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How Can Teachers Leverage Student Peers?

Sure, they'd jump off off a bridge, but would students do something really crazy—like homework or staying in a difficult class—just because all their friends are doing it?

Working with other students in high-risk courses like first-year science and mathematics classes, be it in peer study sessions or supplemental instruction from older students, is associated with higher average grades, lower failure and grade retention rates, lower dropout rates and higher graduatation rates, according to a new analysis in the Review of Educational Research. Yet the dearth of experimental studies means we still don't have a good handle on exactly how and why students boost each other's performance.

Supplementary instruction, in which older, high-performing students tutor or reteach concepts to younger struggling students, has been a popular technique probably since the days of one-room schoolhouses, but in the 1990s, it faced criticism for limited evidence that it worked with all students, rather than just highly motivated ones. The current review of 29 international studies, by researchers in Australia, New Zealand, and Tanzania, tries to account statistically for students' motivation and self-selection into these programs.

The review suggests this sort of peer learning may help keep students on track in so-called high-risk courses, like first-year science and math classes, in which students often hit a wall of challenging content and fail or withdraw. It's clear that students who are able to work with older, high-performing peers are more likely to continue in challenging classes and get better end-of-course grades, but it's still not clear whether their peers are providing new explanations, encouraging them to try harder, or something else entirely.

As schools experiment with creative ways to leverage peer support, like the "Need Help/Offer Help" board at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Calif., there may be more opportunities for researchers to identify the specifics of when and how kids benefit from working with classmates.


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