Small-group learning can counter school closures, if done right

Editor’s Note: This article is republished as it appears in The Conversation, a freelance news editor that works with academics around the world to disseminate research-based articles and commentary. The University of Oregon partners with The Conversation to bring the expertise and perspectives of its faculty members to a broad audience. For more information, see the note following this story.

Schools are not only where children go to learn reading, math, science and history. Social skills they learn, such as how to build and maintain relationships with their peers, are also critical. This is all the more true as schools are grappling with aftermath of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inasmuch as educational researcher, I dedicated my career to understand how peer relationships affect the behavior, mental health and academic achievement of young people, and how teachers can improve peer relationships through the appropriate use of small group learning.

Warm and supportive relationships with peers have far-reaching positive effects, especially on the school success. On the other hand, anxiety and depression are often preceded by indifference or peer rejection, or, during school closings, by social isolation. Drug use and dependence often occur when of socially marginalized young people get together and experience delinquent behavior. Students with few or no friends are often the target of bullies, and racial disparities can be at least partially attributed to discrimination by peers.

These challenges existed long before COVID-19, but the the pandemic made them worse, especially for economically disadvantaged young people, who suffered disproportionately when schools close.

Greater emphasis on improve peer relations through small group learning, what educators refer to as “cooperative learning” or “peer learning”, can go a long way in addressing many of these setbacks.

How “peer learning” works

Most parents have probably heard their child complain about group activity at some point. Their child may have been involved in a group where there was no specified role, no incentive to help each other, and no responsibility for individual contributions to the group’s success. In such a lesson, there may be conflicts within the group or an unfair division of responsibilities. This often results in a negative experience, both academic and social.

These informal small-group courses do not have the structure of peer learning, which requires some 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 that the group’s success depends on the contributions of each member. The teacher designs the lesson with these roles or tasks in mind and ideally assigns them to random group members.

Second, each student is held accountable for their specific role or task by both the teacher and members of their group. 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 identify a key social skill at the start of the lesson such as “encouraging others to participate in group discussions”. The teacher suggests sentence starters, such as “What do you think of…? For students to use, then listen 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 provide positive feedback.

These four design features are essential to the successful cooperative or peer learning and are relevant whether the learning is conducted in person or in line.

Benefits of positive peer relationships

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

Peer-learning lessons can even be used to to change the mentalities on members of other racial or ethnic groups, which can lead to less prejudice and discrimination and less racial disparities. And a lot of research shows that students learn better in small, well-structured groups compared to working alone.

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

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

—By Mark J. Van Ryzin, College of Education

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