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Cooperative Learning Teams: Perceptions Of Accounting Students

By Robert E. Holtfreter and Kristy L. Holtfreter

There is a critical need to strengthen accounting education in The United States and across the rest of the world with the use of cooperative learning teams (CLT). The American Accounting Association¡¯s Education Change Commission stated in their first Position Statement that ¡°Students should be active participants in the learning process, not passive recipients of information...working on teams should be encouraged¡­Teaching methods that expand and reinforce basic communication, intellectual and interpersonal skills should be used."

The above position has been echoed again and again by key business executives and is strongly supported in the literature. For example, Robert Reich, a previous Secretary of Labor, mentioned that ¡°Tomorrow¡¯s workers will function as 'teammates.' Learn to play all positions and win as a team."

Authors of several early meta-analyses of cooperative learning research, in which the empirical results of hundreds of studies have been investigated (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1981a, 1991b; Johnson et. al. 1981; Qin, Johnson, & Johnson, 1995), have strongly concluded that a cooperative rather than a competitive or individualistic classroom environment leads to significant positive effects on various outcomes relating to students such as achievement, self-esteem, psychological health, attitudes towards learning and intergroup attitudes.

In a most recent meta-analysis of the cooperative learning literature Springer, Stanne, and Donovan (1997) concluded that there ¡°is the need for a shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. The message is clear: what students learn is greatly influenced by how they learn and many students learn best through active, collaborative, small-group work inside and outside the classroom¡±. This major study was funded by a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Science Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the National Center for Improving Science Education in Washington, D.C.

Conceptual Framework for Small-Group Learning
According to Springer, Stanne and Donovon (1997), the ¡°conceptual framework for small-group learning (is) rooted in such disparate fields as philosophy of education (Dewey, 1943), cognitive psychology (Piaget, 1926; Vygotsky, 1978),social psychology (Duetsch, 1949; Lewin, 1935), and humanist and feminist pedagogy (Belenky et. al., 1986)¡±. The theoretical notions gained from these fields can be referred to as motivational, affective, and cognitive. Because it is directed more towards this study, only the motivational perspective will be discussed.

To motivate students or others to work together in a small-group or team environment the motivationists emphasize the reward system in structuring the classsroom. The manner in which a grading(reward) system is structured by an instructor in a course will greatly shape the level of cooperativeness between students in and out of the classroom. In a cooperative structured classroom, one student¡¯s success is contingent on the success of other team members. According to motivationists, individual accountability is important because the incentive system used to structure the work environment supports individuals who teach one another and consistently assess the learning of one another.

There are three main classroom structures, each of which has a different grading(reward) system, that can be used to motivate students in the classroom, namely competitive, individualistic and cooperative. The competitive classroom is structured so that one student¡¯s success comes at the expense of another student¡¯s success. The reward system in this type of structure is based on a grading curve, i.e. a predetermined set of A¡¯s, B¡¯s, C¡¯s, D¡¯s and F¡¯s are used to reward student performance with the final grade distribution closely representing the traditional bell shaped curve. This type of learning structure typically motivates students to work on their own and not interact and cooperate with other students in the learning process.

The individualistic and cooperative classroom structures are similar in that the reward system is designed to allow all the students in a class to earn A¡¯s or B¡¯s, etc. The grading standards could be set as follows: A=90-100, B=80-89 etc. The difference between these two classroom structures is that, in an individualistic setting the students would typically work on their own, although the level of interaction and cooperativeness would exceed that found in a compeitive work environment. On the other hand, students in the cooperative setting would work in small teams and experience the greatest level of interaction and cooperativeness.

Even though there had been immense pressure in the academic accounting profession for instructors to restructure their classrooms with the use of CLT, there has been little evidence of any positive changes. In addition, only one empirical article has been published where accounting students were used to compare the effects of various classroom structures on student achievement. In this article Holtfreter, Holtfreter and Holtfreter(1997) found significant differences in student achievement when comparing individualistic and cooperative(highest achievement) classroom structures. The closest study dealing with student achievement was conducted by Ravenscroft, Buckless, McCombs, and Zuckerman (1996) in which they reported differences in student achievement between two sections of accounting classes, both of which used student groups. In motivating the students, one section utilized a group incentive system whereas the other section provided no extrinsic reward system. As a result, because student groups were used in both sections, it can be considered research comparing the effect of different incentive systems on student achievement using two cooperative classes, rather than a study comparing the effect of two different classroom structures on student achievement. In addition, there have been no published studies reporting the perceptions of accounting students concerning CLT. Based upon the above, the purpose of this study is to investigate the perception of accounting students in a cooperative learning classroom to determine if they think that this type of classroom is effective in providing a supportive environment in which students work cooperatively to enhance both academic and social skills. In essence, three questions will be investigated:

  1. Did the students interact and work cooperatively to understand homework assignments?
  2. Was a supportive learning environment created for the students?
  3. Did participation in the program promote student task orientation, academic self-esteem, and mutual friendship?

