Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 1991, 7-22.

Small group cooperative learning:
Developing a category system

Len King, Collette Tayler and Carmel Maloney
Edith Cowan University
The current research into small group cooperative learning now includes a major focus on student process behaviours during learning activities. Accordingly, there is a need for the development of coding and categorising systems of the prevailing data. The study reported in this paper was concerned largely with exploring how to gather and analyse such data. Three observers recorded three target groups in a single Year five classroom across four small group cooperative learning lessons. The recording involved the use of script-tapes and the category system was developed by inductive means. Given the all-inclusive category system, the study questions about student process behaviours, and the computer applications for data analysis, one potentially reliable approach to handling student process data may have been developed.

Small group cooperative learning is defined as a classroom environment where students interact with one another in small groups while working together on academic tasks to attain a common goal (Parker, 1984; Johnson & Johnson, 1986). According to current literature in this area, small group cooperative learning appears to have educational and social advantages. Results indicate significant gains on measures of academic achievement, social relationships, self-esteem, cross cultural/cross racial relationships and attitudes towards schooling and learning (Parker, 1984; Davidson 1990).

The present view of small group cooperative learning is embedded in Piaget's and Vygotsky's view that group interaction encourages cognitive development (Noddings, 1989). As a result, cooperative learning groups are usually child-centred with an emphasis on group processes, problem solving, attitudes and social development. From the research conducted through the Center for Research in Social Behavior, University of Missouri, Columbia, it is evident that an increase in interest and use of small group instruction prevails in American classrooms. Good, Reys, Grouws and Mulryan (1988) report some of the advantages of small group cooperative learning as follows:

Despite the generally positive findings, Good et al.(1988) report several negative elements reflected in their data. These include recordings where:

Background to the study

Given these findings and the fact that little research in this area has been undertaken to date in Australia, this study of small group cooperative learning focused on the interpersonal dynamics prevailing among students within a group. The task was to gather within-group process data of small groups at work and, from these data, to develop a categorical and analytical system which could be employed to describe the nature and patterns of student cooperation in small group learning situations.

Through personal contact, a local school was approached and a Year five teacher volunteered to participate in the study. The teacher was familiar with small group cooperative learning and frequently incorporated this strategy as part of her classroom instruction. Furthermore, the Preprimary teacher in the school showed interest in the project, was familiar with small group cooperative learning and used this strategy extensively. As a result, data were also collected from the Preprimary class for use during the process of refining the category system.


Data were obtained by three observers script-taping small groups in Year five engaged in cooperative learning tasks across a sequence of four lessons related to a Language Arts project. Groups for observation were selected randomly by the observers and remained constant over a period of four visits. The script-taping method of obtaining data involved the observer recording on paper what was taking place during the lesson. This included recording the interactions which occurred between the teacher and students and among students during each lesson. No audio recording equipment was used in the data gathering. The observer sat close in with a small group where all interactions could be heard. A record of the time where key events occurred was kept, for example, commencement of activities, teacher arrival and departure whilst monitoring groups and commencement of whole class wrap-up of lessons. Students in each group were allocated a number for identification and this was used to track interactions among speakers in each observation. Numbers used were organised in such a way that boys and girls could later be contrasted during the analysis period for differences in input and contribution.

In addition to classroom observations of the series of small group cooperative learning experiences, plans were made for interviewing each student in the groups observed following the series of observations. Interview data were to be used to assist in interpreting results of the small group cooperative learning script-tapes and to compare the observer's perceptions of life during small group cooperative learning sessions with those of the participants.

The pattern described above was applied both to Year five and Preprimary classes. Development of the category system was achieved by using the Year five data. Recent work by the researchers has included application and extension of the category system using data from the Preprimary class and from other classes observed in subsequent studies. In this paper attention is given to the development of the category system and to the discussion of some trends which have emerged from the analysis of the Year five data.

Developing the category system

The category system for analysing student process behaviour during small group cooperative learning sessions was developed by inductive means. Given that script-tapes were made by an observer for each of the target small groups across a sequence of four lessons, the assumption was made that a representative sample of the verbal discourse by students was recorded. These script-tapes became the data source from which the category system evolved.

