QJER logo 2
[ Contents Vol 9, 1993 ] [ QJER Home ]

Co-operative Learning Environments: Providing the means to higher self-efficacy and achievement in the classroom

Beverley Moriarty
University of Central Queensland
An examination of the association between the learning environment and achievement has provided valuable and original insight into the effects of co-operative learning environments. It has been found that students' levels of self-efficacy as well as their behaviour patterns and effort in the classroom are affected by the nature of the learning environment. In a study involvement seven Year 5 classes (n=179) students aged 9 to 10 years), co-operative learning led to higher levels of self-efficacy. The problems encountered when students had previously developed lower levels of self-efficacy and higher levels of off-task behaviour were overcome by having the students change to co-operative learning. Conversely, students who worked co-operatively for a time subsequently demonstrated that they were better prepared to cope under competitive conditions.

Introduction to the study

Research into co-operative learning environments and student achievement has a long history (Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson & Skon, 1981). Self-efficacy theory has, until recently, been a separate issue. It is now recognised, however, that self-efficacy is not only closely related to achievement but also associated with the nature of the learning environment (Moriarty, 1991a).

The purpose of the present study is to examine the connection between self-efficacy and achievement in relation to the learning environment. It is hypothesised that self-efficacy increases under particular co-operative learning conditions, thus leading to higher levels of achievement than under competitive or individualistic learning conditions. The results of the study have implications for teachers in the ways that they structure the learning environment to increase students' levels of self-efficacy and give their students the confidence needed to increase achievement.

Co-operative learning environments and self-efficacy theory

Research has shown that co-operative learning has consistent and positive effects on social connectedness (Cotton & Cook, 1982; Johnson et al, 1981; Slavin, 1977). Perhaps more importantly, Slavin found that previous research strongly supported co-operative reward structures for greater contentment and motivation among group members. When the learning environment is associated with the active involvement of the students, the participants are more likely to derive pleasure and satisfaction from their learning (Fry & Coe, 1980). Apart from student participation, co-operative learning environments can also be characterised by students making their individual contributions towards group goals as well as helping one another. Students have a greater opportunity to have difficult work re-explained when they participate in co-operative group activities (Freeman & Freeman, 1991). This type of focused participation has been associated with higher levels of task-related interaction among students (Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 1986), which may partly account for the higher degree of motivation that Slavin found among students working co-operatively.

Slavin's (1977) examination of the laboratory and laboratory-like research into interpersonal reward structures, also led him to conclude that cooperative learning environments were more effective in promoting achievement when the participants had worthwhile information or skills to share or retain. In many of the studies in which co-operative learning environments were found to be less effective, the participants were completing identical tasks and the group produce was simply a combination of their individual results. In these situations, none of the participants contributed anything which was different from that which the other participants contributed. The alternative is to have each member of a group complete a different task, the achievement of which is a necessary requisite for the attainment of the group goal. This greater responsibility on the individual members of the group is likely to increase the perceived value of each member's participation.

Johnson and Johnson (1987,1991) have also more recently listed individual accountability as an important element for effective co-operative work. Slavin (1987a, 1987b, 1988, 1989) has also continued to maintain that the elements essential for gains in achievement under co-operation are individual accountability, group goals and student interaction.

Over an extended period, environments which promote high self-efficacy and high achievement are likely to be more effective than environments which promote high achievement alone. Students who have high levels of self-efficacy, that is, students who realise that they are achieving well and that further efforts will also be worthwhile are likely to continue to succeed. Equally successful students who do not consider that they have performed well are less likely to maintain their efforts in an environment in which they believe that future efforts will not lead to success. High achievement may be difficult to sustain, therefore, unless it is accompanied by high self-efficacy.

Within their learning environments, students are continually confronted with information about their performance attainments, they witness the performances of other students, they receive verbal feedback or assurances about their capabilities and they are constantly subject to their own particular emotional states. Students use information from these four main sources to make inferences about their ability to perform at certain levels and thus gain knowledge about their efficacy (Bandura, 1986). It is the performance attainments, however, which are the most influential because they are based on actual proficiency experiences. Bandura's theory of self-efficacy explains how the judgments that people make about their capabilities can lead to success or failure and can affect the amount of effort that they are prepared to invest in order to succeed. The level of a student's self-efficacy, therefore, is an important variable which is related to how hard the student tries and, as a result, his or her degree of achievement in the classroom.