This research project is similar to one recently published by Dudley, Johnson and Johnson (1997) only in that similar measures are used. The two studies do differ in many important respects. For example, the subjects in their study were freshman athletes whereas the subjects in this study were students in an accounting principles course. This study uses formal cooperative learning teams in the normal classroom time whereas their study used student groups during the evening study sessions outside of the normal classroom hours. Also, the main task of the student groups in their study was to work together in completing assigned homework, whereas the main task of the students in this study was to explain to each other the answers to the homework assignments that were completed by each student individually outside of classroom.

The first research question above concerns whether student participation in the CLT enabled them to interact and work cooperatively in explaining the answers to completed assigned homework. Students who have had little experience working in cooperative learning teams are somewhat reluctant to interact and cooperate with team members because of their prior conditioning from working in a competitive working environment. As such, students of this type take more time to adjust to the new cooperative learning environment. On the other hand, students who have experienced success in working in a cooperative learning environment will interact quicker and cooperate more fully when the team initates its tasks.

The second research question was whether a supportive learning environment was created for the cooperative learning team members. Johnson and Johnson (1989) define social support as ¡° the existence and availability of people on whom one can rely for aid¡±. If students are given the academic and personnel support that is needed from other team members and the instructor, then they will achieve better academic results and enhance their social skills.

The third research question addressed the issue of promoting student task orientation, academic self-esteem and mutual friendship. There is strong support in the literature that a successful cooperative work environment will lead to a) greater effort to achieve, b) more positive interpersonnel relationships, and c) greater psychological health when compared to a competitive work environment (Johnson & Johnson, 1989) It is expected that similar results will be found in this study.

Subjects. The subjects for the study were thirty-six students, 17 males and 19 females, from an Accounting Principles-Managerial course that was taught M W F over a ten week quarter.

Procedure. To help motivate the students to cooperate in the learning process, a grading scale (reward system) was established as follows: A= 90-100, B= 80-89, C=70-79, D=65-69 and F=0-64. The experiment started when the students were assigned to the CLT after the first exam, which was given at the end of the second week of the ten-week quarter. It is extremely important to place students on teams with the use of an objective measure which, in this case, was the first exam. Prior to the first exam the students were taught in the traditional manner, i.e. lectures were the basis for instruction and no team work was utilized. In effect, the students were passive during those two weeks with the instructor taking on the active role in the learning process. These roles were reversed when the experiment started and continued for the remainder eight weeks of the quarter.

To place the students on the CLT, the 36 exam scores on the first exam were ranked form high to low. Four achievement levels were formed from this ranking with the top nine exam scores in the first level, the next nine scores comprising the second level and so on. After that, the four members of each CLT team was formed by randomly selecting one student from each of the four achievement levels. This procedure created CLT with four students of different ability levels measured by the first exam. At that point the Homework Check cooperative model was put into effect and the experiment began. For a more elaborate discussion of the Homework Check cooperative learning model see Holtfreter, Holtfreter and Holtfreter(1999).

Approximately three days were allowed for each chapter that followed the first exam. Throughout the experiment the instructor provided a lecture on the first day of the three day sequence for each chapter. Homework exercises and problems were assigned for all thee class periods. Because it was extremely important for the students to have completed most of the daily homework problems in order to work effectively in a CLT, the instructor used the first five minutes of each of the class periods to visibly check each student¡¯s completed homework to make certain that most of it had been completed. After that, the students returned to their CLT and started their task of explaining how the answers to the homework were derived.

The students in each CLT were instructed to start with the first homework assignment and explain to each other how the answer was derived. They continued this process until all the assigned homework was discussed. They were instructed to not only explain the procedures leading to the solution but also the concepts underlying the procedures where appropriate. If none of the students in the group could explain a particular homework problem , they were instructed to ask the instructor for help. In addition to this less active role, the instructor walked around the classroom observing the students to keep them on task. The instructor also provided a 10-15 minute review session at the end of each class session at which time the assigned homework was reviewed very briefly with the use of overhead transparencies. The students also evaluated each others performance as an active team member before each exam.

Measures. Two instruments were used to assess the perceptions of the students toward the cooperative learning teams. The Classroom Life Questionnaire, which was developed by Johnson and Johnson (1983), was used to gather information concerning twelve factors. The measure included 68 Lickert type questions each of which had a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (very untrue) to 5 (very true). The twelve factors were derived from the theoretical literature and previous factor analysis (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), (Johnson & Anderson, 1983). The names of the twelve factors, their descriptons, and number of questions relating to each factor are shown in Table 1. The reliability coefficients for the factors, as measured with the use of Cronbach Alpha, ranged from .61 to .90 and were very comparable to those obtained by the above mentioned authors in their factor analysis of the questionnaire in various validation studies.
The Program Assessment Questionnaire, developed by Dudley, Johnson and Johnson (1997), was utilized to measure the degree of involvement of the subjects in the cooperative learning environment. The questionnaire contained eight Lickert type questions with a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (no involvement) to 5 (a high degree of involvement) and two open-ended questions for students to voice their views concerning their likes and dislikes about the CLT.

