The benefits of peer learning

Harriet R Tenenbaum and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis to examine results from 71 studies about the effects of peer interaction on learning. To be included in the review, studies had to include a comparison group. Peer interaction was defined as small groups of pupils working together to achieve common goals of learning. Approaches using more formal training, such as cooperative learning or peer tutoring, were excluded. The majority of the studies were conducted in the US and UK and included more than 7,000 children between ages 4 and 18.

Published in Journal of Educational Psychology, their findings suggest that peer interaction was effective in promoting learning in comparison with other types of learning conditions (effect size = +0.40) across different gender and age groups. In contrast, children working in peer groups were not more effective than children working individually with adults. There was also no effect for group size, with findings suggesting that children learn the same amount in groups of two children and in larger groups. Moderator analyses also indicated that peer interaction is more effective when children are specifically instructed to reach consensus than when no instruction is given.

The researchers conclude that although peer interaction does facilitate learning, the conditions and means by which this happens varies and depends on a number of moderating factors. They say the findings indicate that the benefits of peer interaction can be realised by educators if they create opportunities not just for discussion, but also for the negotiation of a shared understanding.

Source: How effective is peer interaction in facilitating learning? A meta-analysis (December 2019), Journal of Educational Psychology

Cross-age peer tutoring benefits for EAL pupils and native English speakers

Research suggests that peer tutoring helps reading achievement, especially for pupils with English as an additional language (EAL). Studies of cross-age peer tutoring, where older pupils tutor younger pupils, have shown positive effects on vocabulary and comprehension. Given that EAL pupils often lag behind their non-EAL peers in reading, University of Maryland’s Rebecca Silverman and colleagues conducted the first study to examine whether the benefits of cross-age peer tutoring are equivalent for EAL pupils and native English speaking pupils.

For the study, researchers used a “reading buddies” design, pairing kindergarten pupils (Year 1 in the UK) with fourth grade (Year 5) pupils to discuss books they’d read about STEM-related topics. The programme incorporated strategies demonstrated to be effective with EAL pupils, such as explicit instruction about specific word meaning and using multi-modalities to demonstrate word learning and comprehension. Following development and field testing, the researchers evaluated the effects of the final programme, called the MTS Buddies Program, in 24 classrooms with high EAL populations. The sample included 12 classrooms (6 kindergarten, 6 fourth grade) that used the MTS Buddies Program and 12 classrooms (6 kindergarten, 6 fourth grade) that continued with business as usual.

All pupils were tested on vocabulary and comprehension using both standardised and researcher-made tests before and after receiving the 14-week intervention. Results showed benefits for vocabulary learning in kindergarten (Year 1) and fourth grade (Year 5) and also reading comprehension and strategy use for the fourth grade pupils. Both EAL pupils and native English speaking pupils demonstrated gains. Although expressive vocabulary scores were lower for EALs than non-EALs, the overall positive effects indicate that the MTS Buddies Program could be helpful for all pupils’ vocabulary learning, regardless of English proficiency.

Source: Effects of a cross-age peer learning program on the vocabulary and comprehension of English learners and non-English learners in elementary school (March 2017), The Elementary School Journal

Mixed results for maths and science programmes

New reports from the US What Works Clearinghouse review the research on three programmes designed to improve pupil achievement in maths and science. Findings were as follows:

  • Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies, a peer-tutoring programme for primary pupils that aims to improve pupil proficiency in maths and other disciplines, was found to have no discernible effects on mathematics achievement.
  • Carnegie Learning Curricula and Cognitive Tutor, a secondary maths curriculum that offers textbooks and interactive software to provide individualised, self-paced teaching based on pupil needs, was found to have mixed effects on mathematics achievement.
  • GEMS The Real Reasons for Seasons, a curriculum unit for pupils aged 11–14 that focuses on the connections between the Sun and the Earth to teach the scientific concepts behind the seasons, was found to have potentially negative effects on general science achievement.

Sources: Peer-assisted learning strategies (2013), What Works Clearinghouse
Cognitive learning curricula and cognitive tutor (2012), What Works Clearinghouse
Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) The Real Reasons for Seasons (2013), What Works Clearinghouse

Updated report on Peer-Assisted Learning/Literacy Strategies (PALS)

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has posted an updated report on Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (also known as Peer-Assisted Literacy Strategies (PALS)), peer-tutoring programmes that supplement the primary reading curriculum. For the report, the WWC reviewed 45 studies that investigated the effects of PALS on beginning readers. Of these studies, three met the WWC’s evidence standards (one of which met the standards with reservations).

The three qualifying studies involved 3,130 beginning readers in kindergarten and first grade (KS1) in four US states. Based on these studies, the WWC found PALS to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics, no discernible effects on fluency, and mixed effects on comprehension for beginning readers.

Source: WWC Intervention Report (2012), What Works Clearinghouse