There is a distinction between the way that individuals judge their ability depending on the environmental conditions (Nicholls, 1984). Non-competitive learning environments are associated with individuals judging their abilities in reference to their own perceived mastery. The more that they think they have learned, the more competent they feel. Elliott and Dweck (1988) contended that students' responses were more positive in non-competitive environments, regardless of the level of the students' perceived abilities. Students in these s ituations were more concerned with improving their performances even when their efforts and mistakes were made in full view of their classmates. Each student can be successful in a co-operative learning environment because the success of one student is not contingent upon the failure of another. One of the basic premises of Bandura's (1986) theory of self-efficacy is that individuals are more likely to take on challenges when they believe that they have a reasonable chance of success. This occurs more frequently in non-competitive environments which, by definition, permit more students to experience success.


As a natural extension of previous research results and recommendations (Slavin, 1977), a classroom-based study of ten weeks' duration was planned, taking several context variables identified as being important into account (Slavin, 1987a, 1987b, 1988, 1989). Under 'co-operation' these included dividing goals into tasks characterised by high means-interdependence which is operationalised by each student in the group completing a different but complementary task, thus making students individually accountable for their work or learning. Reinforcement in the form of praise and reward was aimed at the small-group level for co-operation and competition. Higher task means-interdependence and individual accountability, both now regarded as enhancing the chances of increased achievement in co-operative environments, are more easily and meaningfully implemented in small groups of five or six persons in their social studies lessons. This arrangement permitted the goals to be divided into tasks which were consequential enough to maximise the contribution of each member and to encourage group cohesion through affiliation with a common goal.

Social studies was, in many ways, an ideal subject for implementing research into self-efficacy and learning environments. (See Moriarty, 1991b, for more detailed descriptions of the co-operative, competitive and individualistic learning environments.) The content of the course was amenable to a variety of approaches. Students were expected to acquire certain knowledge to promote their understanding of the subject matter and they were a]so expected to develop their mapping skills. These two types of tasks were treated as main effects from the beginning of the study. The purpose of this approach was to determine whether levels of self-efficacy and achievement varied across environments according to the types of tasks undertaken. It has been suggested that the effects of the different environments could vary according to the nature of the task (Cotton & Cook, 1982; McGlynn, 1982).

Design of the study

Depending on class size, there were three to six groups in each class. Seven Year 5 classes (n= 179 students aged 9 to 10 years) and their seven regular class teachers participated in the study. Five other students were initially included but either left their school or became ill during the period of the research.

Immediately prior to being given achievement tests in weeks five and ten of the study the students were asked three questions which focused their attention on how well they thought they had learned their work (self-perception of achievement) before they were asked about their predictions of future performance levels (self-efficacy). Two of the self-perception of achievement questions were based on the knowledge aspect of the social studies topic that each class had been learning and one question was on mapping skills. The self-efficacy tests were constructed similarly. The proportion of questions in each area reflected approximately the relative amount of emphasis given to each part of the course, as with the pre-tests of achievement (knowledge), which contained ten items worth a total of twenty marks and the pre-tests of achievement (mapping skills), which consisted of six items worth a total of ten marks. (Refer to Moriarty, 199lb, for a complete copy of the tests given to the students.)

The idea of asking students about their levels of self-perception of achievement prior to testing their levels of self-efficacy was based on Bandura's ( 1986) theory of self-efficacy, in which the students' estimations of their previous proficiency attainments were recognised as being powerful indicators of the levels at which they predicted that they would perform in the future. Students' levels of self-perception of achievement and their levels of self-efficacy, as expected, were found to be highly correlated.

The students involved in this research spent five weeks working in one learning environment before changing to another. The main purpose of designing the study in this way was to test whether levels of self-efficacy, for example, became so strong that they persisted even after the condition which sponsored their development was removed. The change of environments also helped control for any teacher effects. The three environments were used over each five-week period, covering all possible progressions from each single environment to another. Care was taken not to draw conclusions which were inappropriate to cell sizes. There were trends in the results, however, which warrant discussion and further investigation in future research. Table 1 is a summary of the pattern of allocation of classes to environments.

Table 1: Pattern of allocation of classes to environments

ClassWeeks 1-5Weeks 6-10
Classes 1, 4 and 6 were from the same school.

