Complex Instruction

cooperative group work

Complex Instruction is a cooperative engagement strategy where a teacher assigns or has students choose roles that are vital to completing a group task or project. A group assignment for this type of strategy should use enriching, challenging curriculum that embraces many types of learners. After selecting a group task, the teacher creates specific roles tailored for student interests, learning profiles, and/or readiness level. When presented with the various roles, students are given clear expectations and/or a checklist of tasks and understand that all roles are not only engaging, but necessary. Roles should rotate among students often during different group assignments. Equitably dividing the work among the group members ensures all students will participate cooperatively while guaranteeing that all components of an assignment or project are completed.

Implementation Tips

Designing Roles with the Multiple Intelligences
Design roles around several multiple intelligences and ensure that all roles are needed for the group task and engaging. Assign roles based on student strengths in a variety of intelligences (e.g., verbal, logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal). Students gain confidence when their talents are applied and valued by the group.
Practical Roles
Design roles based on developing practical skills needed to complete group work successfully (e.g., time management, writing clearly, working well with others). This shows the necessity of each role (e.g., Time Manager, Conflict Mediator) and demonstrates how individual skills and effort impacts project completion.
Focus on Group Dynamics
Focus on group dynamics when assigning students to groups and creating roles. Know that certain students work well together? Pair them together. Is a student’s behavior negatively impacted by a peer? Separate them for the first Complex Instruction project and rotate roles for changing group dynamics over time.
Provide Clear Expectations
Directly teach or provide specific checklists that clarify how to correctly (or incorrectly) participate in a role so that requirements are clear. Make sure students know how their work will be evaluated and their contribution is valued. Provide support by answering questions and supervising collaboration.
Assign or Choose
Assign roles when first using Complex Instruction or when trying to solve status/unequitable participation problems or teach particular skills. Other times, allow student choice based on personalities, preferences, and student-perceived group dynamics whenever possible. Observe students choices and interactions to learn about students’ preferences and challenges.
Successful Collaboration
Teach students to collaborate effectively by correcting unequitable participation and reinforce behaviors valuing all contributions. Teacher thoughtfully prepares for group work; roles anticipate all parts of the task, so students can consult each other when questions arise, while the teacher rotates to check in with all groups.
Provide Specific Feedback
Praise students based on their unique skills and interests. Provide tailored feedback for specific actions, effort, and cooperation, not completing a task in general. Instead of “good job,” tell students “I like how you paid close attention to detail as you took notes while working in your role as Recorder.”
Celebrate Teamwork
Celebrate students’ individual and group accomplishments during and after group work, whether it is a small group discussion, math problem-solving session, or semester-long project. Describe why certain jobs were done so well; praise growth and effort. Emphasize how much was achieved through cooperative learning that could not be achieved alone.


Creating Equitable Roles
A teacher divides the class into small groups to complete a project. The teacher is aware of the different and valuable skills and learning profiles possessed by each student and designs roles based on the Multiple Intelligences (MI) to delineate tasks for the project. The teacher assigns roles based on strengths of each student to lead to equitable participation (e.g., strong writers: verbal-linguistic role, good communicators: interpersonal tasks). The teacher emphasizes that each role is equally important to complete the project. The teacher checks in with students to ensure cooperation as students collaborate on the project.
Provide Support When Students Choose Roles
The teacher designs roles requiring multiple learning styles for an in-class, small group assignment and allows students to choose pre-designed roles. Students are encouraged to choose roles that play to their strengths (writer/recorder or speaker for verbal learners) or expand their skills by choosing a challenging role (leader for a shy student). The teacher provides support for all students (e.g., specific role descriptions, checklists, check-ins, time reminders), but might tailor more support for students in challenging roles. After completing group work, students and teacher reflect on the process, including what worked well and how to improve future collaboration.

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