, for the completion of higher education in Hungary, it is mandatory for every student to have either a B2 or a C1 level language exam. Therefore, our university offers three semesters of ESP courses to all of its students. In order to foster learning through student participation and situations in which students are engaged in meaningful interaction, I experimented with cooperative learning in BE courses.

Five principles lie at the heart of cooperative learning (Johnson et al., 2014). Positive interdependence means that individual members of the group cannot succeed without contributing to the group’s success. Although most learning takes place in groups, individual accountability ensures that students take their contribution to group work seriously and at the same time it prevents free-riding. While students work together on group tasks, they promote each other’s learning through offering help and support to each other. Moreover, cooperative learning tasks are structured in a way that each student participates equally in doing the group tasks. As a result of working in groups, students interact simultaneously, which drastically increases student talking time and reduces teacher talking time (Kagan & Kagan, 2009). However, cooperative learning also promotes social skills development through students fulfilling certain roles (note taker, gate-keeper, focus keeper, etc.), and through group processing, that is, members reflecting on group performance and giving feedback on individual contribution to each other (Johnson, et al., 2014; Kagan & Kagan, 2009).

The experiment

Cooperative learning was introduced in two groups (33 students) in the fall semester of 2015. Students in both groups were highly competent users of English, although they needed instruction in BE. At the beginning of the semester we spent 2 or 3 occasions on getting to know each other, which does not normally happen in traditional classrooms. Then, they were allowed to choose their group members for the rest of the semester. The overarching theme of the course was working on a project in teams in which they had to create a virtual company with a virtual product or service. The course ended with the teams presenting their product and company both in an essay and in a presentation to the rest of the group. During the semester, most of the classroom activities and some homework assignments were designed to make the students cooperate and to engage them in meaningful interaction. Students were assessed on their individual performance in the form of tests and marks on their part of the essay and presentation. The performance of the groups was assessed in the form of points that the groups got on how they completed smaller group tasks. These tasks were either related to classroom learning or to homework assignments. In order to facilitate social skills development, the group members were asked to distribute the points they received as a group based on the contribution of each member. The points they collected in this way served as a basis for assessing classroom participation.

Results of the experiment

The feedback from the students on cooperative learning was generally very positive. They were asked about their views in a written questionnaire and 6 of them were interviewed. On a self-report questionnaire most of them reported increased motivation, creativity and self-criticism, and the development of cooperation, presentation and accommodation skills. They enjoyed working with the other students and took advantage of cooperation in the form of giving and receiving help from their teammates. They also mentioned reduced stress and anxiety due to the good relationship they managed to create with the others.

However, students also reported some drawbacks and difficulties. At first, due to their negative experiences about group work, they were afraid of what it would entail and how they would handle free-riding. It seems that those teams managed to share the workload equally where the members’ personalities and their level of English were fairly similar. Even then, it was difficult for them to keep pace with the others, or conversely, to motivate their teammates to do the task. Related to this, one student mentioned that it was important that there should be at least two extroverted people on a team because without a leader the team loses focus and becomes lazy.

The group processing tasks caused the greatest stress for most of the students. When they had to distribute the points they got on group tasks, almost every time they gave the same points to each team member for several reasons. Either they did not want to hurt each other, or they expected the lazier member(s) to voluntarily relinquish some points in favour of those who worked harder, and when it did not happen, they did not go into conflict over the issue. Some of them felt that they did not have the right to tell “a stranger” to work harder. On the other hand, they mentioned that a team member’s poorer contribution might have been the result of lack of time or other personal problems and they did not want to penalize each other for that.

Personality issues also affected group work. In one of the teams, a member behaved in a contemptuous manner towards another member, which had a very negative effect on cooperation. Despite noticing it, the other two members did not intervene because they did not feel it was important. It seems that they did not want to stand up for the suffering teammate and confront a student who had a stronger personality and spoke better English.

Students’ opinion differed on the usefulness of cooperative roles. Some of them felt that it was good that somebody reminded them to stay focused and urged more dominant members to step back and listen to slower or more introverted members, but others clearly felt these roles to be superfluous.

Conclusion

The students enjoyed this form of learning. It was clearly different from anything else they experienced in the college and in the interviews and questionnaires they reported more advantages than disadvantages. They liked their team mates and the whole group, therefore they went to great lengths to register for the same course for all the three semesters. Three months after our last lesson together they still miss the lessons and each other. Cooperative learning in their case seems to have achieved what the literature claims cooperative learning does: it created greater commitment, greater engagement and better relationship with peers and the teacher (Johnson, et al., 2014).

References

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T. and Smith, K. A. 2014. Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 25/3,4. 85-118
Kagan, S. and Kagan, M. 2009. Kagan cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing

URN

http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-24

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