General Audience

Abram, P., Scarloss, B., Holthuis N., Cohen, E., Lotan R., & Schultz, S. E. (2001). The use of evaluation criteria to improve academic discussion in cooperative groups. Asia Journal of Education, 22, 16-27.

Teachers remark that during cooperative learning the academic nature of group discussions and resulting group products can be disappointing.  Often, this is due to a lack of understanding on the students’ part as to the elements that make up an exemplary product.  In this study, we tested whether the presence of clearly articulated evaluation criteria (EC’s) on group activities would alter the nature of the group’s discussion and, subsequently, improve student learning.  We found that groups using evaluation criteria spent more time evaluating their products, discussing the content of their unit, and discussing their task than students not using evaluation criteria.  Evaluative talk and task-focused talk, at the group level, were modestly, yet significantly correlated with individual scores on an essay test following the unit.  Our findings suggest that the presence of clear and accessible criteria for evaluation can improve the academic nature of group discussions and individual learning gains.  The findings from our study provide a practical way to apply the advice from current assessment literature to classrooms using cooperative learning strategies.


Bunch, G., Lotan, R. A., Valdes, G. (2002). Beyond sheltered instruction. TESOL Journal  10.

This article describes the efforts of one university-sponsored project in process in which researchers, teacher educators, classroom teachers, and other school personnel worked together to reform mainstream middle school social studies classrooms to meet the needs of transitional English language learners.  The authors place the project in the context of ongoing discussions among educators as to conditions under which linguistically diverse students can develop the language necessary for academic success.  Four conditions are proposed: (1) appropriate preparation and support for teachers, (2) learning tasks which promote using language to negotiate a rigorous, grade-appropriate curriculum, (3) equal status participation in small groups, with opportunities for English learners to have access to mainstream peers who can serve as linguistic and academic resources, and (4) an explicit focus on academic language development.  The authors discuss the ways in which the project is seeking to meet these conditions, including examples from the curriculum, which centered on four Complex Instruction units.


Cohen, E.G. (1998). Making cooperative learning equitable. Educational Leadership 56, 18-21.

By considering multiple abilities and recognizing competence, teachers can help students of low academic and peer status become valued members of cooperative groups and become influential because of their intellectual contributions. This brief article summarizes how teachers can achieve equal-status interaction within their cooperative groups.

Cohen, E.G., Lotan, R.A., Scarloss, B.A., & Arellano, A. R. (1999). Complex instruction: Equity in cooperative learning classrooms. Theory into Practice, 38, 80-86.

In this paper, we focus on two dimensions of equity when considering student learning in small groups: access and equitable relations. First we ask: Do students who do not read at grade level or who are not proficient in the language of instruction have opportunities to use the instructional materials and complete the group activities? Do other group members prevent them from examining, or manipulating these materials? Second, we ask: How can the teacher ensure that all group members are active and influential participants and that their opinions matter to their fellow-students?

Complex Instruction (CI) is an instructional approach that allows educators to address these questions successfully. In CI, teachers use cooperative groupwork to teach at a high academic level in diverse classrooms. They assign open-ended, interdependent group tasks and organize the classroom to maximize student interaction. In their small groups, students serve as academic and linguistic resources for one another. When implementing CI, teachers pay particular attention to unequal participation of students and employ strategies to address such status problems. The theoretical and empirical knowledge base of complex instruction is the result of many years of programmatic research in heterogeneous classrooms at the elementary and at the middle school levels (See Cohen& Lotan, 1997).


Knowledge Base

Cohen, E. G. (2000). Equitable classrooms in a changing society. In M. Hallinan (Ed.), Handbook of the sociology of education (pp. 265-283). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Pub.

This chapter has three parts. The first deals with the inequality of opportunity that stems from the location of the classroom in particular schools in particular social contexts. Some students will never experience grade-level curricula and an academically demanding environment because of events over which they, their teachers, or their parents have little control. Such students may live in neighborhoods with other poor families and with members of racial and linguistic minorities and may attend segregated “high-poverty” schools.