The script-tapes prepared by the three observers were examined for different kinds of verbal discourse used by students during the small group work. Initially, obvious delineation were apparent such as task elated talk and non- task related talk. Other obvious delineations were task focused talk and inter-personal focused talk, and task related talk with the teacher and task elated talk without the teacher. These delineations provided the initial framework for the category system and enabled the researchers to establish the following broad variables:

The categories within each of the broad variables were developed as they were seen to evolve from the script-tapes. Through a combination of category formation and a series of coding trials, the initial set of categories were established, at least on a tentative basis. After repeated trials, gradually a consistency began to emerge. Following the fifth attempt to form the categories an apparently all-encompassing set of categories seemed to have been determined. With each attempt to form a category, associated descriptions and examples were prepared. In this way, the continual reviewing of the descriptions had enabled the categorisation of verbal discourse to take account of a variety of situations and subject areas. Ultimately, the category system was intended for use across various subject areas and across various year levels where small group cooperative learning was found to occur.

Developing instrument reliability depended on an adequate manual and a reasonably high degree of inter-coder reliability. Given that three researchers were developing a category system as well as learning to use the system, a joint approach was followed. Ahead of a scheduled meeting period, each researcher coded a lesson's script-tape and then crosschecked on category decisions. Where differences occurred, the ensuing discussion enabled both consensus to be reached and refinement of the category descriptions to occur. As well, the set of support examples for each category was enlarged. In this way, over time, higher levels of agreement were recorded - well in excess of 80%. Subsequently, a fourth researcher was trained on the category system and reached an acceptable level of inter-coder reliability within ten hours.

The utility of the category system was thought to be tested by trialling the instrument on script-tapes of small group cooperative learning lessons other than at the Year five level and in subject areas other than literature. With later data from a variety of Preprimary small group tasks, from Year seven Mathematics lessons, and from Year four Science lessons the category system substantially was proving usable. Minor additional points related to some of the category descriptions and category examples had been included since the initial development. In addition, several new categories had been added to the monitoring variable including one being added to the variable "group task". As a result the category system was found to be appropriate across various subject areas and year levels.

A list of the categories developed as a result of the Year five study and grouped according to the broad variables is presented in Table 1. This category system, including descriptions and some examples, is presented in Appendix 1.

Table 1: Small group work: Categories of interaction

Group task: Attending to/ fulfilling the task
Clarifying procedure/s
Monitoring group progress
Materials management
Non-task related
Determining tasks/actions
Accepting tasks/actions
Rejecting tasks/actions
Clarifying content
Negotiating, arguing, reacting to content
Agreeing on content
Rejecting content
Writing, recording, drawing
Checking, reviewing
Group dynamics: How the group functions
Decision-making processes
Challenging group member(s)
Positive response to challenge
Negative response to challenge
Assigning role/s
Seeking approval
Feedback positive
Feedback negative
Self evaluation - positive
Self evaluation - negative
Monitoring group behaviour
Monitoring group membership.
Whole class introduction
Recapitulation from previous lessons
Task content/procedures
Student question/ suggestion
Clarification of task
Recapitulation of task/s
Whole class wrap-up
Reviewing of task
Giving directions
Monitoring of group or whole class
Checks progress of task
Suggests content/ solution
Feedback about content
Feedback about group performance
Giving directions
Group task content/ procedures

Generating specific questions

Data gathered in the Year five classroom and coded using the category system described above were considered by the researchers with a view to describing what actually occurred during small group cooperative learning time in this class. During the first stage, specific questions were generated to highlight cooperative small group learning processes and to guide the analysis of data. Because three data sets were available from the classroom, opportunities for comparing and contrasting the operation of the groups observed were apparent and were to be exploited. However, the major consideration during this period was to obtain a detailed description of what actually occurred during small group cooperative learning time for each of the groups observed. With this in mind, the following questions were generated to guide the analysis.

  1. What are the frequencies and types of student-student contacts during cooperative small group activities?

  2. What are the frequencies and types of teacher-student and student-teacher contacts during cooperative small group activities?

