Investigating the impact of Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies on pupils’ learning

An Action Research Project by Daniel James (Business Studies)

Reading time: 9 minutes

This is an investigation into the practical implications of using Kagan Cooperative Learning and its impact on pupils’ learning.

1.1 Introduction:

In the traditional taught classroom the teacher may provide some instructions or a knowledge based element followed by some activity and a question and response section to track progress. The teacher may also ask questions and expect responses from students; this is sometimes delivered in a differentiated manner where the questions are posed at differing levels depending on their ability level.

As outlined by Kagan (2009)[1] “Traditional learning is either whole-class, with the teacher leading the class, or independent practice work”, as such this can lead to an environment that is not as conducive to learning as we might think.  The traditional classroom creates a more intimidating learning environment where students are picked for their answers, where the teacher is in charge of learning and as such often lacks engagement.

Kagan offers a different approach to this where interaction is an expected part of the learning environment. This need not be at odds with the traditional classroom, as outlined Kagan (2009)[2] “Cooperative learning compliments rather than replaces direct instruction; it is used to cement learning that occurs via direct instruction”.

“[T]eachers believe Kagan Structures are instructional strategies designed to promote cooperation and communication in the classroom, boost students’ confidence and retain their interest in classroom interaction.”[3]

The whole idea behind Cooperative Learning is the act of allowing students to directly interact with their own learning. In this action research project I will explore some of the learning structures outlined by Kagan and report on their impact on attainment, knowledge development, enjoyment and confidence in the classroom.

1.2 The Structures

In Kagan (2009) they introduce the idea of the replacement cycle which suggests that with each academic cycle there is a new teaching and learning approach that replaces its predecessor.  The phrase “It is all cyclical” rings true here.  Kagan (2009)[4] says that because of this replacement cycle, experienced teachers get jaded and “give little or no effort… It is tragic for teachers who get turned off to the whole process of educational innovation”.

The ‘Cooperative Learning Structures’ approach has been designed to break this replacement cycle, getting rid of the need to plan one off cooperative learning lessons and instead implement structures that can be used as part of any lesson. “Don’t do cooperative learning lessons; make cooperative learning part of every lesson”. (Kagan 2009)[5]

2.1 My Approach

Throughout the last academic year I have used my year 9 Business classes as a focus for developing and researching the use and impact of Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies on the progress and engagement of students. The two classes have 31 students each, are roughly 50:50 in gender split and have a range of behavioral and learning needs, they are broadly mixed ability.

Throughout the year I have used a range of Kagan structures as outlined in the book “Cooperative Learning”. These structures were used multiple times across both classes, at points they were adapted to fit the subject specific content, and were evaluated as to their effectiveness.

2.1.1 How the structures were evaluated

The structures were evaluated on a three point scale these were:

  1. How time effective the structure was (Time needed to setup Vs. overall impact)
  2. Impact on student subject understanding
  3. Impact on student engagement

When evaluating against these three areas I used a 5 point scale with 1 being not effective, 5 being extremely effective. The judgements were based on students’ responses to in-class questioning, assessment of tests and exercise books and through observation.

Example judgement:

Fig 1

3.1 Findings

3.1.1 Fan-N-Pick

Each team of four has a set of question cards.  Pupil #1 holds a set of cards with questions on them, pupil #2 selects a question to ask, player #3 answers the question, player #4 checks whether the answer is right or wrong and praises or tutors, or in the case of opinion based questions,  paraphrases the thinking that went into the answer.  Roles rotate on each round.

Fan-N-Pick was used when teaching the topic of business structures. This was used as there were complex areas of ownership and control that the students need to grasp. The setup of this task was time intensive but once set up did highlight student understanding and areas where further consolidation was needed. This structure also enabled all students to take an active role in the peer assessment and challenge of one another and so improved engagement in the lesson. Overall, this structure was effective and once set up should provide a range of assessment opportunities for the teacher.

Fig 2

3.1.2 Find Someone Who

In this activity the teacher prepares a sheet/list of questions.  Pupils circulate around the class forming different pairs on each round.  Each person in the pair then take it in turns to ask and then answer a question for the other person.  Pupils record the answer on their sheet and their partner initials the answer they have given.  The activity continues with pupils moving to form a pairing with a new person.

This structure was used in a recap lesson on stakeholders, their objectives and the impact they can have on business. The idea behind this activity is that each student is given a sheet with a series of questions relating to the topic and they move around the room trying to find people who had the answer (hence ‘find someone who’). I liked the principle idea behind this and  it encouraged the students to move around the room, however with a class of 31 this proved to be a challenge with students shouting to find the answer and all too often the more able students were swamped with questions. The other issue with this is that although answers were recorded and they were correct, this did not lead to increased understanding because the responses were taken at face value and not examined in greater detail.

I further used this strategy following a series of lessons covering e-commerce. This time students were only allowed to ask a partner student one question and as such had to be strategic with which questions they asked which students. The other adaption was that the students had to stick to their side of the room and thus limiting access to only 14/15 other students. Overall, this structure needs time to embedded and strict expectations need to be applied so that no student gets a “freeride”.

Fig 3

3.2.3 Round Table

In Round Table pupils in a group take it in turns to add an answer, idea or contribution to a project the whole group is working on.  The use of a single task sheet/pen or pencil emphasizes the cooperative nature of the task.

This strategy was very effective when used to examine extended questions relating to how a business could improve its cash flow. This activity was simple to set up and the students were provided with an exam based questions where there were multiple answers, each of which were valid. The students took it in turns to add to the previous answer put down by their table and by the end of the time each row (table) had an answer that was backed up and justified. Most of the rows found this engaging and understanding of the topic was shown to have greatly increased among these students, however where rows did not engage this was due to no student in that row wanting to “take a chance” and put an answer forward. When I went to these rows and questioned their understanding they all had appropriate ideas but were initially unwilling to share with their table.

Overall an effective strategy, that if used regularly with student’s who have built up their resilience, will impact positively on engagement and understanding.

Fig 4

3.2.4 Timed Pair Share

In Timed Pair Share pupil A talks to pupil B on a topic given by the teacher for a set period of time.  Pupil B responds with a positive comment – these might be set up in the form of sentence starters, “One thing I have learned from listening to you is…’, ‘Your most interesting idea was…’, and so on.  Roles are then reversed and a new topic given by the teacher.

This structure like the previous one was very time efficient to set up and I found made for effective teacher assessment as part of a mini or full plenary activity. I was able to move around the room as students explained all they knew about the topic to their partner. Students were encouraged not to repeat what their partner had said but they could develop it if they felt some detail was lacking. Overall, this was effective and the only issue was when students did not correct their partners’ mistakes for fear of upsetting them. This is an area that could be worked on by teaching students how to give and receive constructive criticism.

Fig 5


[1] Kagan, S. Kagan Structures: A Miracle of Active Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter 2009.

[2] Kagan, S. Kagan, K Kagan Cooperative Learning Pages 1.4. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. 2009.

[3] Kagan, S. Kagan Structures: A Miracle of Active Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter 2009.

[4] Kagan, S. Kagan, K Kagan Cooperative Learning. Page 6.5 . San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. 2009

[5] Kagan, S. Kagan, K Kagan Cooperative Learning. Page 6.6 . San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. 2009

Featured image: ‘Classroom’ by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0


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