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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

What to Say to Advocates for the Gifted

For those who fear that cooperative learning is detrimental to high-achieving students, here are research-supported answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
You can always tell when it's coming. A parent, colleague, administrator, or school board member stands up with a shrug and a smile, and you brace yourself, once again, to hear: “I'm an advocate of cooperative learning, but isn't the academic progress of gifted students slowed down when they work with lower achieving classmates?”
When discussing whether or not high-ability (the academically top 33 percent) and gifted (the academically top 5 percent) students should learn in cooperative groups, three points are important. (For the rest of this article the terms “high-ability” or “high-achieving” will be used to include gifted students.) First, high-achieving students should not always work in cooperative groups (see Johnson and Johnson 1991). There are times when high-ability students should work in isolation from other students, and there are times when gifted students should compete to see who is best.
Second, when high-achieving students do work in cooperative groups, the groups should not always be heterogeneous. Sometimes these students should be segregated for fast-paced accelerated work.
  • believe they are responsible for and benefit from one another's learning;
  • promote one another's learning face-to-face by helping, sharing, and encouraging;
  • are accountable to do their fair share of the work;
  • practice the required leadership, communication, decision-making, trust-building, and conflict resolution skills required for the group to ensure the success of each member;
  • regularly process how effectively the group is functioning.
Over the past 15 years, we have conducted nine studies examining the impact on high-ability students of learning individually, competitively, cooperatively in homogeneously high-ability groups, and cooperatively in academically heterogeneous groups. In these carefully controlled experimental studies, students were randomly assigned to conditions, teachers were rotated so each taught the same amount of time in each condition, the same curriculum materials were used in all conditions, and each condition was systematically observed daily to ensure it was being implemented appropriately. In most of the studies, we analyzed the effects on high-, medium-, and low-ability students separately, allowing us to draw conclusions about the impact of cooperative learning on each ability level. A few of the studies included only high-ability students.
Here, in question-and-answer format, is a summary of what our research demonstrates.
Q: Do high-ability students benefit academically from cooperative learning groups?
A: Yes. The purpose of a cooperative learning group is to make each member a stronger individual. The exchange of ideas within the group needs to benefit the high-ability member as much as any other member. And when cooperative groups are carefully structured, it does.
Consistently, the mastery and retention of assigned material by high-ability students has been found to be higher in cooperative than in competitive or individual learning situations. What they learned within the group discussion they demonstrated and used in subsequent situations when working alone. When you really want students to master and retain assigned material, cooperation is the instructional method of choice.
Q: Does learning cooperatively with lower achieving peers decrease the critical thinking and higher-level reasoning of high-ability students?
A: No. Just the opposite. High-ability students should not be burdened with long hours of drill and review and lower-level cognitive tasks. Their time should be spent primarily in conceptualizing, thinking critically, and developing higher-level reasoning strategies. Cooperative learning is the first step for doing so (Johnson et al. 1990). Structured academic controversies are the second step.
Many of our studies on cooperative learning have focused on the quality of reasoning strategy, level of cognitive reasoning, and metacognitive strategies. When high-ability students were given tasks that could be solved by using either a higher-level or a lower-level reasoning strategy, they more frequently used the higher-level strategy when they learned cooperatively (as opposed to competitively or individually).
In a study by Linda Skon, students worked on a categorization and retrieval task that could be completed using either a higher- or a lower-level reasoning strategy (Skon et al. 1981). Of the subjects in the cooperative groups, 89 percent used the higher-level strategy and derived the correct answer, while less than 1 percent of the subjects working competitively and individually did so.
Q: Do high-ability students gain any academic advantages from working in heterogeneous cooperative learning groups?
A: Usually yes. High-ability students who work cooperatively with medium- and low-ability students outperform and use higher-level reasoning strategies more frequently than do high-ability students who work competitively or individually. We found that during competitive or individual work, high-ability students often learn material quickly but superficially while using lower-level reasoning strategies. When working in cooperative groups with medium- and low-achieving peers, however, they almost always used higher-level strategies and retained the material better.
In a study of how frequently students in physics classes use novice or expert reasoning strategies, our colleague Pat Heller found that cooperative groups made up of high-, medium-, and low-achieving students discovered expert problem solutions while high-achievers used novice reasoning strategies when working by themselves (Heller et al. 1990). The conclusion from these and other studies seem clear: high achievers gain academically from working cooperatively with a wide variety of students.
Nevertheless, many people still ask, “How can this be so?” Looking at the dynamics within cooperative groups, the research points to several reasons. First, learning material with the expectation of teaching it to others results in learning it at a higher cognitive level than does learning material to pass a test. Second, explaining the material to others increases the level of one's achievement and of one's cognitive reasoning; it also increases retention. Third, checking the explanations of others for accuracy tends to increase the high-ability student's achievement. Fourth, cognitive growth requires social interaction and the exchange of varied opinions. It is primarily through solving problems and engaging in intellectual arguments about material being studied that group members experience cognitive growth, think critically, and engage in higher-level reasoning. Intellectual conflict can be promoted through the use of academic controversy. Finally, viewing issues from a variety of perspectives promotes higher-level reasoning and general growth in cognitive reasoning.
Q: Do low-achieving students hinder the learning of high-ability students?
A: No. High-ability students tend to benefit academically from working with low- and medium-achieving peers. In cooperative learning groups, high-ability students initially explain the material being studied and how to complete the assignment. The cognitive restructuring and practice that occurs fosters a more thorough grasp of the material and its retention.
