Meta-analyses of active-learning research consistently show that active-learning techniques result in greater student performance than traditional lecture-based courses. However, some individual studies show no effect of active-learning interventions. This may be due to inexperienced implementation of active learning. To minimize the effect of inexperience, we should try to provide more explicit implementation recommendations based on research into the key components of effective active learning. We investigated the optimal implementation of active-learning exercises within a "lecture" course. Two sections of nonmajors biology were taught by the same instructor, in the same semester, using the same instructional materials and assessments. Students in one section completed in-class active-learning exercises in cooperative groups, while students in the other section completed the same activities individually. Performance on low-level, multiple-choice assessments was not significantly different between sections. However, students who worked in cooperative groups on the in-class activities significantly outperformed students who completed the activities individually on the higher-level, extended-response questions. Our results provide additional evidence that group processing of activities should be the recommended mode of implementation for in-class active-learning exercises.