Statistical Analysis. The subjects' responses were analyzed with the use of statistical means, standard deviations and percentages

Tables 2 and 3 present the means (m) and standard deviations for the twelve factors of the Classroom Life Questionnaire and Program Assessment Questionnaire. Table 4 presents a summary of the students perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of the CLT program. The results in these three tables clearly demonstrate the experiment was highly successful.

The first research question addressed the concern whether student participation in the CLT enabled them to interact and work cooperatively in explaining the answers to completed assigned homework problems. As Table 2 shows, the students did not see themselves as competing with (Competitive Learning, m=2.12) or working independently of (Individualistic Learning, m=2.73) of others, but as true teammates performing in a cooperative manner (Cooperative Learning, m=4.10 to achieve their goals. The perceived importance that each member of the CLT placed on the confidence of their teammates in coming to class regularly and being well prepared (Positive Goal Interdependence, m=3.26) and the willingness to share resources (Resource Interdependence, m=3.14) was very evident. These latter fingings were also noted in Table 3, where each student felt that he/she was ¡°encouraged to work with other students through the CLT¡±, (m=4.23), ¡°came to the CLT prepared to work and achieve my goals¡±, (m=3.58) and ¡°attending the CLT sessions provides the opportunity to work with other students¡± (m= 4.38).

Also noted in Table 3, the students felt that ¡° working on a CLT was the place where I add to my understanding of the homework¡± (m=4.19) and ¡°attending the CLT is beneficial to my education¡± (m=4.31). They also felt they ¡°would like to attend a CLT even if it was not required to do so¡± (m=3.65).

The second research question was whether a supportive learning environment was created for the cooperative learning team members. In Table 2 it is also noted that the students felt that their teammates cared about how much they learned and were more than willing to help them learn(Student Academic Support, m=3.66). In addition, the students believed that their teammates cared about them as individuals (Student Personal Support, m=3.59).

As mentioned earlier, the class was led by one instructor whose role changed from active to passive once the experiment started at the start of the third week of class. When the CLT met in class, the main role of the instructor was to (1) monitor the activities of the students to keep them on task and (2) answer any questions that could not be answered in the CLT. This part of the experiment was very successful as noted in Table 2 (Teacher Academic Support, m=4.46) and (Teacher Personal Support, m=4.12). Table 3 reinforces these findings as the students felt that they did ¡°get the support I needed from the classroom instructor when working in my CLT (m=3.92).
The third research question addressed the issue of promoting student task orientation, academic self-esteem and mutual friendship. In Table 2 it is noted the the students reported a high level of Academic Self Esteem (m=3.25) but did not feel (1) they were Achieving for Social Approval (m=2.52), or a high level of Cohesion Among Participants (m=2.64) was necessary to perform well in the CLT (m=2.64). In table 3 it is reported that the students also felt that they ¡°developed friendships in the CLT¡± (m=3.61).

The two open-ended questions were used to obtain from the subjects what they liked and disliked about the classroom cooperative learning groups (see Table 4). The subjects especially liked the help they received from other members of the group, the input provided by the group members concerning homework, the group interaction, personal involvement, getting different explanations of information, learning how other students solved the homework problems, meeting new people, enhancing overall learning, learning from mistakes on the spot, explanation of concepts to help reinforce them, and using each others ideas to better understand the course work. On the other hand, they especially disliked that some group members did not always complete their homework before coming to class, the group meetings were not long enough and unprepared members slowed down the progress of the group to the point where they were not always able to cover as much homework as needed.

The CLT project was designed to integrate students academically and socially into a classroom learning environment. If successful, the students would be better prepared to meet the demands of the workplace where employer's and others are pressing higher education to train students to work effectively on teams

This study was highly successful in that the students felt that they were part of a team that allowed them to interact well with other students and the instructor. The students accepted their role as active learners whereas the instructors role was relatively passive compared to teaching in a traditional classroom. The findings of this study correlate with previous research where a strong relationship has been found in many academic settings between cooperative experiences and many important outcomes such as enhanced achievement, academic self-esteem, attitudes towards learning and developing positive relationships among others. The students in this study enjoyed working together and showed a strong preference towards cooperation versus working competitively or individualisticly.
The experience of the students also affected their task orientation and motivation to work. This was evidenced by their strong willingness to come to the classroom with a strong readiness to work. This commitment to work creates a bonding among the students which, in turn leads to higher academic self-esteem and positive feelings towards peers and the instructor.

The results of this study are subject to the usual issues associated with self-reporting of information. Also, this study was not conducted as a controlled experiment but, instead was done to demonstrate the effectiveness of a cooperative work setting for students in an academic environment. Controlled experiments should follow to measure the effect on student achievement and other social outcomes.
Students who have not worked in CLT should encourage their instructors at their university to learn the knowledge and skills that are necessary to teach in such an environment. Restructuring the classroom using one of the many cooperative learning models represents a major departure from the traditional classroom setting. Instructors should try it. You will never return to the outmoded competitive or individualistic structured classrooms.

The editor would like to acknowledge that this is a peer reviewed article.
Robert E. Holtfreter is Distinguished Professor of Accounting and Research in the department of accounting Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington.
Kristy L. Holtfreter is a PhD student and research assistant in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.

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