The second part of the chapter presents the sources of inequity and unequal opportunity that arise within classrooms. I have selected as a contextual factor features of the social system of the classroom that mediate the effects of the teacher on the achievement and the effort of the students. For example, the status orders that develop in the classroom are an important feature of the social system; differences in academic status and in peer status within the classroom are a major source of inequity among the students.

The third section of the chapter reports on a body of research conducted by my colleagues and myself, research that uses a sociological approach to the creation of equitable classrooms. This research is a conscious attempt to alter the social system of the classroom along with the curriculum in order to defeat the process by which educational outcomes mirror the social inequalities among individual, both those with which they enter school and those that develop within the classroom.


Cohen, E.G., & Lotan, R. A. (1997). Operation of status in the middle grades: Recent complications. In J. Szmatka, J. Skvoretz, & J. Berger (Eds.), Status, network, & structure: Theory development in group processes (pp.222-240). Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

This chapter introduces the concept of peer and academic status as local status characteristics. The effects of these status characteristics on a sample of middle school students are similar to those found in elementary schools. The local status characteristics appear to be more powerful in affecting behavior than the diffuse status characteristics of gender and ethnicity.  For those students who were high on academic and peer status, gender and ethnicity had no effect on interaction. Effects of gender and ethnicity were only observed for students low on academic and peer status. For each classroom we constructed an index of congruence that reflected the correlation of the academic and peer status. When peer and academic status at the classroom level were highly correlated, status problems were more severe. In contrast, a high percentage of low status students in a classroom appeared to decrease the severity of the status problems. The chapter concludes with a theoretical discussion of these results, not all of which fit the theory of status characteristics and expectation states.


Cohen, E.G., & Lotan, R.A. (2003). Equity in heterogeneous classrooms. In J. Banks & C. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of Multicultural Education (2nd Edition). New York: Teachers College Press.

Multilingual, multicultural, multiethnic classrooms are here to stay. They are not a passing phenomenon. These are frequently classrooms where students have a wide range of academic achievement and differing levels of English proficiency. Unless strong steps are taken, such academic and linguistic heterogeneity can result in serious inequity for students. Traditional methods of teaching consign some students to failure and to perceptions that they are intellectually incompetent.

Multicultural classrooms should be equitable classrooms. This chapter takes the position that fundamental change of the social system of the classroom can produce a more equitable situation where each student makes valued intellectual contributions and where teachers intervene to overcome status differences that impede learning. Teachers must find ways to provide access to intellectually challenging instruction and grade-appropriate curriculum for all students.

The first section of the chapter begins with a brief documentation of the increasing diversity of American classrooms. Following this demographic analysis is a discussion of the special problems teachers face in adapting instruction for heterogeneous classes. The second section of the chapter, after defining “equitable classrooms,” introduces the dimensions of the social system of the classroom. These dimensions are used to describe how teachers and students function in an equitable classroom. The third section opens with an analysis of status problems in the multicultural classroom along with a summary of research evidence on the consequences of status problems for learning outcomes. Following is the theoretical background necessary for understanding the occurrence of status problems in the classroom. This section concludes with theory and research evidence concerning how traditional task and evaluation structures in the classroom help to create a hierarchy of perceived intellectual competence.

The fourth and fifth sections include detailed evidence on how teachers can transform the social system and create equitable classrooms. The fourth section describes and documents how teachers have been able to change expectations for competence so that interaction in small groups of students is closer to “equal-status.” In the fifth section are the required changes in the role of the teacher and the interaction among the students, the learning tasks, and the evaluation practices. The final section contrasts our approach to the diverse classroom with the approach based on individual differences and the goal of meeting individual needs. Recommendations for future research and for current multicultural practice conclude the chapter


Cohen, E.G., Lotan, R.A., Abram, P.L., Scarloss, B.A., & Schultz, S.E. (2002). Can groups learn? Teachers College Record. 104, 1045-1068.  

This is a study of assessment of the work of creative problem-solving groups in sixth grade social studies. We test the proposition that providing students with specific guidelines as to what makes an exemplary group product (evaluation criteria) will improve the character of the discussion as well as the quality of the group product. To assess the group’s potential for successful instruction, we examine the character of the group conversation as well as the quality of the group product.  We present a statistical model of the process of instruction that connects the use of evaluation criteria, group discussion, creation of the group product and average performance on the final written assessment.