A series of research studies by Frank Murray (1983), further, indicated that while the nonconserver learns to conserve as a result of working with a conserver, the conserver does not “unlearn” information (see Piaget's Theory of Conservation of Thought, Piaget 1952). Cognitive growth seems to be unidirectional. In other words, when students at different levels of cognitive development work together, truth wins out. Cognitive development is not reversed.
Q: Wouldn't the high-ability student's achievement be higher if he or she worked only with intellectual peers?
A: Probably no, for several reasons. First, there is some evidence that fewer explanations take place within all gifted groups, which lowers the level of achievement and retention. Second, there may be less expectation that one will have to explain what one is learning to others. Studies have found that expecting to teach what one is learning to others (as opposed to learning it to pass a test) results in learning the material at a higher level of cognitive understanding.
Third, the research by Frank Murray (1983) again is relevant. He found that a conserver who works with a conserver does not do any better on later conservation tasks than does a conserver who works with a nonconserver. A group of all high-ability students seems to have no advantage over heterogeneous groups in terms of level of cognitive reasoning. And sometimes it does less well!
Q: Do heterogeneous learning groups create academic disadvantages for high-ability students?
A: Perhaps. While the quality of learning is increased, the quantity may go down. High-ability students may produce less in terms of quantity as they spend more time in conceptualizing and cognitively networking what they are learning.
Many high-ability students fear peer rejection if they excel academically. Can cooperative learning help?
Yes. In many cases high-ability students underachieve. Being a high achiever does not guarantee that the student will have good academic self-esteem. In many cases, the social rejection of peers hurts their self-esteem. High-ability students who defy peer pressure against excelling academically, in effect, make classmates look like losers in the teacher's eyes. They also set a standard of performance that increases the effort classmates have to put into schoolwork. Often classmates in turn label high achievers as losers in the peer social system by labeling them as “nerds” and “brains.” If high-achieving students internalize such labels, their academic self-esteem suffers.
Like everyone else, high-ability students seek social acceptance. In order to raise the self-esteem of high-ability students, it may first be necessary to increase the class cohesion and feelings of acceptance by peers. Classmates will value the academic achievement of high-ability students when they have a stake in one another's success and benefit from one another's efforts. Our studies indicated that when high-ability students work within cooperative learning groups with medium- and low-ability peers or other high-ability peers, the high-ability students (1) felt accepted by their peers, (2) believed that class members cared about each other, and (3) were proud of their academic abilities and achievement.
Q: Can working in cooperative learning groups help provide the friendship and support high-ability students need to cope with stress?
A: Often yes. Like anyone else, high-ability students can feel isolated, lonely, and depressed. Their achievements can be seen as meaningless when their parents get divorced, their peers reject them, or they are victims of crime.
Recently in a Minnesota school district, a popular star athlete committed suicide. The note he left indicated feelings of loneliness and depression. He is not unusual. An epidemic of depression and anxiety is affecting our adolescents and young adults. And it seems to be spreading downward to our elementary school students. The stark emptiness of the self and the vacuousness of “me” is revealed when students face a personal crisis. They don't understand that personal fulfillment cannot exist without responsibility for others' well-being.
It is easy to be concerned only with yourself. But when a classmate commits suicide, the shock wave forces us out of the shallowness of self into the comforting depth of community. An important advantage of placing high-ability students in cooperative learning groups and having them work together with peers to complete assignments is the sense of belonging and caring that may result. In times of crisis, such community may mean the difference between isolated misery and the opportunity for supportive talks with caring friends.
Q: When high-ability students are separated for enrichment, can any guidelines ensure that learning is productive?
A: Yes. First, have the students learn in cooperative groups. Second, make the groups as heterogeneous as possible. Students can be gifted in different ways. Some students do well because they want to please adults or because they like to do everything right. Other students are gifted because they are creative risk-takers or they are talented in a specific area, such as mathematics or writing. Within the limits imposed by the homogeneous situation, cooperative learning groups should be as heterogeneous as possible. A student who is a creative risk-taker is a great learning partner for a student who wants to do everything right.
Third, regularly structure academic controversies within the cooperative learning groups. The conceptual conflict resulting from being confronted with a variety of possible answers and points of view is essential for cognitive growth, critical thinking, and the development of higher-level reasoning strategies.
Q: What can schools do for bright children who are bored and uninterested in school?
A: For students to invest time and effort in learning, they must believe that there is a good reason for doing so. Teachers of undermotivated gifted students can structure learning situations cooperatively so that students are expected to contribute to others' learning as well as their own. Nothing motivates more than a sense of achieving a common goal that is meaningful because it makes someone else's life better.
What should the school do to make sure high-ability students have successful careers?
Focus the students on mastery and hard work, not on winning over others. In their study of competitiveness as a personality trait, Robert Helmreich and his colleagues at the University of Texas determined that high achievers—such as scientists, MBAs, and pilots—tend not to be competitive individuals (Helmreich et al. 1986). High achievers in the real world of business, industry, and science, although not competitive, do like to take on challenging tasks, and they do value hard work.
The researchers found that competitiveness typically lowers job performance, as competitive individuals get so concerned about triumphing over colleagues that they ignore important aspects of their jobs, lack concentration and focus, lose sight of the “big picture” and overall goals, are short-term oriented, and become distracted from the task at hand. Helmreich has not been able to identify a single professional arena where highly competitive individuals tend to be more successful. Similar studies of elementary, secondary, and college students (competitive students get lower grades) and of news reporters (competitiveness lowers job performance) found similar results.