Before the study began, the teachers and students not only knew what the environments involved, but they had ample opportunity to practise working in each environment in the ten weeks prior to the commencement of the main part of the study. Discussions were held between the researcher and teachers before and after lessons during this period and also on numerous occasions throughout the ten weeks in which the research was implemented. The three environments had been presented in an equal light to the teachers to minimise any pre-dispositions which could have affected their attitudes or approaches. In addition, about 60 per cent of all lessons given during the ten-week period were videotaped in order to verify that the classes operated in the ways that were intended. The analyses of the tapes also identified that the varying degrees of on- and off-task behaviour associated with each of the environments was associated with different levels of self-efficacy. (For a more detailed analysis of the videotapes, see Moriarty, 1991b.)

Another area in this research which was approaches with particular care was the measurement of the dependent variables. Every attempt was made to construct tests for week ten which were equivalent to those given in week five. The administration of the tests was standardised across classes and occasions and, although it would have been preferable for the reliabilities of the achievement tests to have been higher, calculations showed that the reliabilities (Cronbach Alpha 0.52 to 0.76) were at least as high as most informal classroom tests. The tests were read aloud while the students followed their copies before they attempted to complete the self-perception of achievement and self-efficacy tests and the achievement tests. This eliminated the pos sibility that very poor readers might have difficulty answering questions because of inadequate reading skills. This procedure, as well as the care taken to match items with work covered in class for all dependent variables satisfied questions of validity. A cursory comparison of observed and adjusted means across the two main test periods suggests that the corresponding achievement tests were similar in difficulty. It is unlikely, taking all these considerations into account, that measurements of the dependent variables were affected by extraneous variables, the control of which was imperative.


Under different circumstances and with the availability of more resources, it could have been possible to have included a larger number of teachers and their classes in the research. A larger sample would have made it possible to use the class as the unit of analysis, complementing the random allocation of classes, rather than individual students, to environments. The researcher could not have worked with more teachers, however, without spending far less time with each one. It was preferable for the researcher to be available before or after many of the lessons to provide ongoing support and guidance for the teachers, whose commitments and responsibilities in the study were heavy. Discussions were also held with the teachers at the conclusion of the study.

Prior to analysing the results on the dependent variables for week five and week ten separately, the efficacy of the co-variates was established through regression analysis. The results of the tests given in week five were used as co-variates in the week ten analyses. Similarly, the results of the pre-tests of self-efficacy and achievement administered at the beginning of week one were used as co-variates in the week five analyses.


The differences which were found on the measures of the dependent variables across environments in this study were restricted to a relatively small number of comparisons. Overall, however, the greater number of significant differences which emerged were in favour of the co-operative learning environment over the environment with which it was compared. Even on the comparisons which did not result in significant differences across environments, the co-operative environment also more often had the highest adjusted mean.

The MANOVA for week five produced a Wilks Lambda of 0.85 which converted to an appropriate F of 2.30, with a p-value of 0.008 (Table 2). Examination of the univariate F-tests indicates that there are significant differences on self-efficacy (knowledge) and achievement (knowledge). Self-perception of achievement (knowledge) is also significant at the 0.10 level.

Table 2: Multivariate and univariate tests for the Week 5 results

Test nameValueApprox. FSig. of F
Univariate F-Tests (df = 2 172)
VariableFSig. of F
Self-perception of achievement (knowledge)2.650.074
Self-perception of achievement (mapping-skills)1.180.309
Self-efficacy (knowledge)3.420.035*
Self-efficacy (mapping skills)0.330.718
Achievement (knowledge)3.610.029*
Achievement (mapping skills)1.710.185
* Significant at the 0.05 level.

Table 3 shows that there were significant differences between the learning environments on each of the variables involving knowledge. The cooperative environment had a significantly higher adjusted mean than the competitive environment for self-efficacy (knowledge) and a significantly higher adjusted mean than the individualistic group for achievement (knowledge). The only other significant difference was with self-perception of achievement (knowledge), in which the individualistic group had a significantly higher adjusted mean than the competitive group. There was no significant difference between the means of the cooperative group and each of the other groups.

Table 3: Scheffe F-Tests Week 5

Means and SDs
of achievement
EnvironmentNM SDMSDMSD
Competition537.71 1.788.432.0114.993.43
Individualisation57 8.502.318.722.1813.514.44

F Value
of achievement
Cooperation vs competition1.317.70*0.08
Cooperation vs individualisation2.153.497.33*
Competition vs individualisation6.10*0.823.46
* Significant at the 0.05 level.