  3. How do the contacts vary,

    1. from student to student within the group;
    2. for each student across the four sessions;
    3. with respect to the gender of contributors in each group;
    4. in comparison with each student's own views on how he or she contributed to the group;
    5. in comparison with other group members' views on how each student contributed;
    6. in comparison with the teacher's views of how each student contributed to the group; and
    7. from one group to the next within a class?

  4. With particular reference to the variables "Group Task", "Group Dynamics" and "Monitoring",

    1. what are the relative frequencies of usage of task, dynamics and monitoring for each group;
    2. what are the relative frequencies of usage of the categories within task, dynamics and monitoring for each group;
    3. how do the groups within each class vary in their relative usage of these variables; and
    4. how do the students within each group vary in their relative usage of the categories within the three variables?

  5. With respect to each teacher's contact with the observation groups,

    1. are there differences in the frequencies and types of contact with each observation group;
    2. are there differences in the frequencies and types of contact with boys versus girls in the groups; and
    3. are there differences in the types of contact made to students or by students within each group?
Given the detail of these questions, and the implied relationship between the categorical data and the interview data, full discussion of results with respect to cooperative learning in this class will not be addressed in this paper because the primary focus here is on describing the development of the category system. Rather, some preliminary findings and key trends in the data are described after the description of the data analysis procedures below.

Data analysis

Data coded against variables on the category system were assigned a code to indicate the particular group and were entered into computer files for analysis using the SAS programme. For example, an entry "GT0812" indicated the use of the variable "group task", the category "clarifying content", the speaker "student number one", and the addressee "student number two". In the case of speaker and addressee, female group members were assigned a code from one group of numbers while male members were assigned a code from another. In this way, the contributions of males and females in each of the groups were monitored for similarities and differences. Each group in the study comprised equal numbers of males and females.

An SAS data input/verification programme was written so that the data files for each group could be used to generate relative frequencies and cross tabulations in regard to the questions being addressed. This programme arranged all headings and labels for subsequent print-outs of frequencies and cross-tabulation materials in such a way that consideration of results was facilitated.

Once the data files were entered into the SAS programme, the initial print-out was used to check against the original coding sheets in order to ensure that all entries were correct. Further SAS codes were then written to handle the frequency count and cross-tabulation statistics necessary to quantify data for the questions being addressed.

Preliminary results

The discussion below highlights key directions established in the data analysed from this classroom. A subsequent paper is being prepared in which full presentation and discussion of the results are given, and consideration of the interview materials gathered as part of this preliminary investigation is compared with the results generated from analysis of the script-taped

Patterns highlighted below include relative usage of the variables and of particular categories, the gender of speakers and listeners, the usage of variables according to gender, and evidence of the relative dominance of individual members in each of the groups. These patterns were highlighted after some 1500 observations of the groups were analysed.

Perhaps the most outstanding finding in consideration of the results was the high degree of task related behaviour demonstrated by the three groups studied in this classroom. The researchers noted this trend during the observation periods as the groups in this class seemed actively engaged in the development of their stories.

In terms of relative usage of talk related to the variables being considered the combined groups spent 65% of their talk engaged in task related matter, 13% in discussion related to group dynamics, 14% engaged with the teacher during monitoring periods and the remaining time (8%) in contributions during whole class introductions and wrap-up periods.

Each of the three groups analysed recorded slightly differing usage of the major variables coded. Two of the three groups were consistent in relative usage of the task dynamics and monitoring variables while one group demonstrated a higher usage of dynamics utterances and relatively lower usage of task talk and of engagement with the teacher in monitoring situations. No apparent reason emerged for this pattern in one group except that one of the girls in the particular group appeared to be less accepted than the other members and was recorded as making 60% of the challenges during the observation time.

In terms of the appearance of particular categories in the data, again some consistency was apparent across the groups. With respect to "group task" interactions, proposing, clarifying content, negotiating, writing and checking were the dominant categories used by the students. One group recorded a higher incidence of clarifying procedures, and this occurred mainly during the second session. Why such a trend emerged is not immediately apparent but closer analysis of each session and of each student's responses in the sessions may assist in accounting for such patterns.