It's often difficult to reassure people who are concerned that cooperative learning is detrimental to the learning of high-ability students, but referring them to the research might help. Our research indicates that high-achieving students should learn the majority of the time in well-structured cooperative learning groups. Frequently, they should work with a wide variety of peers. Not because of ideology or philosophy, but because of hardheaded pragmatism. The education of high-achieving students should not be conducted on the basis of personal preference or folklore. It should be based on what has been empirically demonstrated to be effective by research and evaluation.

Gabbert, B., D. W. Johnson, and R. Johnson. (1986). “Cooperative Learning, Group-to-Individual Transfer, Process Gain, and the Acquisition of Cognitive Reasoning Strategies.” Journal of Psychology 120: 265–278.

Heller, P., R. Keith, and S. Anderson. (1990). “Group Versus Individual Problem Solving in a Large Introductory Physics Course.” University of Minnesota, submitted for publication.

Helmreich, R., L. Sawin, and A. Carsrud. (1986). “The Honeymoon Effect in Job Performance: Temporal Increases in the Predictive Power of Achievement Motivation.” Journal of Applied Psychology 71: 185–188.

Johnson, D. W., and R. Johnson. (1987). Creative Conflict. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W., and R. Johnson. (1989). Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W., and R. Johnson. (1991). Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Johnson, D. W., R. Johnson, and E. Holubec. (1990). Circles of Learning. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W., R. Johnson, and K. Smith. (1982). “Effects of Cooperative and Individualistic Instruction the Achievement of Handicapped, Regular, and Gifted Students.” Journal of Social Psychology 116: 277–283.

Johnson, D. W., R. Johnson, W. Pierson, and V. Lyons. (1985). “Controversy Versus Concurrence Seeking in Multi-Grade and Single-Grade Learning Groups.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 22: 197–205.

Johnson, D. W., R. Johnson, P. Roy, and B. Zaidman. (1985). “Oral Interaction in Cooperative Learning Groups: Speaking, Listening, and the Nature of Statements Made by High-, Medium-, and Low-Achieving Students.” Journal of Psychology 119: 303–321.

Johnson, D. W., L. Skon, and R. Johnson. (1980). “Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Conditions on Children's Problem-Solving Performance.” American Educational Research Journal 17: 39–46.

Johnson, R., and D. W. Johnson. (1979). “Type of Task and Student Achievement and Attitudes in Interpersonal Cooperation, Competition, and Individualization.” Journal of Social Psychology 108: 37–48.

Johnson, R., D. W. Johnson, and B. Taylor. (1991). “Impact of Cooperative and Individualistic Learning on High-Ability Students' Achievement, Self-Esteem, and Social Acceptance.” University of Minnesota. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Murray, F. (1983). “Cognitive Benefits of Teaching on the Teacher.” Paper presented at American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Montreal, Quebec.

Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International Universities Press.

Skon, L., D. W. Johnson, and R. Johnson. (1981). “Cooperative Peer Interaction Versus Individual Competition and Individualistic Efforts: Effects on the Acquisition of Cognitive Reasoning Strategies.” Journal of Educational Psychology 73: 83–92.

Yager, S., D. W. Johnson, and B. Snider. (1986). “The Impact of Group Processing on Achievement in Cooperative Learning Groups.” Journal of Social Psychology 126: 389–397.

End Notes

1 The procedures for structuring academic controversies are covered in our training on the creative use of conflict within classrooms and schools (see Johnson and Johnson 1987).

David W. Johnson is Professor of Educational Psychology, and Roger T. Johnson is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction; both are codirectors of the Cooperative Learning, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

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