The MANOVA for week ten produced a Wilks Lambda of 0.64, which converted to an approximate F of 6.98, with a p-value of <0.001 (Table 4). The univariate F-tests indicate that there are differences between environments on the dependent variables of achievement (knowledge), self-efficacy (knowledge) and self-efficacy (mapping skills).

Table 4: Multivariate and univariate tests for the Week 10 reults

Test nameValueApprox. FSig. of F
Univariate F-Tests (df = 2 170)
VariableFSig. of F
Self-perception of achievement (knowledge)1.590.206
Self-perception of achievement (mapping-skills)0.720.489
Self-efficacy (knowledge)1.070.346
Self-efficacy (mapping s kills)3.270.041*
Achievement (knowledge)26.65<0.001***
Achievement (mapping skills)11.47<0.001***
* Significant at the 0.05 level.
*** Significant at less than 0.001.

Table 5 shows that, in week ten, the co-operative group had a significantly higher adjusted mean than the individualistic group for self-efficacy (mapping skills). Both the co-operative and individualistic groups had adjusted means for achievement(knowledge) significantly higher than the competitive group at the 0.001 level. The only significant difference in favour of the competitive group was for achievement (mapping skills) in week ten, in which both the competitive and co-operative groups scored significantly above the individualistic group at the 0.01 and 0.001 levels, respectively. There was a greater number of differences across environments in week ten than in week five, therefore, and in all but one case the magnitude of the difference was considerably wider.

Apart from verifying that the classes worked as required within the different learning environments, the analysis of the videotapes also showed that there was considerable variation across environments in the percentages of class time that students were observed on- or off-task. Classes which did not use any competition maintained good behaviour throughout the term. Those classes which began competitively and then proceeded to co-operation or individualisation, developed high levels of off-task behaviour when the condition under which the poor behaviour had developed was removed. Conversely, those classes which were initially well-behaved under cooperation or individualisation considerably increased their incidence of off-task behaviour when they changed to competition.

Table 5: Scheffe F-Tests Week 10

Means and SDs
(mapping skills)
(mapping skills)
EnvironmentNM SDMSDMSD
Cooperation534.88 1.0815.343.298.162.13
Competition594.59 1.3311.723.368.511.49
Individualisation67 4.381.3015.082.746.912.55

F Value
Cooperation vs competition2.2542.54***0.94
Cooperation vs individualisation7.09*0.2312.72**
Competition vs individualisation1.3341.24***22.08***
* Significant at the 0.05 level.
** Significant at the 0.01 level.
*** Significant at the 0.0001 level


The current research has much to contribute to the greater understanding of the area of learning environments and achievement. The provision for students to change environments after five weeks permitted valuable insight into the proposition that self-efficacy, the learning environment and achievement are all associated. The findings strongly suggest that levels of self-efficacy developed over a reasonable period in one learning environment, can have an influence on behaviour and levels of self-efficacy and achievement when the students proceed to different environments. Care must be taken, however, in attributing cause and effect relationships on the basis of the results of a single study and when one or two classes only worked in each of the six possible progressions from each individual environment to the other two. The trends in the results, despite the small number of teachers and classes involved, indicate that undertaking larger studies using this type of design would be most worthwhile.

The evidence found in this study indicates that students would be likely to have high levels of self-perception of achievement, self-efficacy and actual achievement for both knowledge and mapping skills in social studies, if they worked in a co-operative learning environment. The length of this study was one of its major strengths. The second five-week period, fortunately, was long enough for the students who were formerly competitive to eventually become established in their new environments and to participate fully in group activities if required. The analyses of the videotapes indicates that the students who worked co-operatively in weeks one to five and later worked competitively, soon began to display more off-task behaviour in weeks six to ten. Conversely, the off-task behaviour of the groups which worked competitively in the first five weeks was gradually reversed when the students changed to a co-operative learning environment.