Lloyd, P. & Cohen, E.G. (1999). Peer status in the middle school: A natural treatment for unequal participation. Social Psychology of Education, 4, 1-24.

In this paper, we argue that in some middle school classrooms, students have constructed a peer status order that will weaken the effects of academic status. Apparently, the students have devised a natural treatment that works against the social dominance of the most academically successful students. We report on the effects of these status orders on behavior in cooperative groups in classrooms that vary on the way the two status orders relate to each other. We test specific hypotheses concerning the severity of what we call status problems as a function of the degree of status differentiation in the group‑‑‑‑‑the difference in status between the highest‑status student in the group and the lowest‑status student. We show that the previous findings of fewer status problems in certain kinds of classrooms are due to differences in status differentiation within small groups, differences that vary with the social structure of the classroom. 


NON English

Cohen, E.G. (1994) Le Travail de Groupe: Stratégies d’enseignement pour la classe hétérogène. Montreal: La Edition de la Chenelière. Traduction de la Fernand Ouellet.

This is a French translation of the 1994 edition of Designing Groupwork.


Cohen, E.G. (1999) Organizzare i gruppi cooperativi: Ruoli, funzioni, attività. Trento, Italia: Erickson. Traduzione Anna Lachin.

This is an Italian translation of the 1994 edition of Designing Groupwork.


Cohen, E. G. (2001).   Complex Instruction — att skapa jämlikhet i samarbetsinlärning. In A. Röj-Lindberg & T. Wikman (Eds.), Att lära i samarbete: Samarbetsinlärning i teori och praktik (pp. 31-43). Sweden: Fortbildningscentralen vid Österbottens högskola.

This is a brief chapter introducing complex instruction to Swedish teachers.


Cohen, E.G. (2001). The social construction of equity in classrooms. In M. Pagé, F. Ouellet, &  L. Cortesão (Eds.), L’éducation  à la citoyenneté (pp. 113-130). Sherbrooke, Canada: Édition du CRP de l’Université de Sherbrooke.

As educators move away from the conception of the teacher as the central communicator in the classroom who transmits received cultural knowledge, there has been much confusion over the role of the students. Can students construct knowledge for themselves in small groups? Will all the students in these small groups have equal access to that process of co-construction of knowledge? What kind of curriculum will enable students to develop higher-order thinking skills as a product of their interaction in groups? Finally, how can teachers foster constructive communication within the small groups without dominating that interaction?

These practical and theoretical issues become even more difficult when the classroom has a wide range of academic and cultural diversity. This paper describes an approach called “complex instruction” that is designed to create equitable classrooms where the work is at a high intellectual level. Groups of students work at what we call “multiple ability” tasks that require a far wider range of intellectual abilities than are commonly used in academic culture. Students experience intellectual autonomy as they solve problems and create physical, artistic, musical, and dramatic representations of their understanding. This approach is based on many years of research and development and is currently in use in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and Europe. Evaluation has shown both achievement gains and the production of equal status behavior within small heterogeneous groups of students.

The paper presents three general principles of creating equitable classrooms: (1) fostering interaction through making groups responsible; (2) changing expectations for competence to create equal status interaction; and (3) supportive supervision of teachers based on systematic observation in their classrooms. The underlying theory and research of each of these principles is reviewed. These principles apply not only to complex instruction, but to any attempt to achieve equity that requires fundamental changes in the social structure of the classroom with culturally and socially diverse students.


Related Research

Cohen, E. G. (2001). A shifting social context: NSSE looks at equity in schools and classrooms. In L. Corno (Ed.), Education across a century: The centennial Volume. One Hundreth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part I ( pp. 76-99). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

The issue of equity is an important thread running though a century of Yearbooks of the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE.) Although we tend to think of equity in the schools as a relatively recent issue, it was a major concern as early as 1916. This chapter analyzes how authors of NSSE chapters conceptualized and wrote about equity in U.S. schools.