The three groups observed varied more on relative usage of the group dynamics categories. No consistent pattern across the groups emerged for this variable which perhaps supports the notion that group dynamics depend more closely on the composition of the particular group in question than on the similarity of the task being undertaken. For example, in "group one" monitoring progress and monitoring behaviour were the dominant group dynamics categories used whereas in "group two" considerable attention was given to assigning roles. In "group three" where the observer detected lack of acceptance of one of the girls in the group considerable evidence of challenging, of seeking approval and of giving both positive and negative feedback was apparent.

Monitoring behaviour was more consistent across the groups. The teacher was recorded in her contacts with the groups as predominantly checking, suggesting solutions and giving directions. Group three, which had relatively higher incidence of group dynamics talk, had relatively lower contact with the teacher over the observation period. Furthermore, when the teacher's contact with this group occurred relatively more feedback on the content of their work was apparent.

These trends are of interest insofar as they highlight the importance of looking closely at what occurs within a group engaged in cooperative tasks. Furthermore, these variations emphasise that groups working in a class, given the same overall directions, vary in the way they proceed and in the way teachers respond to them.

Some of the variations across groups may be a result of the particular combination of students within a working unit. For example, the data analysed for this class indicate substantial differences in the way boys and girls operated within the groups. Interactions in two of the groups were recorded as predominantly originating from the boys while talk in the other group was mainly generated by the girls. A close study of the analysed data will reveal whether the girls as a whole group operated in similar ways during small group cooperative learning time and whether the boys were also similar across the groups. At this time, the researchers are confident that the category system which has been developed has the power to generate substantial statements regarding differences or similarities in gender in the way students operate during small group cooperative learning time.

Future directions in the study of small group cooperative learning

Outcomes of the preliminary study undertaken by the researchers have been threefold. Primarily, the development and refinement of a category system which may be used to describe the processes involved when students work in small group situations has taken place. Furthermore, a systematic means of dealing with data generated from small group situations has been established. Finally, indications exist that this kind of research may assist in highlighting those behaviours which advance learning during cooperative small group tasks. Substantial refinements of the data gathering and handling processes have taken place since gathering the initial data. Particular attention has been given to the applicability of the category system across a number of year levels and a variety of tasks. Further studies are underway which detail specific processes involved in certain subject areas and which give attention to the role of the teacher in structuring effective small group cooperative learning situations.


Davidson, N. (Ed.). (1990). Cooperative learning in mathematics: A handbook for teachers. Menlo Park, California: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Good, T. L, Reys, B. J, Grouws, D. A, & Mulryan, C. A (1988). Heterogeneous work groups in mathematics: Improving students' understanding of social skills. Unpublished paper. Center for Research in Social Behavior, University of Missouri, Columbia.

Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1986). Action research: Cooperative learning in the classroom. Science and Children, 24(2), 31-32.

Noddings, N. (1989). Theoretical and practical concerns about small groups in mathematics. The Elementary School Journal, 89, 607-623.

Parker, R. (1984). Small group cooperative learning in the classroom. OSSC Bulletin, 27(7), 2-30.

Appendix 1


Categories of Interaction

Category ItemDescriptionExamples


W101 Recapitulation from previous lessons Comments involving the teacher during whole class instruction which relate to bridging the procedures and content from a previous lesson to a current lesson. Teacher reviewing the notion of plot.
W102 Task content/procedures Comments involving the teacher during whole class instructions which explain and/or direct the groups' task for the lesson and/or the procedural steps to be followed by the groups. Choose one who is to be writer, one to be timekeeper, one to be director, one who settles disputes.
W103 Student question/ suggestion Comments and questions involving a student(s) to the teacher during whole class instruction where the student(s) is speculating or proposing content or procedure relative to the group task. What if others in the group don't like the suggestions?
Do we write sentences?
W104 Clarification of task Responses to student question(s) by the teacher during whole class instruction in which the group task is re-explained, elaborated or developed. (Cue: Do we write sentences?)
No, just talking about ideas.
W105 Recapitulation of task/s Interactions involving the teacher during whole class instruction in which the teacher restates the group task and/or the procedural steps to be followed by the groups. Reminder when a group is working well and cooperating they work quietly, quickly and carefully ... One to talk at a time.