Implications for classroom teachers

The discussions which were held with the participating teachers at the conclusion of the research were very informative. None of the teachers had used co-operation as defined in the study in their classrooms previously and each teacher noted that more time was needed for planning lessons in the co-operative learning environment. After the initial effort, however, they spent less time in preparation as the lessons within that segment progressed. The teachers also maintained that the students were able to cover more material and to learn more in depth under co-operation. Each teacher decided to continue to incorporate cooperative learning with his or her class when the research was complete. This indicates the value that the teachers placed on co-operative learning once they had used it with their classes.

The results of the study also have implications for teachers who have students with low self-efficacy and whose efforts or behaviour are below expectations. These students would be likely to benefit by working cooperatively, provided that the size of the group is small so that each student can be accountable for a different task contributing towards a group goal and be encouraged to help others in the group by sharing ideas and resources. Depending on the severity of the self-efficacy and behaviour problems, and provided that teachers are willing to persist, the results should make teachers' efforts worthwhile. Students whose self-efficacies and behaviour standards are raised in this way are more likely to believe that they will be successful in the future and this, in turn, is likely to lead to greater effort and achievement.

A positive self-efficacy based on successful experiences in the classroom could be of considerable advantage if it could be maintained over a long period. This would especially be the case when the student later experienced either some difficulty with the work or a challenging alteration to the learning conditions for a relatively short period. The evidence so far suggests that students who work in a co-operative learning environment are likely to develop higher levels of self-efficacy an d standards of behaviour which will help them to cope better under less desirable learning conditions, such as competition.


Bandura, A.A. (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs.

Cotton, J.L. & Cook, M.S. (1982) 'Meta-analysis and the effects of various reward systems: Some different conclusions from Johnson et al, Psychological Bulletin, 92(1), 176-183.

Elliott, E.S. & Dweck, C.S. (1988) 'Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(1), 5-12.

Farivar, S. & Webb, N.M. (1993) 'Helping: An essential skill for learning to solve problems in cooperative groups', Cooperative Learning, 13(2), 20-23.

Freeman, D.E. & Freeman, Y.S. (1991) '"Doing" Social Studies: Whole language lessons to promote social action', Social Education, 55(1), 29-33 and 66.

Fry, P.S. & Coe, K.J. (1980) 'Interaction among dimensions of academic motivation and classroom social climate: A study of the perceptions of junior high and high school pupils', British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 33-42.

Johnson, D.W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D. & Skon, L. (1981) 'Effects of cooperative, competitive and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis', Psychological Bulletin, 89(1),47-62.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1991) 'Classroom instruction and cooperative learning, in Effective Teaching: Current Research, eds H.C. Waxman & H.J. Walberg, Berkeley, C.A.: McCutchen Publishing Corporation, 277-293.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1987) Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive and Individualistic Learning, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Johnson, R.T., Johnson, D.W & Stanne, M.B. (1986) 'Comparison of computer-assisted cooperative, competitive and individualistic learning', American Educational Research Journal, 23(3), 382-392.

McGlynn, R.P. (1982) 'A comment on the meta-analysis of goal structures', Psychological Bulletin, 92(1), 184185.

Moriarty, B.J. (199la) 'Competitive learning environments: Crucial elements affecting self-efficacy and achievement', Education Research Perspectives, 18(2), 80-90.

Moriarty, B.J. (1991b) 'Self-efficacy and learning environments', unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Western Australia.

Nicholls, J.G. (1984) 'Achievement motivation: Conceptions of ability, subjective experience, task choice and performance', Psychological Review, 91(3), 328-346.

Slavin, R.E. (1977) 'Classroom reward structure: An analytical and practical review', Review of Educational Research, 47(4), 633-650.

Slavin, R.E. (1987a) 'Cooperative learning and the cooperative school', Educational Leadership, 45(3), 7-13.

Slavin, R.E. (1987b) 'Cooperative learning: Where behavioural and humanistic approaches to classroom motivation meet', Elementary School Journal, 88(1), 29-37.

Slavin, R.E. (1988) 'Cooperative learning and student achievement', Educational Leadership, 46(2), 31-33.

Slavin, R.E. (1989) 'Cooperative learning and student achievement', in School and Classroom Organisation, ed R.E. Slavin, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 129-156.

Please cite as: Moriarty, B. (1993). Co-operative Learning Environments: Providing the means to higher self-efficacy and achievement in the classroom. Queensland Researcher, 9(3), 15-27. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr9/moriarty.html

[ Contents Vol 9, 1993 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 6 May 2006. Last revision: 6 May 2006.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr9/moriarty.html