There are two major theoretical perspectives associated with cooperative learning: motivational and cognitive (Swortzel, 1997). First, because students perceive that their success or failure is dependent upon their ability to work together as a group, students are likely to encourage each other to do whatever helps the group succeed. They are also more likely to help each other with the task(s) at hand. Therefore, cooperative learning increases student motivation to do academic work (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1986).
The other theory is that cooperative learning helps students acquire critical thinking skills. Because cooperative learning creates a situation in which students must explain and discuss various perspectives, a greater understanding of the material is obtained. Elaborative thinking is promoted because students give and receive explanations more often (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1986).
The use of cooperative learning (CL) also helps students clarify concepts and ideas through discussion and debate. Because the level of discussion within groups is significantly greater than in instructor led discussions, students receive immediate feedback, thus advancing the level of discussion. It is through this process of interacting with students of differing viewpoints that cognitive growth is stimulated. Emphasis is placed on learning how to cooperate in order to find the best possible solution to a problem. According to the constructivist approach, when students formulate their own solutions in this manner, they are truly thinking critically (Davis, Mahler & Noddings, 1990).