Category ItemDescriptionExamples


Attending to the task/Fulfilling the task
GT01 Clarifying procedure/s Comments, questions regarding procedures to be followed when doing the task. What did you use C., Edword or typesetter?
GT02 Monitoring student/group progress Interactions and comments about use of time, procedure, task progress in relation to where student or group is at with task. We are running out of time.
I'll show you the easy way.
GT03 Materials management Interactions associated with the type of material to be used, or the collection, arranging, or distribution of materials and equipment required for group working on the task. Do you have a good texta?
GT04 Non-task related Actions/interactions which indicate non-involvement with, distraction from, or conflict, relative to the task being worked by the group. Goes off to check progress with another group.
GT05 Determining work tasks/ actions Interactions which involve determining who will undertake or who has undertaken particular work tasks/ actions toward achieving the group task. I'll finish the legend.
Who's going to do the drawings?
GT06 Accepting work tasks/ actions Comments by a group member that confirm the acceptance of particular work tasks/ actions. (Cue: You do the map.)
GT07 Rejecting work tasks/ actions Comments by a group member that confirm non-acceptance of particular work tasks/ actions. (Cue: Do you want me to take this home to my brother to do?)
No way, he might wreck it.
GT08 Clarifying content Comments, questions and other interactions which have the purpose of evolving precise meaning, defining ideas and concepts, resolving logical sequence or direction of content, working through a content problem. When we are all together, what can we call ourselves?
GT09 Brainstorming A "flash-in-the-mind", creative ideas which are not definite recommendations for inclusion in the group task. Hey, I've got a good one. We could have a cyclone. OR: In group contributions such as: We live in Queensland....No, India....No, South America. No, Singapore....No, Bali.
GT10 Proposing Interactions in which group member(s) suggest definite recommendations for inclusion in the group task. A proposal may be a logical synthesis of one or more speculating comments, a focused, logical follow-up to speculating comments or proposals. (Cue: Following the example given above.)
Say, we're going on a trip around the world. I've got a good idea - we are in a group and we go around the world in a voyage and the next morning we wake up and we're wrecked.
GT11 Negotiating, arguing, reacting to matters of content Interactions in which the group member(s) respond to both non-definite and definite recommendations for inclusion in the group task. (Cue: We land on an island and we walk over rocks.)
How do we get to the island?
GT12 Agreeing on content Interactions in which a group member(s) agree to the recommendation(s) for inclusion in the group task All agree, so title is written.
GT13 Rejecting content Interactions in which a group member(s) reject the recommendation/s for inclusion in the group task. Dismissal of content from further consideration for the group task. No way, we're not having that.
GT14 Writing, recording Comments and suggestion sassociated with the recording of the content or recommendation/s for inclusion in the group task. This includes the act of writing/recording. Commences writing.
Sketches from map.
GT15 Checking, reviewing Interactions related to the progress of the development of recorded content for the group task - assessing content included. What have you got written down so far?
Hey guys listen to what I've written

