Starting off the school year with a fresh perspective can go a long way to ensuring that students do not feel the grind of the same old routines day in and day out. Though not a new classroom learning strategy by any means, with a new school year underway, cooperative learning methods warrant a fresh look as a means to engage all learners across varying skill levels.

Known by several names, cooperative learning can encompass a variety of terms such as Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), Reciprocal Peer Tutoring (RPT), Peer Teaching, or any other method in which students engage in assisting their peers in a learning environment. Classroom teachers as well as tutoring centers may employ these types of methods in order to ensure equitable learning, while at the same time creating a dynamic learning environment. Students remain engaged in the process of their own learning as an added benefit. Here are some practical ways cooperative learning can be used to help students improve, review and master important skill sets.

Built-In Role-Playing
After introducing a new concept in a teacher-directed mini lesson, the teacher can pair up students (typically one higher-achieving student with a lower-achieving one, or two similar skill levels together) to begin the process of peer tutoring. Typically, the student playing the role of tutor will create a scenario, problem or question that the other student must then attempt to work through or solve, while the actual classroom teacher moves around the room as a facilitator. This can free up the teacher to hone in on which students or student pairs need the most assistance at a given time. After a pre-determined length of time, the two students switch roles and the process begins again.

Numerous data-driven studies have shown that the process of reciprocal tutoring amongst peers creates a safe zone for a student to ask a question, clear up a misunderstanding and even allow students to progress at a quicker pace. What’s more, these peer-tutoring sessions have resulted in raised self-esteem, as the role reversals have students playing up their strengths and learning from their more confident counterparts.

This type of learning method also ties in well with our province’s overarching spirit of inclusion in education, sports and cultural events. Across various school subjects, students begin to see their peers in new ways and new roles. Consider the following example:

Matthew and Brian, both 5th grade students in the same class, have been paired together for a peer-tutoring session to practice and review finding equivalent fractions. Matthew, who does well in Math, enjoys his turn at being the tutor. Brian struggles with Math but does well with subjects like English or social studies where there is a lot of reading. Brian doesn’t mind being tutored by Matthew because if he doesn’t understand something, he only has to ask Matthew to re-explain, rather than ask a question to the teacher in front of the whole class, which makes him feel nervous and embarrassed because everyone is listening. Matthew is patient with Brian when he needs more time to solve a question, but Matthew sometimes wishes all the students were as quick as he is in Math! For a few weeks now, their teacher has been using peer-tutoring sessions every Wednesday and Friday during Math class.

This week, their teacher decided to incorporate peer-tutoring into the social studies class as well. Brian was very motivated to explain and summarize key concepts to Matthew, which Matthew was struggling to recall. Matthew began to see that Brian, who sometimes needs a lot of help with Math, is really strong in social studies and can easily remember names of places, dates and ideas their teacher has talked about.

In the above example, students are given an opportunity to show peers their strengths in another subject matter, as opposed to only their weaknesses in strategic pairing.

‘Teach the Teacher’ Days
Finding fresh ways to help students study key concepts before an exam or evaluation can be a challenge, but in utilizing previously scheduled peer-tutoring sessions, this can be a pleasurable and welcome change for both the teacher and students.

In addition to peer-tutoring sessions for review and practice, these blocks of time can also be used for preparing students to ‘teach the teacher’. In this exercise, the teacher puts the name of a concept on a cue card, and individual students pick a concept card out of a hat, which then becomes their topic to teach back to the teacher. Students can prepare their mini lesson as part of an oral presentation for the whole class, or as a one-on-one presentation with the teacher. By having to prepare a lesson on a particular topic or skill set, students are given a unique opportunity to study and review, and the teacher can conveniently assess whether the student has a solid mastery of the given topic or skill. What’s more, this exercise can be accomplished by a student as a solo assignment or as a partnered assignment with strategic pairing of students.

What the Research Says
Countless studies have been conducted over recent decades demonstrating the numerous advantages to reciprocal or peer tutoring. It is important to note that this learning strategy is meant to compliment, not replace, professional teaching in a learning environment, whether that be in the school classroom or in the context of a lesson taking place at reputed tutoring center. Benefits to this strategy include, but are not limited to:

  • Giving weaker students the opportunity to receive clarification in a nonthreatening environment
  • Allowing all students to improve and reinforce their skill sets when it’s their turn to play the role of tutor
  • Providing gifted students with the opportunity to be challenged in a new way
  • The potential to increase academic engagement across various skill levels and school subjects
  • Allowing students to practice their social skills with peers in a natural setting, encouraging positive social interaction
  • Proving opportunity for better inclusion in and outside of the classroom
When implemented appropriately and through consistency over time, cooperative learning can be a solid asset to any curriculum. Classroom teachers can begin with a predetermined schedule of reserved blocks of time and set guidelines for all students as to the expectations. Tutoring centers such as Renaissance Learning Center in Laval employ this strategy when appropriate, allowing students to experience learning and reviewing their skills in a fresh way. Through proper supervision from the tutor, this strategy can be viewed as a game or a role-playing scenario, in which the student has the opportunity to increase his/her self-confidence and presentation skills. Both in a private lesson or small group lesson, this strategy can be used to compliment the regular personalized program that has been put in place for the student. Rather than drill work, the lesson designed this way flows from teacher-directed to student-directed and then back again, while all the while keeping the student engaged and active in the learning process. This can be done in small bursts of review, such as 10-15 minutes of any given tutoring lesson.

There is no one-size fits all method, but cooperative learning can be adapted to suit the needs of any type of learner, making it a useful tool in any teacher’s proverbial tool kit.