Research shows small group learning can mitigate the effects of school closures – but only if teachers use it well


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Sschools are not just places where children go to learn reading, math, science and history. The social skills they learn — like how to build and maintain relationships with their peers — are also key. This is especially true as schools grapple with the aftermath of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an educational researcher, I have dedicated my career to understanding how peer relationships affect young people’s behavior, mental health, and academic achievement, and how teachers can improve peer relationships through the appropriate use small group learning.

Warm and supportive relationships with peers have many positive effects, including on children’s academic success. On the other hand, anxiety and depression are often preceded by indifference or rejection from peers – or, during school closures, social isolation. Drug use and addiction often arise when socially marginalized young people band together and experiment with delinquent behavior. Students with few or no friends are often targets of bullies, and racial disparities can be at least partially attributed to peer discrimination.

These challenges existed long before COVID-19, but the pandemic has made them worse, especially for economically disadvantaged young people, who have suffered disproportionately during school closures.

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A greater emphasis on improving peer relationships through small group learning – what educators call “cooperative learning” or “peer learning” – can go a long way toward remedying good many of these setbacks.

How “peer learning” works

Most parents have probably heard their child complain about a group activity at some point. Their child may have been involved in a group where there were no defined roles, no incentives to help each other, and no accountability for individual contributions to the success of the group. In such a lesson, there may be conflict within the group or an unfair distribution of responsibilities. This often results in a negative experience, both academically and socially.

These informal small group lessons lack the structure of peer learning, which requires certain design features that make small group teaching much more likely to be successful.

First, well-designed small group lessons give each student a unique role or task within the group, so the success of the group depends on the contributions of each member. The teacher designs the lesson with these roles or tasks in mind and ideally assigns them to group members at random.

Second, each student is held accountable for their specific role or task by both the teacher and their group members. This can be done by having a grading system for each lesson with both an individual grade and the ability for group members to earn additional credits tied to the success of the group as a whole.

Third, teachers define and reinforce the social skills needed to work successfully in small groups. For example, teachers can define a key social skill at the beginning of the lesson, such as “encouraging others to participate in group discussions”. The teacher provides sentence starters – such as “What do you think of…?” – that students use, then listen to and reinforce the skill during the lesson.

Finally, teachers allow time at the end of the lesson for group members to reflect on their experience. Group members can identify ways to work better together next time and also exchange positive feedback.

These four design features are critical to the success of cooperative or peer learning and are relevant whether the learning takes place in person or online.

Benefits of positive peer relationships

Studies show that the positive relationships that come from peer learning can lead to lower stress levels, fewer mental health issues, and improved behavior, including less bullying and drug use.

Peer learning lessons can even serve to change attitudes towards members of other racial or ethnic groups, which can lead to less prejudice and discrimination and less racial disparity. And plenty of research shows that students simply learn better in small, properly structured groups than working alone.

Some parents may fear that the emphasis on improving social relationships comes at the expense of academic success. But taking time to develop social skills does not necessarily imply less time for academic learning. In fact, plenty of research shows that social relationships and academic achievement can be improved simultaneously with peer learning.

In short, increased use of peer learning can help schools deal with the negative academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping children build futures defined by acceptance. social status, academic success and lasting success.

Mark J. Van Ryzin is an associate professor of educational research at the University of Oregon.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. More than 140,000 readers receive one of The Conversation’s informative newsletters. Join the list today.

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