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Strengths and weaknesses of cooperative and problem-based learning

Written By: Daryn Egan-Simon
3 min read
Strengths and weaknesses of cooperative and problem-based learning

Original research by:

Ghufron MA and Ermawati S (2018) The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cooperative Learning and Problem-based Learning in EFL Writing Class: Teachers and Students’ Perspectives. International Journal of Instruction 11(4): 657-672.


This research explored the strengths and weaknesses of both cooperative learning and problem-based learning in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) writing classes. I was drawn to this paper as I am interested in student-centred teaching methods and wanted to know more about the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches discussed in this paper.

What is the research underpinning the study?

Cooperative learning (CL) is where students learn by completing tasks collaboratively in small groups. Project-based learning (PBL) on the other hand, is where students acquire knowledge and skills by solving real-life problems with their peers.

How did they conduct the research?

The researchers used a mixed-method case study design to conduct the research. The research was carried out at a teacher training and education institute, and involved 60 university students and two teachers. Rather than designing a specific CL and PBL intervention, the researchers claim that both approaches were already used in the EFL writing classes at the university.

The researchers gathered data in a number of ways, including: participant observations to evaluate current CL and PBL practices in EFL writing; in-depth interviews with teachers and students to understand students’ and teachers’ perceptions of the practices; and a student questionnaire to evaluate the implementation of CL and PBL. Once gathered, the data was analysed, coded and themed into key findings.

What were the key findings?

The Implementation of CL and PBL

The researchers observed two classes – one which used CL and the other, PBL – over the course of two weeks. The common strengths that emerged from these observations were students’ active participation, their motivation to learn, social interaction (which reduced nervousness), and increased responsibility for their own learning.

Researchers also observed weaknesses including: teachers having difficulty organising the class into well-balanced groups; limited implementation time for both CL and PBL; and with PBL, some students were unclear as to what they should do.

Strengths of CL and PBL

The responses to the interviews from the teachers suggests that CL raises students’ self-confidence and motivation, reduces their nervousness, increases responsibility over their learning, and makes it easier for them to learn. As for PBL, the authors maintain that the strengths included the development of students’ problem-solving skills, self-directed learning skills, self-confidence and motivation.

The researchers also note that PBL resulted in students being more active in their learning, sharing and exchanging ideas, as well as an increased positive attitude. Similarly, the results from the student questionnaires revealed that students thought that both CL and PBL could promote self-confidence and motivation, reduce nervousness, and increase their responsibility in learning.

Weaknesses of CL and PBL

Based on the results from the interviews and questionnaire, the authors suggest that one of the main challenges with both CL and PBL is that it needs much more time to be implemented properly and can be difficult to manage. It can also be difficult to choose balanced groups that work well together. Furthermore, CL and PBL learning can be confusing for some students as they are unclear as to what is being asked of them.

What are the limitations of this study?

  • The main limitation of this study is the small sample size, which only focused on EFL writing classes. It would be interesting to see how CL and PBL compared with other subjects.
  • The research was conducted at university so it is difficult to make any generalisations as to how the findings might apply in other phases.
  • Both CL and PBL are common practices at the university, so the teachers being interviewed may be more likely to view the approaches favourably.

Impact on practice

What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom from the research?

Try to explore ways in which CL and PBL can be used alongside other pedagogical approaches, especially as a way of developing students’ motivation and self-confidence. This would, of course, have to be carefully managed and implemented.

What questions does the research raise for teachers?

  • What do other research studies suggest about the effectiveness of using CL and PBL approaches in the classroom?
  • What are the alternatives to CL and PBL and are they more desirable in the classroom?
  • Do the strengths of using CL and/ or PBL outweigh the weaknesses?
  • How can CL and PBL be used in other phases and disciplines? Might it be more effective in some subjects compared with others?
  • If deciding to use either CL or PBL approaches, how can you ensure that the students have fully understood what is required of them?

Further reading:

Cole KS (2012) Promoting cooperative learning in an expository writing course. Journal of International Education Research -Second Quarter 8(2): 113–124.

Iswandari DC (2017) Effect of environmental problem-based learning on the Indonesian EFL students’ environment-related vocabulary mastery and writing ability. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 7(8): 608–616.

Ribeiro LRC (2011) The pros and cons of problem-based learning from the teacher’s standpoint. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice 8(1).

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