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Steer Students Away From Alcohol by Broadening Their Social Circles, Study Says

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Cooperative learning in the classroom may have an unexpected benefit for middle school students: a lower chance that they'll use alcohol.

Researchers have linked an increased likelihood of alcohol use among young adolescents to "deviant peer clustering," a social pattern in which students who feel rejected by their peers tend to form tight social circles with one another, often modeling and reinforcing delinquent behaviors like drinking, says a study published this week in the journal Child Development.

The report's authors—from the Oregon Research Institute and Michigan State University—speculated that they could interrupt those social patterns by giving students a chance to interact with new peers in constructive ways through cooperative learning, which has been linked to higher academic achievement and includes "reciprocal teaching, peer tutoring, and other group-based activities." 

Through cooperative learning, schools could help students make healthier choices without pulling them away from classroom work to attend anti-drug assemblies and other prevention programs, an idea that is often met with resistance by time-crunched teachers, they said.

The researchers tested their idea at seven middle schools, comparing their findings to data from eight demographically similar middle schools in a control group. They found some promising results: Students who participated in cooperative learning reported in surveys that they had less frequently associated with peers who participated in deviant behaviors—defined in surveys as peers who "get in trouble a lot," "fight a lot," "take things that don't belong to them," and "skip school," the study found.

Those students were also less likely to report using alcohol than students in the control group. Differences in self-reported "willingness to use alcohol" were not as significant as the other findings.

To ensure more constructive cooperative learning, the researchers provided teachers in the experimental group with training and ongoing support in skills like coaching students in collaboration and guided processing of group performance.

"In order for group-based learning activities to promote social integration, however, they must establish a social context that reduces biases and prejudices among students who belong to different social groups," the study says. "A key ingredient of such a social context is 'positive interdependence,' that is, when goals are structured such that individuals can attain their goals if (and only if) others in their group also reach their goals ... Instead of competing with or ignoring one another, peers are more likely to promote the success of one another through mutual assistance, emotional support, and sharing of resources.

"These positive social interactions, in turn, increase interpersonal attraction and acceptance, reduce peer rejection, support the development of new friendships, and in an educational context, promote academic motivation and achievement."

The researchers noted some limitations in their study. The schools included were largely white and rural, the sample size was relatively small at about 1,500 students, and the data was reported by students, which may make it less reliable. But the results merit further study, including possible effects of collaborative learning on behaviors like bullying and aggression, they said.

Cooperative learning "has demonstrated its ability to enhance academic achievement and promote positive peer relationships simultaneously in previous research; thus, it can be seen as a low-risk, high-reward approach to alcohol use prevention that should enhance, rather than detract from, academic outcomes," the study finds. "This gives [cooperative learning] a significant advantage over many existing prevention approaches."

Photo: Getty Images.

 Further reading about student drug and alcohol abuse:

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