Category ItemDescriptionExamples


How the Group Functions
GD01 Decision making processes Interactions dealing with decision making process in the group, including dominant leadership behaviour. Voting, names in a hat soliciting agreement 'pulling rank'.
"Let's have a democratic vote".
GD02 Challenging group member(s) A group member asserting the right to speak, to contribute content, to follow procedure, to request a response or contribution from another group member. Can I speak? I want to finish.
Why should it be your way?
Shh, I'm talking.
GD03 Positive response to challenge Following on from challenging group member, agreement is given, or response made. Shh, she's speaking.
Yes, go ahead.
GD04 Negative response to challenge Rejection of challenge from a member. Ignores.
GD05 Assigning role/s Interactions related to determining who will fulfill particular structural small group member roles. What do I do?
You are the director?
GD06 Seeking approval Group member(s) approach others in group for a determination about quality of content produced/to be produced, or correctness of technique used/to be used. Which one is the best?
See D., how's that for a foot?
GD07 Feedback positive Group member(s) provide positive evaluative comment to another group member(s) about the progress of the group task, an individual work effort or work task/action, an individual behaviour performance. Praise or admiration are included. Our story is pretty good, look how much we've done.
GD08 Feedback negative Group member(s) provide negative evaluative comment to another group member(s) about the progress of the group task, an individual work effort or work task/action, an individual behaviour performance, group membership. Criticism or personal, verbal, derisive comment is included. (Cue: Which looks best?)
No-oo, he should have big wings.
(Cue: Do you like the group Michael?)
Hate it.
GD09 Self evaluation - positive A group member proffers positive comment to another group member(s) about the quality of self work/effort or work task/action. I'm good at drawing monkeys.
GD10 Self evaluation - negative A group member proffers negative comment to another group member(s) about the quality of self work/effort or work task/action. I'm not progressing too well.
GD11 Monitoring group behaviour A group member(s) comments to another group member(s) about, or monitors the behavioural performance of that person while involved in the group work task. Such comments may be either positive or negative and reflect either on-task or off-task behaviour. What's D. doing over there in a different group'
GD12 Monitoring group membership A group member(s) comments to another group member(s) about the relationships within the group, the composition of the group, or about being part of the group. Do you like the group, M.?

Category ItemDescriptionExamples


Teacher (MT)/ Aide (MA)/ Parent (MP)
Checks progress of task
Interactions involving the teacher and student(s) in which the teacher is checking the group progress in terms of their achieving the assigned group task. (Checks) Are you sharing ideas?
Suggests content/ solution
Interactions involving the teacher in which the teacher contributes to the group's clarifying content, speculating, and proposing of content. What's the general idea of this story? Or, OK, what's your title, how did you get that name?
Feedback about content
Interactions involving the teacher in which the teacher provides either or both of corrective and evaluative feedback about the group's and individual's development of content for the assigned group task. I like the way you have included herbs and spices into the story.
Feedback about group performance
Interactions involving the teacher in which the teacher provides either or both of corrective and evaluative feedback about group's procedural and behavioural performance towards achieving the assigned group task. You're working very well here. You've made good progress. You should be moving to your good copy of the outline by now.
Giving directions
Interactions involving the teacher in which the teacher gives directions to the group about procedural matters, development of content, and behavioural performance . Put your names at the bottom of the (group) copy.
Group task/ content procedures
Comments involving the teacher during group instructions which explain and/or direct the groups' task for the lesson and/or the procedural steps to be followed by the groups. Find the page.

Category ItemDescriptionExamples


WR01 Reviewing of task Interactions involving the teacher during whole class instruction following group work in which the teacher reviews the group task, collates group findings or solutions to problems, provides overview of progress towards the on-going multi lesson group task, or summarizes the content development of the group task. (To whole class). Most are well on the way to finishing the final poster, this could be done for homework.
WR02 Giving directions Interactions involving the teacher during whole class instruction following groupwork in which the student(s) received from the teacher directions regarding procedure and behaviour performance. (To whole class). Now gather up what you need, cut up the whole page if necessary. Return the map to me.

Authors: Len King is Associate Professor, Department of Education Studies, Edith Cowan University. Both his teaching and research interests span the study of teaching literature especially that which focuses on classroom processes. His current interest includes student classroom perceptions and teacher expectancy effects and how they relate particularly to small group cooperative learning.

Carmel Maloney is Lecturer, Department of Education Studies, Edith Cowan University. Her current teaching interests include the implementation of curriculum at the early childhood and primary levels, children's perceptions of human rights, and classroom effectiveness with particular reference to small group teaching and learning. Maloney's research work involves the effectiveness of small group cooperative learning especially the role of the teachers.

Collette Tayler is Senior Lecturer, Early Childhood Education, Edith Cowan University. Her teaching and research interests lie in the study of how children think and learn in varying social contexts and how teachers influence the learning seeing and situation for children according to the environment, the structure and the interactions they have with learners. Linking the study of teaching and learning in varying social contexts with pre-service teacher education and on-going professional development is a major focus of her work.

Please cite as: King, L., Tayler, C. and Maloney, C. (1992). Small group cooperative learning: Developing a category system. Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 7-22.

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